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Naming Iowa

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If Lieutenant Albert M. Lea had realized the trouble he would cause back in 1836, he might have never casually referred to that section of the new Territory of Wisconsin west of the Mississippi River as the “Iowa District.”

Lieutenant Lea was an officer in the United States dragoons who had been assigned to survey the new territory. The name Iowa District appears in the book and map he published in 1836. It was a perfectly sensible name. Lieutenant Lea took it from the already-named Iowa River, which in turn had been named for the tribe of Indians who lived along its banks.

The name was kept in 1838, when Iowa became a separate territory, and again in 1846, when the territory became a state. By this time, however, Lea was having second thoughts. A stickler for accuracy, he had come to believe that there should be a “y” at the end of the name: Io-way. He offered his regrets to the Ioway Indians, but there was little chance of changing the spelling.

Pronunciation, however, was a different matter. Iowans have never had much faith in spelling. How were they to pronounce their state? Iowa or Ioway? “We’re from Ioway, Ioway—that’s where they tall corn grows,” says the song. There were those who used only two syllables: I-wa. Others insisted on three: I-o-wa. Should the accent be on the first letter: I-owa, or equally on all three: I-o-wa? Should the second letter be a long “o” or a short “a”? Iowa or I-ah-wa? Should the last syllable be an “ah” or an “uh”? Iowah, or Iowuh? A linguist who has spent much time with the Indians in question reports that they call themselves I-yoo-way. The Handbook of American Indians lists close to seventy versions of the word.

If Iowans can’t make up their own minds, think how Lieutenant Albert Leo’s casual decision confuses visitors from other states. Ohioans don’t say Iowa the way Texans or Minnesotans do. It’s a problem everywhere except for New Yorkers and other uppity Easterners. Aside from a rare reference to Dubucky or Dez Moines, they hardly ever use the word Iowa at all.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.