Origin of Names of US States

Have you ever wondered where the 50 states got their names, or what those names mean? Each state has its own unique story behind the way they got their name. Some of the oldest state names in America came from early Spanish explorers. For example, Juan Ponce de León named Florida in the early 1500s. He landed there in the Easter season, and named it Florida for the Spanish term for Easter: ‘Pascua Florida,’ or ‘feast of the flowers.’ Spanish explorers who reached California mistakenly thought it was an island, and so they named it after a fictional island inhabited entirely by female warriors, which was supposed to be full of gold and precious gems, as well as home to griffins and other fantastic creatures. Nevada is Spanish for ‘snow-covered,’ and takes its name from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which translated is ‘snow-covered mountains.’ The Colorado River was named by Spanish travellers, who called it ‘colorado,’ or red-coloured, because of the reddish silt the river carried down from the red rocks in the mountains there. When Colorado became a territory, they took their name from the river.

Montana got its name from the Spanish word montaña, which means ‘mountain.’ You may think that New Mexico was named after the country of Mexico, but that is not true! Back in the mid-1500s, the Spanish governor of a Mexican province saw the native people living in what is now New Mexico, and they reminded him of the Aztecs living the Valley of Mexico. He called the place ‘Nuevo México,’ which is Spanish for New Mexico, and the name stuck! The country of Mexico, on the other hand, was called ‘New Spain’ until 1821. The origin of Arizona’s name is disputed. It either came from a Basque phrase meaning ‘the good oak,’ or from the Spanish version of a native word meaning ‘small spring.’ English settlers and explorers named their share of states, too. Many of the early colonies that would later become states were named for famous or important people. For example, Virginia was the first of the thirteen original colonies to be founded and was named in honour of Queen Elizabeth I of England, sometimes called the ‘Virgin Queen.’ When West Virginia was split into its own state, it kept the name. Although a city called York exists in England, both the state and the city of New York were named in honour of James Stuart, the Duke of York and future King of England. Maryland was named in honour of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I of England who granted the charter for the colony in the 1630s. Delaware got its name from the Delaware River and the Delaware Bay, named in honour of Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, governor of the colony of Virginia. North and South Carolina were originally one colony, known as the Province of Carolina. The colony was named by King Charles II of England in honour of his father, King Charles I, as Carolina comes from the Latin form of ‘Charles.’

Pennsylvania was also named by King Charles II. He granted the land to William Penn and named it Pennsylvania, meaning, ‘Penn’s Woodland’ in honour of William Penn’s father, to whom the King owed a large debt. William Penn was embarrassed and worried that people would think he had named Pennsylvania after himself, but the King refused to let him change the name. Georgia got its name in honour of King George II of Great Britain, who granted the charter for its creation in the 1730s. And, of course, Washington was named in honour of George Washington, the first President of the United States. Still, other states were originally named for places back in Europe. New Jersey was named after Jersey, the largest island in the British Channel. New Hampshire was named after Hampshire, a county in England. There are two theories as to how Rhode Island got its name. In the first, an Italian explorer saw the island in the 1500s and compared it to the Greek island of Rhodes. In the second, a Dutch trader who passed the island in the 1600s commented that the island had a “reddish appearance,” which in Dutch sounds like Rhode Island. Maine may have been named for a province in France of the same name, but many people believe it was just called Maine because it was the mainland, to help distinguish it from the many islands off its rocky coast. French traders and explorers left their mark on the state names, too!

The name Vermont probably comes from the French words meaning the Green Mountains. Louisiana was originally claimed by France, so it comes as no surprise that the name Louisiana was given in honour of King Louis the XIV of France. By far the largest group of state names are taken from names or words from Native American languages across the country. Connecticut is named for the Connecticut river, which got its name in turn from the native Algonquian word quinnitukqut, meaning “long, tidal river.” Massachusetts has another native name: the name of the Massachusett tribe translates to ‘people of the great hills,’ which refers to the Blue Hills near Boston. The exact origin of Kentucky’s name is not known, but it probably come from an Iroquoian word meaning ‘on the meadow’ or ‘on the prairie.’ Tennessee may have gotten its name from a Cherokee town named ‘Tanasi’ encountered by British traders in the 1700s, but the meaning of the word itself has been lost.

Ohio the state was named for the Ohio River, which likely got its name from an Iroquois word meaning ‘great river.’ Mississippi is also named after a river – the Mississippi River, which was itself named for the Ojibwe word meaning ‘great river.’ Illinois comes from the French spelling of the name for the Native Americans who lived in that area. The name Alabama comes from a tribe that lived in the area in the 1500s, written by explorers as Alibamu or Alibamo. Missouri, both the state and the river, were named for the Missouri people who lived there. It is believed that their name translates to ‘the people of the big canoes’. Arkansas is the French spelling of an Illinois Indian name for the Quapaw people who lived in the area. You can thank the French for the silent ‘s’ at the end of the word, which is the reason that Arkansas and Kansas are pronounced so differently. Michigan gets its name from Lake Michigan, which got its name in turn from the Ojibwe word for ‘big lake.’

Texas got its name from a Native American word for ‘friends’ or ‘allies.’ Iowa is named for the Ioway people who once lived there. Wisconsin got its name from the Wisconsin River, but the name went through several changes before it reached its modern form. In the late 1600s French explorer Jacques Marquette wrote that the name of the river was ‘Meskousing,’ a word believed to mean ‘it lies red’ because the river flowed through red sandstone. Eventually, the spelling became the much more French ‘Ouisconsin,’ which was changed to its current English spelling in the 1800s. Minnesota is named for the Minnesota River, which took its name from the Dakota word for ‘cloudy water.’ Kansas is named after the Kansa tribe, whose name probably means ‘people of the wind.’ The name Nebraska comes from a native Omaha word for ‘flat water,’ referring to the state’s Platte River. North and South Dakota both got their name from the Dakota Sioux, a tribe who lived in the area. The meaning of the name Dakota is unclear, but it may mean ‘friend.’ Wyoming’s name came from the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, which got its name from a native word meaning ‘at the big river flat.’ Utah is named for the Ute tribe, whose name means ‘people of the mountains.’ Oklahoma comes from a Choctaw word meaning “red person,” which the chief of the Choctaw Nation used to describe Native Americans in treaty negotiations over the Indian Territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma.

Alaska comes from the Russian version of an Aleut word meaning, ‘the object that the sea moves towards,’ referring to the mainland. Hawaii is named for its largest island, the island of Hawai’i, which is said to be named for Hawai’iloa, the legendary figure who is supposed to have discovered the islands. There are still a few states left whose names we haven’t explored yet! Indiana is a word that means simply, ‘the land of Indians,’ named for the many tribes that lived there when white settlers arrived. The origin of the name Oregon is unknown, which has led to many theories. Some say it comes from the Spanish word orejón, meaning ‘big ears,’ supposedly used by early explorers to refer to natives of the region. Others say it might be from the French word ‘ouragan,’ meaning hurricane. The most likely explanation is that a mistake on a French map from the 1700s made it look like there was a river named Ouaricon flowing to the west. Finally, the origin of Idaho’s name is a mystery! The person who suggested it originally claimed it was a Shoshone word meaning ‘gem of the mountain,’ but then later said that they had made the word up. It is possible that ‘Idaho’ comes instead from a Plains Indian word that means ‘enemy,’ but to this day no one knows for sure where the name Idaho originated. That’s it! That’s all the states! I hope you enjoyed learning what each state name means. Goodbye till next time!