How did the American States get their names?

Can you name all 50 American States? Or, for extra points, can you explain How they got Their nameS in the first place?! We take a look at their fascinating and varied origins.

States named after their indigenous communities


When it came to christening their newly 'discovered' land, many of the Europeans who colonised regions of America chose to name them after the Native American tribes who already resided there.

Alabama: The upper stretches of the River in present-day Alabama was the home of the Native American tribe "The Alabama" or "Albaamaha" in their own tribal language. The river and state both took their name.

Alaska: Initially inhabited by the Aleuts - a name given to them by Russian fur traders in the mid 18th century.

Arkansas: French Explorers arrived accompanied by Illinois Indian guides who referred to the native people there as 'wind people' or Akansa.

Illinois: This is the modern spelling for the name the early French explorers' gave the people they found living in the area.

Indiana: literally means 'land of the Indians' , the name given by white settlers.

Iowa: This state was named after the Ioway tribe who lived there, although 'Iowa' was also the word for beautiful in their native language.

Kansas: The Kansa people, or 'people of the south wind' inspired the name of this state.

Massachusetts: Named after the area's indigenous people, the Massachusetts, which translates to "those near the great hill," referring to the Blue Hills southwest of Boston.

Missouri: The state and the River are both named after the Missouri people, a southern Siouan tribe that lived along the river.

Dakota: Takes its name from the Dakota, a tribe of Siouan people who lived in the region. The word means “friend” or “ally” in the language of the Sioux.

Oklahoma: A combination of the Choctaw words ucla “person” and humá “red”. The word was used by the Choctaw to describe Native Americans, “red persons.

Utah: Derived from the name of the native tribe known as the Nuutsiu or Utes meaning “they who are higher up”), whom the Spanish first encountered in modern-day Utah in the late 1500s. In the tribe’s language, ute means “Land of the Sun.”


Named after the landscape


The rich and varied landscape of the United States provided great inspiration for many of the settlers when it came to naming the land.

Arizona: The State was rumoured to be named after the Basque "ariz onak", meaning "good oak' as the oak trees reminded the Basque settlers of their homeland.

Colorado: This is a Spanish adjective that means 'red', given to the area after the reddish silt the river water carried down from the mountains.

Connecticut: Originally named 'Quinnitukqut' by the Mohegans who lived there, meaning 'long river place'.

Florida: The Spanish conquistador landed in Florida in 1513 and named it after the Spanish phrase for the Easter season, 'pascua florida' - 'feast of flowers'. It's the oldest surviving European place name in the US.

Maine: It may have been simply named by sailors calling it 'the mainland' to differentiate it from the many islands off the coast. However, Maine's state legislature claims it was named after the French province of Maine.

Michigan: The state takes its name from the Lake. Michigan is a French derivative of the Ojibwa word "misshikama", which translates to "big lake".

Montana: A variation of the Spanish "montaña", or "mountain," a name applied because of its numerous mountain ranges -3,510 peaks in total.

Nevada: The state's name is the Spanish word for "snowfall" and refers to the Sierra Nevada "snow-covered mountains".

Ohio: A French traveller’s account of visiting the region in 1750 referred to the Ohio River as “une belle riviere” and gave its local Indian name as Ohio. People took his description of the river as a translation of the Indian name, though there is no evidence that that was correct. In fact, ohio is more likely a Wyandot word meaning “large/great”.

Oregon: Derived from the French 'ouragan' meaning“hurricane” because French explorers called the Columbia River "le fleuve aux organs", “Hurricane River”, due to the strong winds in the Columbia Gorge.

Vermont: Derived from the French words vert “green” and mont “mountain”. Samuel Peters claimed that he christened the land with that name in 1763 while standing on top of a mountain. Most historians disagree, believing the name to be in memory of the Green Mountain Boys, an organisation formed to resist New York’s attempted take-over of the area.

Named in honour of royalty and other important figures


The Europeans who settled in various parts of the states generally had to request permission, or legal charter, from the ruler of their country to establish a colony. As way of thanks, they often named the state in their honour.

