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What’s in a name? It isn’t very often that we stop to consider the origins of familiar place names. When it comes to the 50 U.S. states, there are some frequently recurring themes — many were named after royals or Native American words. Others are more unique, such as states named after U.S. presidents (just one) or women (a meager three). Read on to discover how all 50 states got their names.
Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s 16th-century North American expedition brought him to present-day Alabama, among other places. In 1540, he became the first person to record an encounter with the Native American inhabitants known as — you guessed it — Alabama, who would become the namesake for both the river and the state. There is no documentation on the origin or meaning of the name Alabama itself. For a time, it was widely believed to mean “here we rest,” but it’s now understood to originate from the local Choctaw tribe and their Muskogean language. It roughly translates to “thicket clearers,” with "alba" meaning a mass of vegetation, and "amo," meaning a picker or gatherer.
When Russian explorers first landed in Alaska in 1741, they gave the name Aleut to the native Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands and the Sugpiaq people of the Alaska Peninsula. In their own language, the Aleut natives referred to the Alaska Peninsula and mainland as alaxsxaq, which translates to “the object toward which the action of the sea is directed” — or, more literally, the mainland. Alaxsxaq is also sometimes spelled in Aleut as alyeska, which means “great land" — fitting, considering that Alaska is the biggest U.S. state, larger in land area than Texas, California, and Montana combined.
There are competing theories as to how the Grand Canyon State got its name. Some scholars believe it originated with the region’s native Pima people. In their Tohono O'odham language, the area was referred to as Al Shon, which meant “place of little spring” and was reportedly adopted by Spanish explorers as Arizonac. Based on existing documents, however, some state historians believe that the name originated with explorers from the Basque region of Spain and their phrase aritz onak, which translates to “the good oak tree.” Arizona historians have also noted that places named Arizona have also been found in Central and South America, where the Spanish and Basque eventually settled and where Pima names are much less likely to occur.
Arkansas is a name that acknowledges both the Native Americans who originally inhabited the state and the first Europeans to land in the area. In 1673, when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived in present-day Arkansas from France, they encountered the Quapaw tribe, who lived west of the Mississippi River and north of the Arkansas River. The Algonquian-speaking Natives of the Ohio Valley had referred to the Quapaws as the Arkansas, or “south wind.” While the state’s name has been spelled differently over the years, in 1881, it was declared that the state’s name should be spelled Arkansas, and it would be pronounced “Arkansaw” (not “Ar-Kansas”) in a nod to those early French explorers.
It seems somewhat fitting that the name California would have its origins in a romance novel. In Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1510 book Las Sergas de Esplandián (“The Adventures of Esplandián”), California was the name of a fictional island that was filled with gold and ruled by Queen Calafia and other powerful women. When early Spanish explorers first landed on what is now Baja California in 1539, they mistook it for an island and believed they had stumbled upon this opulent, mythical land. There is some dispute over this origin story — other theories include it being a portmanteau of the Latin words calida (“hot”) and fornax (“oven”) or an indigenous phrase, kali forno, meaning “high mountains” — but the Spanish literature theory is widely accepted.
There is no dispute that the name Colorado comes from the Spanish language word colorado, meaning the color red, but the exact details on how it got attributed to the Rocky Mountain region remain unclear. One prevailing belief is that, in the early 16th century, Spanish explorers discovered a red-colored river carrying silt from the mountains and named it Rio Colorado, the latter part of which was adopted by congress when Colorado was established as a territory in 1861. But some state historians believe the state was actually named after Colorado City, thanks to lobbyists who believed naming the territory Colorado would help promote their town. According to one of the founders of Colorado City, the name came from its proximity to the region’s red rocks.
Unlike the ambiguity about whether Colorado was named after the Colorado River, Connecticut does indeed take its name from the Connecticut River, which was called Quinnehtukqut by the state’s native Mohegan tribe. The Algonquian word means "long river place" or "beside the long tidal river,” an apt name for what is the longest river in New England. The Mohegans originally lived throughout most of the upper Thames Valley in what is now Connecticut.
