How Missouri Got Its Name

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What’s in a name? That which we call Missouri, by any other word would likely still be mispronounced. (apologies to Shakespeare).

Some place names are easy to figure out. People moved to the New World from York or Hampshire in England, and where they settled became New York or New Hampshire. Or the name came from the desire to honor someone like Queen Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen (Virginia) or Charles I’s wife (Maryland). But how did we get the name “Missouri”?

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet, traveled down the Mississippi River. When they reached another river that came from the northwest, Father Marquette noted on his map that a large tribe of native people called the OuMissouri lived upstream. That name was given to them by the Fox tribe, and in the Fox language means “people with big canoes.”

The mighty river which flowed into the Mississippi eventually was named after the tribe that lived along its banks. It became the Missouri River. Later, when settlers came, the area became known as the Missouri Territory and in 1821, when the territory became a state, it adopted the name Missouri.

When they made the decision, I wonder how they pronounced it … because arguments about how the name should be pronounced are still going on, most hotly among Missourians themselves.

In 2002, there was a poll conducted at the Missouri State Fair on the proper pronunciation of the state’s name. MissourEE won out over MissourAH, 74 percent to 26 percent.

A survey taken by the Automobile Club of Missouri shows that 66 percent of Missourians prefer the “ee” ending, and shows the different usage is split along geographic and age lines.

Neither survey settled the argument and you still hear the name used both ways – sometimes by the same person in the same sentence.

And if that’s not complicated enough, anthropologists suggest the name should have been pronounced “May-sue-ray” all along. Like we needed another option added to the debate. Happily, that one hasn’t caught on with anyone else. Silly anthropologists.

When you’re comfortable with traveling again, come visit us and discover the Show-Me State. You’ll leave singing our praises … however you choose to pronounce our name.

Written by Barb Brueggeman