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Naming the Mississippi

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Father Marquette and the explorer Louis Joliet got along perfectly well on their voyage down the Wisconsin River from Green Bay until the morning of June 17th, 1673, when they reached the great river they had been sent to find.

What to name their discovery? Joliet decided to call it the Buade River after a friend; the good Father held out for a more religious name, like Conception.

They were both a bit late. Hernando De Soto had accidentally stumbled across the same river near its mouth in 1541 and had named it Espiritu Santo—Holy Spirit. De Soto's men simply called it the great river—Rio Grande; Spaniards who came after De Soto named the river La Palizada and the Lost River (Rio Escondido).

They were already too late as well. Southern Indian tribes already had at least eight names for the river before Europeans arrived.

But the cantankerous river would just not stay named. When Frontenac, LaSalle and other Frenchmen arrived after the Spanish, they tried at least three names--the Colbert, the St. Louis, and the River of Immaculate Conception—but none of these took, either.

Then the English arrived and took a try, and called it the Maslabranchia, after a Choctaw word for "the place of foreign speech." No dice.

In the end, it was two Miami Indian guides Marquette and Joliet hired to go with them down the river who gave us the name. They, and other Algonquin-speaking tribes in the area, such as the Chippewa and the Illini Indians had no name for the great river. They simply called it "big river." Misi sipi. And so, today, the Mississippi still has no real name. It is just the "big river."

What about "The Father of Waters"? That did not even enter anyone's mind: not the Indians, or Marquette or Joliet, or De Soto, or LaSalle. That name came much later, when poets and advertising agencies got to romanticizing about the misi sipi.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.