The state of Delaware was named after both the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. In 1610, English explorer Samuel Argall was sailing from Virginia when a storm blew him off course and into the southern cape of the bay, in the area now known as Cape Henlopen. Argall would go on to pay tribute to his governor, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, the first governor of the colony of Virginia, when naming the waterway. Lord De La Warr is said to have never seen the bay for which he was the namesake.
In April 1513, famous Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León made his first European expedition to the future Sunshine State, landing near what is now St. Augustine (America’s oldest city). It’s believed that the region’s colorful plant life and the fact that the date was very close to Easter (or Pascua in Spanish) inspired the name Pascua Florida after one of Spain’s celebrations of the religious holiday, Feast of Flowers. Every year, on April 2, Florida celebrates de León’s discovery with its official state day, Pascua Florida Day.
British philanthropist James Oglethorpe envisioned a U.S. colony where the debt-ridden people of England could get back on their feet and take ownership over their lives, an initiative that the British government approved in 1732. This new colony was founded in Savannah in 1733, and while his social-reform brainchild didn’t pan out as hoped, the state was nonetheless named after King George II for his role in granting the charter that made it possible.
In 1778, British explorer James Cook became the first European to land on the Hawaiian Islands, naming the archipelago the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich. But in the early 1810s, King Kamehameha I of Hawaii united the islands as the Kingdom of Hawaii. The etymology of the name is not entirely clear and has several working theories; one is that Captain Cook asked the Natives where he was when he landed and wrote it down as "Owhyhee," which translates to “homeland.” Others suggest that it comes from a blend of similar Proto-Polynesian words or that it is named after the Hawaiian legend Hawaiʻiloa, who is said to have settled the big island of Hawaii.
In 1860, the name Idaho was proposed for the territory by George Willing, a mining lobbyist who claimed it was a Native American word meaning “gem of the mountains.” It turned out that Willing had actually made the name up; Congress found out about the fraud and rejected the name, instead naming it Colorado. But a few years later, in 1863, after the naming hoax fiasco had been forgotten, the mining territory was officially named Idaho after all.
When French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette first landed in what is now Illinois in 1673, they encountered the Illiniwek Native American tribe, with Marquette spelling the name in his writings as "Illinois," more in line with the French pronunciation. The explorers believed the word to mean “the men,” but more recent studies of the language indicate it could mean "he speaks in the ordinary way." In 1818, when the territory was made a state, Congress confirmed the name, which did not include the French pronunciation.
Although the name Indiana is simple enough — meaning “land of the Indians” — how it got that name is a tumultuous story. The territory was once ruled by the French, who were forced out after the French and Indian War. It was then owned by a Philadelphia trading company, who looked to other territory-naming conventions and named it after the Native Americans who originally had claim to the land. But a large portion of the land actually belonged to Virginia, and after years of legal dispute, Indiana was reabsorbed by the territory, no longer bearing an official name. It wasn’t until 1800, when Congress reassigned territory boundaries that the old name Indiana was restored.
The name Iowa comes from the Ioway Native American tribe who originally inhabited the region. It has been translated to mean “the beautiful land” by Iowa officials in the past, but the more likely explanation is that it came from the tribe’s actual name, Ayuhwa, which had been adapted into "Ioway" by Europeans. The name Ayuhwa was given to the tribe by the Dakota Sioux, and means “sleepy people.”
Kansas is derived from a Siouan language, and means “people of the south wind.” The state got its name from the Native American Sioux tribe called the Kaws — also known as the Kansa — for whom French explorers also named the Kansas River. It’s believed that a French explorer once wrote the name on a map, and from that point on, the name Kansas was used for the region.
Kentuckians may never know exactly where their state’s name came from. There are several theories, all primarily derived from Iroquois names. One includes a word for “prairie”; another, kentahten, means “land of tomorrow.” Other experts say it originated from an Algonquian term, kinathiki, which refers to a river bottom, or a Shawnee word meaning "at the head of a river.” Some records indicate that the Wyandot people’s Iroquois word for “plain” is in fact the true origin, and that it was first recorded in 1753. One thing’s certain: The Bluegrass State’s official name origins remain a mystery.
