Saturday, June 09, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler

Rivers Out Of Time
Names Of State’s Two Major Rivers
Got Lost In The Translation

Forget the seemingly endless debate over how to pronounce the name of our state. No one got it right anyway.
The Enigmatic Missouri
French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, were the first Europeans to describe the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. They recorded for posterity the original Native American name for the Missouri River: pekitan8i. No, the “8” is not a typo. Early French explorers and missionaries used that symbol to hold the place of a sound they lacked a means to write in their own language. It was alternately substituted for an “oo” as in the word boot, a more enigmatic ou sound or even a w.
Marquette and Jolliet had been among a tribe of Illinois Indians prior to their own “discovery” of the Missouri and this was the likely source of the name they gave it in their journal and Marquette’s map that he drew in the winter of 1673 and 1674 following their expedition. It seems that pekitan8i (also written pekintanoui) meant muddy water, which is exactly what you observe as the swifter muddy waters of the Missouri mix with the less turbid waters of the Mississippi.
So how sure are we that Marquette and Jolliet got the translation right? Fortunately for scholars there are other sources for this name. A Kaskaskian to French Dictionary in manuscript form, survived nearly intact the ravages of time and gnawing of a few mice. It was likely compiled by Jesuit Father Jacques Gravier with the help of other Jesuits as the work is in at least two hands. Father Gravier taught and preached to the Kaskaskians from 1689 to 1706. The 580 page manuscript was rediscovered and painstakingly edited by Carl Masthay and published in 2002.
The Kaskaskians were part of the Illinois confederation, a group of Native Americans who shared a common language base. During this time they alternatively inhabited a missionary at Cahokia, one near the River Des Peres and finally a village near the renamed Kaskaskian River in Illinois. They came to live in these areas with the Jesuits after having been displaced from homelands farther north.
Pekitan8i is listed in this dictionary as meaning “muddy it flows”. Which raises the question, why didn’t the original name as recorded on Marquette’s map stick?
From 1673 till at least 1712 it did. A letter from another Jesuit Father, Gabriel Marest, written in the village of the Kaskaskians on November 9, 1712 mentions two names.
“Seven leagues below the mouth of the Illinois river is found a large river called the Missouri – or more commonly Pekitanoui – that is to say “muddy water”…and is very serviceable to the French who travel in that country.”
I only had access to a translation of his letter in a late 19th Century edition of The Jesuit Relation And Allied Documents – Travels And Explorations Of The Jesuit Missionaries In New France 1610 – 1791. Therefore, I don’t know how Father Marest spelled the word Missouri, but this is the earliest record I found for the word Missouri being applied to the river and not the tribe.
So where did the name Missouri come from and what does it mean?
On Marquette’s original 1673 map, he placed the location of a village of Indians living upstream somewhere along the Pekitanoui and he wrote their name as 8miss8ri and also wrote Oumessourita. On a 1681 map the name is rendered Oumissouri.
Oumissouri is in the Kaskaskian dictionary as miss8ri and its translation (in French of course) is listed as canot or piroque…a canoe or dugout wooden canoe. Missing from the Kaskaskian dictionary entry, however is the first syllable recorded in the name by Marquette which may have modified the word to refer to the tribe and not just the dugouts themselves.
The confusion of having two names for the same river may have begun with French Explorer Pierrre-Charles Le Sueur in 1702. His map simply labeled it as the River des Missouris.

