The Sauk and Meskwaki tribes called this Ke-oh-shaw-kwa, the river of hermits. They’d been driven out of their native lands in Michigan and Ontario by French explorers, missionaries and settlers. They settled here, not far from a bend in the river where they’d encountered a man living alone in a hut—a person living outside the safety of a community was an unusual sight in those days.
The French, who eventually followed along, came to call this La Rivière des Moines—the River of Monks.The monks in question were from the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, more commonly known as ‘Trappists’ (the nickname derives from the abbey at Soligny-la-Trappe in Normandy). They’d established an outpost a couple hundred miles downriver—little more than a few huts, a trading post, and a chapel built on what they believed to be a massive native burial mound. The Trappists worked the ground, made beer, tried to convert the natives, and after about 20 years, were forced to abandon their settlement on the mounds by hostile tribes.
You have to appreciate the poetic justice. But even though the French left, the name La Rivière des Moines remained.
That’s the accepted version of events. Like so many accepted versions of history, there’s doubt about its accuracy. Before everybody agreed to call it La Rivière des Moines, it was known by some French explorers as La Rivière des Moingona. The term ‘moingona’ is usually translated as meaning ‘mound,’ thereby making this the ‘River of the Mounds.’ Given that there were monks living on mounds, it’s easy to see how confusion could ensue. River of Monks, River of Mounds—both names make sense.
But there’s more. One of the first people to call the river by its European name was the French Jesuit missionary and explorer Jacques Marquette. He’d encountered natives of the Peoria tribe at the confluence of this river and the Mississippi. Asking about other tribes who inhabited the river basin, the local natives told Marquette this branch of the river was controlled by Mooyiinkweena. Marquette interpreted that as a local variation on ‘moingona.’ According to one linguist, however, mooyiinkweena actually meant ‘shit-face.’ The local tribe members had apparently been insulting their neighbors.
So, what’s the truth? The truth is this river is now known as the Des Moines River. It may be the river of monks, it may be the river of mounds, it may be the river of shit-faces, or it may be the river of shit-faced monks living on mounds. After three centuries, does it matter?
I’m inclined to think not.