In 1682, French explorer René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle discovered and named present-day Louisiana Le Louisiane in honor of the French King Louis XIV. After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, when President Thomas Jefferson acquired the territory of Louisiana from France, the territory was eventually divided into thirteen states, and the state of Louisiana retained its name.
The first recorded use of the name Maine was in 1622, when veteran English soldiers Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason received a land patent from King Charles calling it “the Province or County of Mayne.” Some historians believe it was named to differentiate it as the “mainland,” and not one of the many surrounding islands, while others say it was named after the French province of Maine (the French were the first Europeans to settle in the area). But, in 2001, the debate was settled: The state legislature adopted a resolution stating that Maine’s name was indeed taken from the French province by the same name.
Only three of the 50 states are named after women, and Maryland is one of them. In 1632, English statesman George Calvert applied for a charter from King Charles I to found the Province of Maryland, so named for the King’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Some religious scholars, however, point out that Calvert intended the colony to be a refuge for Catholics, and believe its name to be biblical in nature, named it after Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Bay State takes its official name from the Massachusett tribe of Native Americans who lived south of present-day Boston, in the state’s Great Blue Hill region near Massachusetts Bay. The name Massachusetts first appeared on record in explorer John Smith’s 1616 book, A Description of New England. In the text, he described the place as though the name had already been assigned by the Native inhabitants. The Algonquian term roughly translates to “at the Great Hill.”
The first European settlement in Michigan was founded in 1668 by Jacques Marquette at Sault Ste. Marie. The explorer was responsible for the French derivation of the Chippewa word michigama, meaning “great or large lake.” Although maps found in a published collection of Marquette’s travels do not show the landmass of Michigan, it is thought to be the first printed account of the state’s name, illustrating Lac de Michigami oú Illinois.
The state takes its name from the river, which was named by the Native American Dakota tribe who inhabited present-day Minnesota. Mni is the Dakota word for "water"; sota is largely said to mean “cloudy or muddy,” while others say it means “sky-tinted.” For a definitive answer, state historians point to the Treaty of 1851, in which the Dakota included the direct translation as “land where the water is so clear it reflects the sky.”
The name Mississippi comes from the Mississippi River, which was named by the area’s Native Ojibwe tribe. They called the river misi sipi, which translates to "big river." It has also been said that the Native American communities, who long used the water for transportation and food, referred to it as the "Father of Waters."
In 1673, explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet reached the Missouri River on their travels down the Mississippi, encountering a Native American Sioux tribe called the Missouris. The name, given to them by the Fox tribe, has often been interpreted as meaning “muddy water,” but has later been determined to mean “people with big canoes.” The river was named after the region’s original inhabitants, and later, the territory and state were named after the river.
Montana is an abundantly mountainous region. Despite the fact that its elevation doesn’t compete with some of the taller Rocky Mountain states (it has the lowest average elevation at 3,400 feet), its name — Latin for “mountainous” — is still fitting. The name was proposed in 1864, when the Dakota territory was split into smaller portions.
The name Nebraska comes from a Native American Otoe word, nebrathka, meaning "flat water,” which referred to the region’s Platte River. Though Europeans first encountered the Otoe when the Lewis and Clark Expedition made its way through their towns in 1804, Nebraska likely owes its name to American explorer and politician John C. Frémont. The senator used the river’s Native name in a report to the Secretary of War, who later suggested it as a name for the territory.
Although Nevada wouldn’t be comprehensively explored until the 1820s, Spanish explorers discovered the area in awe during the 1770s, calling its nearby snow-covered mountain range (primarily located in California) Sierra Nevada. Sierra is Spanish for “mountain range,” and nevada means “snowfall” — Sierra Nevada also happens to be the name of a mountain range in Spain.
In 1623, the land that would eventually become the New England state of New Hampshire was granted to John Mason 1629, he named it after his home, Hampshire county in England. Mason sent settlers to the new territory to clear the land and build houses, investing more than £22,000, but died a few years later in 1635 before ever making the voyage to live in his new province.
In 1664, when the British seized the colony of New Netherland from the Dutch, the land was divided in half, with the east side granted to English statesman George Carteret. He had once served as governor of the Isle of Jersey, an island in the English Channel, and named the colony after it. In present-day New Jersey, the town of Carteret is named after the state’s early proprietor.
