All In a Name

On May 10, 2015 · 3 Comments

I continued to comb through my long backlog of article ideas and I found a few more possibilities, dusted off the cobwebs, and tried to assemble them into themes. One seemed to be a twist on a topic I’ve covered several times before, of towns with names more commonly associated with completely different places. Iowa proved to be a connection between two in particular. Prepare for me to wander around a bit and watch out for some light profanity. I’ll try avoid crossing too many lines and keep things no worse than PG rated by strategically placing some asterisks.

Key West


Old Barn
Old Barn by DMichael Burns, on Flickr (cc)

I love Key West! Twelve Mile Circle reported from down that way back in 2009 (e.g., Florida’s Southern Keys Part I and Part II. How could I ever forget US Route 1’s Mile Zero, or the fake southernmost point, or my trip to the Dry Tortugas, or the attractive lighthouses? I sure won’t. That’s why I had to smile when I noticed a 12MC visitor arriving from Key West. Except it wasn’t Key West, Florida it was Key West, IOWA.

Key West, Iowa?!? Yes, indeed there was such a place. It really exists even if it’s been largely subsumed by Dubuque (map).

I half-expected to learn that Key West, the one in Iowa, must have been founded by some Floridian expatriate or at least an escapee from a Jimmy Buffett tour. What else could account for the tropical name so completely misplaced in the Midwest? There was a major flaw in my reasoning. Key West in Iowa was founded in 1854 by Robert C. Waples. Although the Key West in Florida predated it, Jimmy Buffett probably wasn’t alive at the time. I’m not sure.

There wasn’t much located in Key West, Iowa although there was a large Catholic community, church and cemetery. The History of Dubuque County (1911) included a pertinent anecdote.

One of the old citizens related many interesting incidents to the writer. He took special delight in telling the following: "One day while conducting an examination in geography I asked a boy, ‘Where is Key West and for what noted?’ The boy replied: ‘Key West is near Dubuque and noted as the burial place for dead Catholics.’ I gave him lo; how would you have marked him?" "lo plus."

See, it’s funny because even in 1911 most people would have associated Key West with Florida, I guess. I don’t understand why "lo plus" was the punchline though. Maybe that was 1911 humor.

None of that answered why Key West, Iowa was called Key West. I found only a single source, a Wikipedia entry that did not include any attribution for the claim: "The town was named because it was considered the main egress from Dubuque westward." That might make more sense if Key West was actually west of Dubuque. It was not. It was south. Maybe we’ll never know the answer so we should not discount the time-traveling Jimmy Buffett theory either.


Des Moines


Breakwater DesMoines WA Marina
Breakwater DesMoines WA Marina by vikisuzan, on Flickr (cc)

If Key West could show up unexpectedly in Iowa, then Des Moines could do likewise in the state of Washington. Indeed, a little piece of Iowa’s capital city settled south of Seattle on Puget Sound (map). This time, however, the connection was much cleaner. This town of thirty thousand residents actually had a direct link to its Iowa namesake. According to the Des Moines [Washington] Historical Society,

… Des Moines’ history dates from about 1867. The City was named after the Des Moines City Improvement Company that was named after Des Moines, Iowa and is pronounced de moin’.

The Tacoma Public Library’s Washington Place Names Search offered additional perspective:

Des Moines is a city on the eastern shore of Puget Sound in southwest King County. The name was given by F. A. Blasher when he founded the town in 1887. He persuaded friends in his former home city, Des Moines, Iowa, to finance the some of the developments and operated under the name of Des Moines Improvement Company.

HistoryLink.org noted that Blasher had acquired the land that comprised Des Moines from Fountain O. Chezum which might have been a pseudonym because it’s hard to believe someone would be named Fountain of Cheese although I’d still love to see a fountain of cheese. Mr. Chezum — if that was really his name — got the land from John Moore who was an original pioneer.

In 1867, John Moore acquired a claim for 154 acres along the water and built a cabin. Little is known of Moore, except that he later went insane and in 1879 was committed to an asylum.

That was an impressive pedigree. I probably should have stopped right there. Quit while you’re ahead, right? For some reason I wondered about the derivation of the name Des Moines. It sounded French. The Online Etymology Dictionary provided quite an answer. It repeated the most common explanation, that it was named for the Des Moines River which in turn was named by French explorers (des moines = "of the monks") for early French missionaries who came to the area. More recently, however, an alternate explanation began to gain traction.

The place appears in a 1673 text as Moinguena, and historians believe this represents Miami-Illinois mooyiinkweena, literally "s***face," from mooy "excrement" + iinkwee "face;" a name given by the Peoria Indians (whose name has itself become a sort of insult) to their western neighbors. It is not unusual for Indian peoples to have hostile or derogatory names for others, but this seems an extreme case.

The theory caused quite a stir when first proposed several years ago. The Des Moines Register even got in on the action in 2007, Is ‘Des Moines’ just some dirty joke?

The tribe’s name, McCafferty noted, was first recorded by Father Jacques Marquette at the village of the Peoria near the mouth of the Des Moines River and was, no doubt, supplied to him by the Peoria. Like most western tribes at the time, the Peoria were competing to control as much trade with the French as they could and prized their "middle-man" status, McCafferty said. So when Marquette got around on that late June day in 1673 to asking the Peoria chief who else lived in the area, the chief wasn’t inclined to play up the neighboring tribe’s virtues. Instead, McCafferty theorizes, he shrewdly chose a name -mooyiinkweena or Moingoana -that he hoped would put Marquette off.

So now the capital of Iowa and a seaside town in Washington might be more properly called S***face City.

On May 10, 2015 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “All In a Name”

  1. Craig says:

    I think the “lo” reference may actually be a “10”, though the humor makes no more sense to me.

  2. Jacob says:

    That name might be more appropriate for a certain city in Louisiana.

  3. Pfly says:

    William Bright’s “Native American Place Names in the United States” agrees about Des Moines. He says Des Moines “could be interpreted” as river of the monks (or mills), but plainly rejects it. “In fact, however, …” basically what you said.

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