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The historic Miami-Illinois people who are today referred to as the Moingona or Moingwena were close allies of or perhaps part of the Peoria tribe. They were assimilated by that tribe and lost their separate identity about 1700.

1718 French map showing a river named Moingona -the present day Des-Moines river. Highlighted area is present state of Iowa.

Jacques Marquette documented in 1672 that the Peolualen (the modern Peoria) and the mengakonkia (Moingona) were among the Ilinoue (Illinois) tribes who all "speak the same language."[1] Other names for them mentioned in 1672-73 records were "Mengakoukia," and "Mangekekis."[2]

In 1673 Marquette and Louis Jolliet left their canoes and followed a beaten path away from the river out onto the prairie to three Illinois villages within about a mile and a half of each other. Marquette identified only one of the villages at the time, the peouarea, but a later map apparently by him identified another as the Moingwena.[3] He said of the 1673 meeting that there was "some difference in their language," but that "we easily understood each other."[4]

Father Jacques Gravier reports helping the close allies "Peouaroua and Mouingoueña" deal with a common adversary in 1700.[5]

Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a missionary who explored the region in 1721, recorded that "le Moingona" was "an immense and magnificent Prairie, all covered with Beef and other Hoofed Animals." He italicized the term to indicate it was a geographical term and noted that "one of the tribes bears that name."[6] Charlevoix was a professor or belles lettres, and his spelling has come to be a preferred spelling in general and scholarly discussions.

The defining characteristic of the region was the detour or road around an unnavigable stretch of river that made it necessary "to make a detour of the river," that is, "necessary to unload and drag the canoe."

Joseph Nicollet was a geographer who was commissioned to map the upper Mississippi basin. For him, as for Marquette, Jolliet, and Charlevoix — and for virtually everyone else who had anything to say about the area — the defining idea embodied in the expression "Moingona" was the road around the unnavigable stretch of river and out into the prairie.

The noted Algonquian linguist Henry Schoolcraft was on his staff, and Nicollet's report says that "Moingona"

is a corruption of the Algonkin word Mikonang, signifying at the road;…alluding, in this instance, to the well-known road in this section of country, which they used to follow as a communication between the head of the lower rapids and their settlement on the river that empties itself into the Mississippi, so as to avoid the rapids; and this is still the practice of the present inhabitants of the country.[7]

Gravier compiled what is by far the most highly regarded dictionary of the Miami-Illinois language. It did not include proper names, but did include some definitions that seem to shed light on the name "Moingona." The expression mi8i means "road or path," and mi8nghigi means "on the road or path." (The '8' is pronounced "ou" or "w.") Moreover, the entry for the expression m8nagami8 or frequently m8na8agami8i includes the gloss "water which does not prevent from walking without trouble, timber, plants."[8]

This entire body of knowledge is rejected by at least one theoretical linguist who says that the root of the expression is not mi8 but mi8i meaning "filth" or "excrement," and the expression means "excrement face."[9] He hypothesized a scenario about how the slur was coined by the Peoria to discredit the Moingona to a gullible Marquette at his 1673 meeting with the Illinois. He admits his scenario is improbable ("strange" as he puts it), but that is an understatement. It is based on a body of misconceptions that, it must be said, would be unexpected from anyone who professes expertise in the subject.

Indeed, nothing about his scenario fits the facts. The expression was not coined in 1673. The Peoria and Moingona were not antagonistic rivals or enemies; the distinction between them was largely a distinction without much of a difference. Marquette and Gravier were not ignorant of the the vernacular Miami-Illinois language of the mid 1600's; they were probably the most knowledgeable students of it. If the expression meant "excrement face" they would have most assuredly included an explanation of that etymology in their studies as they did of similar expressions. Both were Jesuit missionaries; they would not have used a humiliating "dirty joke" name in dealing with and conversing with the Moingona.

In short, historical evidence discredits this "excrement face" etymology as anything more than a paronomasia, that is, a play on words that some people find amusing and that is therefore widely repeated.[10]

Nicollet makes another point that is often made and worth reviewing. Regardless of the roots of the name used before the early-to-mid 1800’s to refer to what we now know as the Des Moines River, after that time it came to mean "river of the monks." In 1809 the Trappist monks established a monastery on top of the largest of the Cahokia Mounds on the banks of the Mississippi. It was a well-known landmark.

Over the next couple of decades the river that emptied into the Mississippi became known in the public mind as the River of the Monks or Des Moines River, a name that seems to first appear in print in 1824. Consequently, the etymology of "Moingona" is probably irrelevant to the modern use of the name Des Moines referring to either the river or the city.


  1. ^ Thwaites, R. G, ed. (1899). The Jesuit relations, 1672-73, p. 40, 42 (French), p. 41, 43 (English).
  2. ^ Perrot, N. (1864). Mémoire sur les moeurs, coustumes et relligion des sauvages de l'Amerique Septentrionale 261.
  3. ^ Thwaites, R.G., ed. (1900). [Thwaites, R.G., ed. (1900). The Jesuit relations…1610-1791.
  4. ^ Thwaites, R.G., ed. (1900). The Jesuit relations…1610-1791, 125-126.
  5. ^ Thwaites, R. G, ed. (1900). The Jesuit relations, 1610-1791, 100.
  6. ^ deCharlevoix, P-F-X. (1744). Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France avec le journal historique d'un voyage fait par ordre du roi dans l'Amérique septentrionale, 144.
  7. ^ Nicollet, J.N. (1845). Report intended to illustrate a map of the hydrographical basin of the upper Mississippi River, 22.
  8. ^ Masthay, C. (2002) Kaskaskia Illinois-to French Dictionary, 186. Published by the author. Masthay transcribed, translated, edited and indexed the manuscript almost universally attributed to Gravier, although there is some question about its provenance. Nevertheless, it is by far the most complete and authoritative early work of its kind.
  9. ^ Challender, M. (2003, September 14). Is `Des Moines' just some dirty joke? Des Moines Register.
  10. ^ Fay, J. (2009, August 27). Moingona. Retrieved October 28, 2009 from


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