Despite a common misconception, the state of New Mexico was settled long before the country of Mexico was even named. In the 1500s, Spanish settlers referred to the upper area of the Rio Grande as Nuevo México, after the Aztec Valley of Mexico. The name comes from the Nahuatl word mexihco, and while the exact meaning is unclear, it seems most likely that the Aztecs named themselves after the tribal god of sun and war Huitzilopochtli, who was also referred to as Mēxihtli.
When Dutch settlers arrived in present-day New York in 1624, they called the colony New Amsterdam after their home country’s biggest city. But in 1664, the British took power of the region and renamed it New York after King Charles I’s son, the Duke of York. However, for a short time, the region was actually called New Orange — the Dutch regained control of the state in 1673 and named it after the Dutch Prince of Orange. The following year, however, the British repossessed the region and renamed it New York for good.
North Carolina was originally part of a larger colony, established in 1629 when King Charles I of England granted the land charter to English politician Robert Heath. The King named the new province Carolina (although it also appeared as “Carolana” in the charter), which is derived from Carolus, the Latin form of his name, Charles. In 1663, King Charles II granted a new charter for the same territory to the Lords Proprietors, who in 1710, appointed a separate governor to the northern part of the region. In 1729, the Carolina colony was officially divided in two. The colony, when it was one, was originally settled in the northern area, earning North Carolina its nickname and official state song, “The Old North State.”
North and South Dakota once belonged to a larger, singular Dakota Territory, which was formed in 1861 and also included present-day Montana and Wyoming. The name Dakota was taken from that of the Native American Dakotas, a Sioux tribe who originally inhabited the region; the word means “friend,” though is also often translated as “allies.” In 1889, after years of the North and South having vastly different population numbers and running different trade routes — and thanks to some long-simmering regional politics — the territory was officially split into two separate states.
The Seneca Native Americans settled along what is now the Ohio River in the 1650s, and the state is named after the Iroquoian word O-Y-O, meaning “great river.” When French settlers explored the region in the late 1600s, they adapted the name through their own language, calling it La Belle Riviere, but the English restored its original Ohio name when they took control in the mid-1700s.
The first recorded use of the name Oklahoma came from Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, who was the first European to arrive in the region in 1541. The name is based on the Choctaw words okla and humma, which mean “people” and “red,” respectively, and were used by the Choctaw to describe their people. In 1866, it was Allen Wright, then Chief of the Choctaw Nation, who suggested the name for the territory during treaty negotiations.
While several states have unclear name origin stories, Oregon’s is perhaps the murkiest. The first written record of the name appeared in a 1765 travel proposal written by English army officer Major Robert Rogers. He stated that the river was called Ouragon by the Native Americans, and it is believed that Rogers had heard this word from French traders (the French word ouragan means “hurricane”). Other theories were once popular enough to be printed in school textbooks, including that the name had Spanish roots and was adapted either from oregano, or orejon, a word meaning “big ears.” To this day, the actual origin and meaning of the word remain unknown.
In 1681, William Penn, son of English admiral and politician Sir William Penn, was granted land from King Charles II as a repayment of a debt that was owed to the elder Penn. The son used it to found the Province of Pennsylvania; the name means “Penn’s Woods,” and it was inspired by his family’s surname, Penn, and by the new province's forests, sylva (or “forest trees”). The founder envisioned “a green country town” that would encourage freedom of religious practices among its settlers. Thanks to its founder’s vision of equality, the province became one of the most culturally diverse among the 13 original colonies.
The New England state’s official stance on the origin of its name is that Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, on his 1614 expedition, called it "Roodt Eylandt” ("red island”) after seeing the red clay that lined the shore. But he wasn’t the first European to explore the area — that distinction belongs to Florentine Giovanni da Verrazzano. Another popular theory is that the explorer anchored in Narragansett Bay, near present-day Providence, and compared an island in the area to the Greek island of Rhodes.
The southern part of the original Province of Carolina shares the same origin story as North Carolina. To recap, it was originally named by and for King Charles I of England — Carolina coming from the Latin form of Charles, Carolus — and was designated South Carolina when the colony was officially split in two in 1729.
