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Just Ask Us: How did Wisconsin get its name?

Q: How did Wisconsin get its name?

A: Wisconsin’s name evolved from “Meskonsing,” an English spelling of the French version of the Miami Indian name for the Wisconsin River, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Miami were referencing red sandstone bluffs of the Dells of the Wisconsin River.

The meaning of “Meskonsing” was debated for years. The last native speaker of the Miami language died in the 1960s and research on the language wasn’t published until the 1990s, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

But, Michael McCafferty, a linguist and Miami language specialist, concluded in 2003 that the meaning of the Miami word was “river running through a red place.”

“Few basic facts about our state have caused as much confusion or led to as much muddled thinking as the origin of its name,” the Wisconsin Historical Society wrote. “We can finally be confident that our state’s name ... means ‘river running through a red place.’ ”

The name was first written by a European when explorer and missionary Father Jacques Marquette wrote about traveling down a river called the “Meskousing” in a 1673 diary entry during an exploration across the state and down the Mississippi River.

Wisconsin was also referred to at times as “Mescousin.” The pronunciation known today was born in 1674 when French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle misread the area as “Ouisconsin” on a map, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The French spelling was gradually phased out by the federal government and replaced with “Wisconsin” beginning in the 1820s.

Wisconsin officially adopted its current spelling when it was made a territory in 1836.

“Wiskonsan” was also used as a spelling through the early 1840s, the historical society wrote.

For more information or to browse historical documents about the naming of Wisconsin, go to: go.madison.com/wisconsin-name

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Send questions to: justaskus@madison.com; Just Ask Us, P.O. Box 8058, Madison, WI 53708.

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