By 1718, famed Royal French cartographer Guillaume de L’Isle was using both names to refer to the river. He drew beautifully detailed maps based on information given to him by various expeditions and explorers and was no-doubt faced with the fact that the same river had been given different names by different explorers.
He chose to reflect both names. Further upstream on his map, it reads “le Missouri ou R. de Pekitanoui” and downstream, perhaps to add clarity that it was all the same river, he wrote “le Missouri R.”
That additional labeling is what I believe lead to the loss of the name Pekitanoui altogether. De L’Isle’s work was often copied or at least referred to by other mapmakers. It would be easy to think the reference closer to the confluence was the main name of the river. Other maps of the period leave off the name Pekitanoui altogether and simply labels it “R. des Missouris” or Riviere des le Missouris. By 1733 Popple, a British mapmaker, had anglicized the French to simply the Missouri’s River. Later mapmakers dropped the possessive form. Aaron Arrowsmith, one of the foremost mapmakers of his day, simply listed the River Missouri on a 1795 map.
Of course this all began with how the Kaskaskians or Illinois Indians referred to the tribe that lived upstream on the Pekitanoui. It wasn’t what the Oumissouri (Missouri) Indians called their tribe. Their name for themselves is Niutachi.
Which brings us to Etienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont. In 1713 he wrote Exact Description of Louisiana, of Its Harbors, Lands and Rivers, and Names of the Indian Tribes That Occupy It, and the Commerce and Advantages to Be Derived Therefrom for the Establishment of a Colony. (talk about your long titles). Bourgmont was fleeing from French authorities for desertion from Fort Detroit when he came to the lower Missouri. Here he married a Native American woman and supposedly spent a great deal of time with the Missouri Indians.
His relationship with the Indians and literary skills helped get him out of hot water and, instead of arresting Bourgmont, he was given a medal by French authorities and, with his son and a Native American Chief, returned to France. In 1723 he returned to North America to establish Fort Orleans near the mouth of the Grand River and the Missouri (near New Brunswick). The fort was positioned there to be near the Missouri and Osage Indian villages and to outreach to other Indian nations for trade and geo-political influence.
The mystery for me is why in his “Exact Description of Louisiana” Bourgmont fails to point out the correct tribal name as Niutachi for the Missouri Indians. In that work, Bourgmont provides only a few surface details of the Missouri Indians he supposedly spent “so much” time with. It appears to me to be a possible case of colonial resume padding.
While the original Indian name of Pekitanoui may have faded from use, we still popularly use the adjective “muddy” when referring to the Missouri River. Perhaps St. Charles could be among the first to help promote greater awareness of the Native American name of the Missouri River – Pekitanoui, in the naming of one of its planned riverfront attractions, trails, overlooks or nature center.
The Mighty Mississippi
The Mississippi River has also seen its share of cartographic name changes. Pierre Marquette in 1673 recorded the name as “Mitchisipi”. The Kaskaskian dictionary lists the name as Missisipi8i when referring to the big river.
In the Illinois Kaskaskian dialect, it appears to be a compound word. Sipi8i is listed as meaning in its French translation riviere (river). Pierrre-Charles Le Sueur’s 1702 map, which I mentioned earlier, also records the name Maramec-Sipi for the Maramec River.
Sipi8nissi is listed in the Kaskaskian dictionary as meaning petite river. Mitcha is one of the forms for large, grand or big. There seemed little doubt among early explorers, missionaries and settlers that the correct meaning was big, large or grand river. As Marquette himself added the words “ou grande” after the name, I prefer the translation grand river…with all due deference to the Rio Grande of course.
Which of course makes saying Mississippi River redundant as you have already said the word river in the Illinois tongue. Otherwise you are saying river twice.
The Mitchisipi spelling of Marquette evolved to the form Mississipi pretty early on. In 1699, Father Julien Binneteau of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) writes about the Mississipi or “great river”. Almost all of the early mapmakers used the term Mississipi.
By now, alert readers may be questioning my spelling abilities. But I am purposefully ignoring spell-check as Mississipi was the correct spelling for over 100 years! But by the 1800s, the spelling had evolved into its modern Mississippi form. How the extra “P” got in the Mississippi (stop laughing) is an ongoing investigation. Aaron Arrowsmith, whom I mentioned as one of the foremost mapmakers of his day, on his 1795 map of North America still used one p.
The earliest map I have found so far with the double p is a map in the Journal of Andrew Ellicott of Philadelphia in 1803. Nicolas King of Paris also used the double p on a map dated 1806. But an 1809 map of New Orleans still used the one p variation. By the publication of the Lewis & Clark Expedition map in 1814, the two p variation of Mississippi had stuck.
I mentioned that almost all maps of the era used the name Mississippi. There is a 1758 map in Le Page du Pratz’s Historie de la Louisiane. On this interesting map the Mississippi is marked as being the Fleuve St. Louis. Perhaps there was an effort to rename the river that never caught on. But I have to wonder if Auguste Chouteau or Pierre Laclede had access to this map prior to founding the City of St. Louis in 1763?