Delaware: Both the river and and bay were named for Sir Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, the first colonial governor to travel the river in 1610.

Georgia: Named after King George II (see pictured) for granting charter to the colony.

Louisiana: The state was named by the French settlers after King Louis XIV of France, 1643-1715.

Maryland: The English colony was named for Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, who granted Maryland's charter.

New York: Both the state and New York City were named for James Stuart, Duke of York and future King James II of England.

North and South Carolina: King Charles II of England, who granted a charter to start a colony in modern-day North Carolina, named the land in honor of his father, Charles I.

Pennsylvania: Named in honour of Admiral William Penn. The land was granted to Penn’s son, William Penn, to pay off a debt owed by the crown to the senior Penn. The name is made up of "Penn" and "sylva", meaning “woods”, to get “Penn's Woodland.”

Virginia: Named for Queen Elizabeth I of England, the Virgin Queen, who granted Walter Raleigh the charter to form a colony north of Spanish Florida.How All 50 States Got Their Names

West Virginia: The state was formed from 39 Virginia counties whose residents voted to form a new state rather than join Virginia. It was named after the same queen as the state it split from, though was originally going to be called Kanawha.

Washington: Named in honor of the first president of the United States, George Washington.


Named after its original native name

The areas that already had Native American settlements, also already had names. Many of the Europeans who colonised these areas simply adapted them to their own dialect.

Hawaii: Though no one is entirely sure where the name for Hawaii came from, it's possibly from the name "Hawaiki", that the native people gave it. The word is a compound of "hawa" - "homeland", and "ii" - "small, or active". However others believe it's after Hawaii Loa, the Polynesian who tradition says discovered the islands.

Idaho: The state is believed to have been named after a derivation of the Shoshone Indian term, ee-da-how meaning 'gem of the mountains, or the Apaceh word idaahe - enemy.

Kentucky: It's thought the name comes from various words from the Iroquoian language group, meaning 'prairie' or 'field'.

Minnesota: This word derived from the Dakota tribe's name for the Minnesota River, "mnisota". It was a combination of "mini" meaning "water" and "sota" meaning "cloudy" or "muddy'.

Mississippi: The French derivation of the Ojibwa word 'messipi' which means "big river."

New Mexico: Along with the country it used to be part of, Mexico, it takes its name from Nahuatl word "mexihco". The meaning of the word isn't entirely agreed - It might reference Mextli, an alternate name for the god of war and patron of the Aztecs. It’s also been suggested that the word is a combination of mtztli “moon” and xictli “centre”, meaning “place at the center of the moon”.

Tennessee: Named after the either the Cherokee village called Tanasi (in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee), or the Native American village (in modern-day Tanasqui, Tennessee)

Texas: The natives of eastern Texas originally called the area Teysha before the arrival of the Spanish.

Wisconsin: Derived from Meskousing, the name applied to the Wisconsin River by the Algonquian-speaking tribes in the region.

Wyoming: Derived from the Delaware Lenape Indian word "mecheweami-ing", meaning “on the big plains”, which the tribe used to refer their home region in Pennsylvania which was eventually named the Wyoming Valley.


Named after myth and legend


California: California had long existed in European literature since first mentioned by Spanish author Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo in the early 1500's, as an island filled with gold and women ruled by Queen Califia and inhabited by women, without a single man among them. Apparently the landscape was abound with gold and precious stones and home to griffins and other mythical beasts. The general consensus is the area was named after the fictional island.


In honour of the settlers Homeland


There's no place like home. Except your new home! Rather unimaginatively, some settlers chose to name their new land after their childhood homes.

New Hampshire: John Mason named the area he received in a land grant after the English county of Hampshire, where he had lived for several years as a child.

New Jersey: Named after the British Island Jersey by its founders Sir John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. Carteret was born on Jersey and served as its Lieutenant Governor for several years.

Rhode Island: The name was first used in a letter by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, in which he compares it to the island of Rhodes in the Mediterranean. The explanation preferred by the state government is that Dutch explorer Adrian Block named the area Roodt Eylandt “red island” in reference to the red clay that lined the shore and the name was later anglicised under British rule.