How Did States Get Their Names?

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A Brief History

On July 3, 1890, Idaho was admitted to the Union as the 43rd US State.  Previously, Idaho had been part of the Oregon Country, then the Oregon Territory, and then the Washington Territory before becoming a separate entity known as the Idaho Territory in 1863.  So, where does the name, Idaho, come from?  Probably from the imagination of lobbyist George M. Willing, who probably just made up the name in order to have something that sounded like an Indian name.  In fact, he claimed the name came from the Shoshonean language, variously claiming the word meant “gem of the mountains” or “the sun comes from the mountains.”  Willing was later willing to admit he made up the name, but whether or not he did is unknown to history.  The origin of the name remains a murky chapter in Idaho’s history.  Today we look at several of our states and how they got named.

Digging Deeper

Sticking to Idaho for a moment, it is noted that the original name proposed for the new territory in 1861 was “Colorado Territory.”  While Congress was naming the proposed new territory Colorado, an Eastern county of Washington Territory was named Idaho County, the name coming from a steamship that was named the Idaho.  The steamship Idaho was built in 1860 on the Columbia River, but it is unknown if the country or the steamship was named Idaho first!  A real “chicken or the egg question” at work in this instance.  Apparently, many sources cite the name as Willing originally claimed as a Shoshone term, “ee-da-how,” although others have claimed an Apache/Comanche Native American language source for the name.  If you have any particular insight into the “real” source of the name, Idaho, please share that information with us!

Map of the United States with Idaho highlighted.  Map by TUBS.

Other states have gotten their names from prominent people that founded them or were the reigning monarch when the colony was first settled.  An example would be Pennsylvania, named for founder of the colony William Penn, given a grant by King Charles II in 1681, to establish the colony once Britain had won the armed struggle with The Netherlands for control of the region.  It seems the King owed Penn’s father a tremendous amount of money and gave the land charter in lieu of payment.  An enormous land charter it was, larger than previous charters and named by the King himself in Penn’s name.  What you may not know, is that although Pennsylvania is a fistful of letters as a name, the state was previously called Zwaanendael Colony by the Dutch!  We could have had a state that started with the letter “Z!”  (And Zwaanendael has one less letter than Pennsylvania.)  Or perhaps another name for the region, New Sweden, could have been the name for our fifth most populous state.  Obviously, Washington State is named after our first President, George Washington, the only state named after a President.

The Commonwealth of Virginia (we guess “State” is not good enough) is not only the birthplace of Dr. Zar and 8 US Presidents, but is also named after the alleged sexual condition of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) of England, a queen that remained unmarried, and thus presumed to be a virgin.  It is unknown exactly who came up with the name, perhaps Sir. Walter Raleigh or maybe the Queen herself.  If we had used the Native American name for the place, we may have had a state called Tsenacommacah, the Algonquian name for the Tidewater Area of Virginia.  Like Virginia, Georgia was also named after a British monarch, this time King George II (1683-1760).  Not quite as obvious as the names of Virginia and Georgia stemming from British monarchs, North and South Carolina derive their names from King Charles I (1600-1649), a King of England with the distinction of having been executed by his subjects, beheaded as it were.  The wife of King Charles I, Queen Consort Henrietta Maria (aka, Queen Mary) provided the name for Maryland.  French King Louis XIV was the inspiration for the naming of Louisiana, which was owned by France before being purchased by President Jefferson in 1803.

Portrait of Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701

Speaking of French, the name Vermont, may possibly derive from the French for “Green Mountains,” Les Monts Verts.  Although we are not sure about the source of the name, it is possible the name of Maine may come from the French place called The Province of Maine.  The Dutch get into the act (maybe) by the name of Rhode Island, possibly derived from the phrase “een rodlich Eylande” referring to the “red island.”  Or maybe it is named after the Greek Island of Rhodes.  Who knows?

Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri share their names with major American rivers, as does Arkansas.  In fact, a whopping 15 US states share their name with a river that flows through the state, probably the source of the state’s name in each case.  Can you name them all without looking up the answers?  Hint: They range from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains.  (Note: The normal system of naming rivers that meet is to use the name of the larger river to name the combined rivers from that point onward, meaning the Ohio River, which is larger than the Mississippi where they meet at Cairo, Illinois should be the name of the rest of what we call the Mississippi River!)

Mississippi River basin.  Map by Shannon1.

We almost had a state called Franklin, which would have been named after Benjamin Franklin, an inventor, scientist, musician and one of our Founding Fathers.  The proposed state would have been what is now Eastern Tennessee, created from land taken from North Carolina.  Supporters of making Franklin the 14th State also wanted to snarf up some of Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama as part of their proposed state.  They also sought the help of Ben Franklin himself.  In the early years of the United States, land boundaries and sovereignty were highly fluid and contested.  North Carolina owned the land of the proposed State of Franklin (or Frankland, as some would have it), and tried to use the land as payment to the Federal Government for debts accrued during the American Revolutionary War.  The land was not accepted for payment by the Federal Government, so North Carolina rescinded the offer, but the land in question seceded from North Carolina.  Eventually, Franklin became part of the new State of Tennessee in 1796, the 16th State. Tennessee got its name from the Spanish adaptation of the Native American name for the what is now the Tennessee River.  Our Anglicized version of the name comes from James Glen, Governor of South Carolina in 1750.

Unique among American States is the island archipelago called Hawaii, named after its largest island, the Island of Hawai’i.  (Note: Hawaiians like to throw in the apostrophe between the “I’s” in the name of the state as well as the island by that name.)  Official US Government sources refer to the name of the State as “Hawaii,” while Hawaiians want the name to be spelled using the apostrophe.  The name derives from an island mythological character called Hawaiʻiloa, the alleged discover of the islands.  (Note: The author has been to Hawaii and the place is an absolute paradise!)

The Hawaiian Islands are located in the North Pacific Ocean.  Map by Mapbliss.

Joke Warning: How did our 49th State get her name?  I don’t know, Alaska!  (“I’ll ask her…”)

Our states also got names from places that existed prior to the foundation of the state or the colony, such as New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and New Mexico.  Aside from Native American names of places and rivers, the Spanish influence is apparent in the names of states such as California, Texas, Florida, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada.

Spanish and Portuguese empires in 1790.  Map by Nagihuin.

Not surprisingly, many state names, or the rivers their names evolved from, rely on Native American origins, though often horribly mangled by Europeans.  Alaska gets its name from the Native Aleut language, a somewhat convoluted “object to which the action of the sea is directed.”  Sometimes the Native American origins are somewhat lost in the tortured European adaptations of the name, leading to confusion as to the true origin and meaning of the names.

When this author was born, there were 48 States, and of course, there are now 50 States ever since the addition of Hawaii in 1959.  We have now experienced our longest stretch of time without adding a new State.  When we will add another?

A resident of Seattle, Washington, through a homemade sign, facetiously declares that the Republic of Iraq is the 51st U.S. state.  Photograph by Matthew Rutledge.

Questions for Students (and others):  What do you believe will be the next State added to our country?  Will the United States ever merge with Canada and or Mexico?  Will Puerto Rico ever become a State?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Keenan, Sheila. Greetings From The 50 States: How They Got Their Names. Scholastic Nonfiction, 2008.

Stein, Mark. How the States Got Their Shapes. Smithsonian, 2008.

The featured image in this article, a map by Golbez of the United States in central North America from July 3, 1890 to July 10, 1890, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.