Iowa History Project



Iowa: Its History and Its

Foremost Citizens






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The Name Iowa—Its Origin and Significance


          There has been much speculation as to the origin and significance of the name Iowa. Is it a tribal designation; or a place name; or a name descriptive of some characteristic of the region? It seems fitting that space be given to a brief consideration of these inquiries.

 1. Father Andre’, writing from Green Bay early in 1676, less than three years after the

landing of Marquette and Joliet on Iowa soil, alluded to a nation of neutrals between the warring Sioux and Winnebagoes called Aiaoua. They then lived a twelve days’ journey beyond “the Misisipi.”1

Perrot, in 1685, refers to the upper Iowa River as “named for the Ayoes savages.”2

In the “Documents of the French Regime” there are several spelling of the name applied to this tribe, namely: “Aiouez,” “Ayaabois,” and “Yoais.”

Fulton, in his “Red Men of Iowa,” is positive the name with varied spellings was very  early applied to a tribe of the Dakota race. He quotes the early French traders as spelling the name “Ayouos;” the Spanish, “Ajoues;” the English, “Ioways.”3

Lewis and Clark applied to them the labored spelling, “Aieway,” Aiauway,” “Aiaouez,” “Aiaway,” etc.4

Shea mentioned as one of the twenty-six tribes that had lived in Wisconsin, the “Ainovines,” or “Aiodais,” which he says is “the old French spelling to express the sound Iowa.”

             George Rogers Clark, writing from Kaskaskia, early in 1779, mentioned the “Iowaas.”5

                     W. H. Hildreth traces the name to the “Pyhojas,” a name used by the Omahas to designate the tribe east of the “Big Muddy,” the translation being “Gray Snow,” or “Drowsy one,”—the tradition being that when the tribe migrated from Dakota, a snowstorm and sandstorm combined covered them with a gray coating, conveying to the Omahas the impression of gray snow.6

             McKenney’s “History of the Indian Tribes,” referring to this tribe, calls it the “Ioways.”7



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             Doctor Salter speaks of seven government treaties with these Indians, from 1815 to 1838, in all of which they are referred to as “Ioways.”8

             It will be seen that pioneer Iowans have ample authority for their spelling and for the pronunciation of the name of their state.

2. The “Iowa District,” the place-name given this region by Schoolcraft, was chosen, says Lieut. Albert M. Lea, because of “the extent and beauty of the Iowa River which runs centrally through the district, and gives character to most of it, the name of that stream being both euphonious and appropriate.”9

                          Dr. B. F. Shambaugh, of the Iowa State Historical Society, is of the opinion that as to the origin of the name “very little can be said.” He finds, however, that “a study of the early maps of this western country shows that for at least a century before Lieutenant Lea published his map, the river that ‘runs centrally’ through Iowa was generally indicated by the name Ioway.”10

             3. Used as “descriptive of some characteristic of the region, “ we have two interpretations; the one most generally accepted, because of its direct appeal to sentiment, is “Beautiful Land.” Doctor Pickard, a close student of Indian history, dismisses this interpretation with the conclusion that the fact—the beauty of the land, rather than the derivation of the name—suggested the appellation.11

                          An explanation given by Antoine Le Claire, the famous French-Indian pioneer of Davenport, is that “a tribe of Indians were in search of a home or hunting—in fact, wandering; and when they reached a point they admired and was all they wished—[a point near the mouth of the river which bears their name] they said, ‘Iowa—this is the place!’”12

                          Charles Aldrich quotes a Musquakie Indian as giving the identical words of Le Claire, and adds: “This evidence makes a very strong case as far as the Iowa Indians are concerned.”13

                          L. F. Andrews maintains that “Iowa is a corruption of the word Kiowa,” long in use by the Sacs and Foxes, and still used by the remnants of these tribes on the reservation in Tama County, Iowa.14

             It is evident from these divergent views that this must ever remain one of the open questions confronting the student of Iowa history.


End Notes.


1—Thwaites, “Jesuit Relations,” Vol. LX, p. 321.

2—N. Y. Colonial Docs., Vol. IX, p. 1055.

3—Ch. VII, p. 107.

4—Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Thwaites) Vol. I, pp. 45, 91-93.

5—Annals of Iowa (Old Series), April 1864. English, “Conquest of the Country Northwest of the Ohio and Life of George Rogers Clark,” p. 400.

6—Annals of Iowa (Old Series) April, 1864.

7—Vol. I, p. 177, etc.

8—Salter, “The First Free State in the Louisiana Purchase,” p. 279.

9—Lea, “Notes on Wisconsin Territory,” 1836.

10--Shambaugh, “The Origin of the Name Iowa.” Annals of Iowa, January, 1899.

11--Dr. J. L. Pickard, “The Indian Tribes in Iowa Before 1846.” Annals of Iowa, July-October, 1895.

12—In a letter to Theodore S. Parvin, dated March 10, 1860. annals of Iowa, April, 1864, p. 268.

13—Editorial in the Annals of Iowa, October, 1896.

14—Annals of Iowa, July, 1896.



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