Since South and North Dakota were once part of a singular territory, the name origin is the same — a Native American Dakota word meaning “friend.” The territory officially split in 1889, and each was admitted as an individual state, largely thanks to pressure from the southern region over the areas’ differences in population size, commercial activity, and perceived ideology.
Not unlike other state name origin stories, exact details of the history of Tennessee’s name have been lost over time. One agreed-upon fact, however, seems to be that Spanish explorer Juan Pardo was the first to record the name in 1567. At some point in his expedition, he and his crew traveled through a Cherokee village believed to have been called Tanasqui, or, potentially Tanasi, although it is not known for certain whether these were the same or different settlements. The meanings of the original Cherokee words are not known, but it has been given derivations of "winding river" and "river of the great bend."
Spanish explorers encountered the Native American Caddo tribe in present-day Texas in the 1540s. It's believed the Spanish interpreted their word teyshas, meaning “friends or allies,” as the tribe name, recording it as "Teyas" or "Tejas." By 1689, Spanish explorer Damián Massanet reported meeting the chief of the Caddo-speaking Nabedaches tribe, whom he referred to as the governor of a "great kingdom of the Texas." While the errors were corrected and the usage stopped over time, the name eventually lived on — and “Friendship” has been the Texas state motto since 1930.
When Spanish settlers arrived in the area in the late 1500s, they encountered the Native American Ute tribe, from which the state takes its name. The meaning of this tribe’s name is “people of the mountains”; it’s also believed that this name could potentially have come from the Apache word for the tribe, yuttahih, which roughly translates to "those that are higher up.” Despite the association with the state’s elevation, in the Ute tribe’s language, their own name actually means “land of the sun.”
There’s a popular legend that French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who led the earliest European excursion to the state, named it for its green mountain ranges (vert mont). But the Vermont Historical Society disputes that there is any evidence in the settler’s written works to back up this theory. Instead, the first documented use of the word Vermont dates back to April 11, 1777, when Philadelphia doctor and revolutionary Thomas Young wrote, “To the Inhabitants of Vermont, a Free and Independent State.” Young is believed to be the originator of the name, which was likely as much a tribute to his friend Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys militia as it was a description of the scenery.
Virginia was named for Queen Elizabeth I of England, who was also known as the “Virgin Queen” for her reluctance to marry, instead insisting she was married to her country. In 1584, Elizabeth granted English explorer and soldier Walter Raleigh permission to start the colony, as the two had grown close during his time in the Queen’s army in Ireland. It’s said that he was the one to suggest the name.
This one almost seems too easy — the state of Washington was indeed named after the first U.S. president, George Washington. The territory was initially going to be named Columbia, after the Columbia River, but Congress worried it might get confused with the national capital, the District of Columbia (which, of course, contains the city of Washington). Concerns about confusing the two Washingtons arose again when Washington was up for statehood, but renaming efforts got little support, and the name stuck. Washington is the only state named after a president.
West Virginia retained the name of the state from which it separated (Virginia), meaning it is also named after Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” During the Civil War, when the State of Virginia withdrew from the Union in 1861 to join the Confederacy, the state’s western region — which had long felt alienated from the eastern region’s politics — refused to do so, and in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed West Virginia its own state.
In 1673, French explorer Jacques Marquette noted the first use of the name Wisconsin during his expedition with Louis Jolliet, attributing it to the river they traveled. He wrote it as "Meskousing," which he had adapted from the region’s Algonquian-speaking tribes. The word, written in cursive, was then misread as “Ouisconsin” by French explorers and was written that way until 1830, when the U.S. House of Representatives first printed it as it sounds: Wisconsin. The original interpretation, "Meskousing," came from the region’s Miami tribe and means “this stream meanders through something red,” which is now believed to refer to the Wisconsin Dells sandstone bluffs.
The name Wyoming comes from the Native American Algonquian word mecheweamiing and was first used by the Lenape people as a name for their home region, Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley. The name means "at the big plains,” and in 1865, it was suggested for the Wyoming territory by U.S. Representative James M. Ashley, who was born in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. After finally traveling to see the territory he had named, he expressed regret, pointing out the poor soil quality. The name, however, stuck.