BY MURIEL H. WRIGHT
While it is generally accepted that “Mississippi” is an Indian word meaning “the Father of Waters,” yet one seldom hears a discussion with reference to its real meaning nor to which Indian language it belongs, there being more than two hundred and fifty tribes or bands of Indians living in the United States, each having its own language or dialect.
There is a story among the Choctaws, who lived in the Lower Mississippi country before the tribe came to Oklahoma, that they and their kinsmen, the Chickasaws, migrated from a far western country long, long ago. When their leaders, the wise prophets of the two tribes, reached the great river, in the van of the people, they contemplated its broad waters and exclaimed, “Misha sipokni!” Misha in Choctaw means “beyond,” with the idea of far beyond; and sipokni means “age,” conveying the idea of something ancient. Therefore the words of the Choctaw and the Chickasaw prophets meant in substance, “Here is a river that is beyond all age,” or “We have come to the most ancient of rivers.”1
In the earliest French records, the name was written “Malabouchi,”’ as given by the Gulf Coast Indians. Du Pratz, one of the early French writers in this country, attempted to explain the Indian name, Mechasipi, as a contraction of the words, Meact Chassipi, meaning “the ancient father of waters.”2
The great river was called “Mississippi,” by the Indians of the Northwest when that region was first visited by La Salle and Marquette in the seventeenth century, the source of the river being found in the country of the Algonquian stock, of which the Chippewa is the most important tribe. Mississippi, in the language of the Chippewa, is derived from the two words missi meaning “large,” and
2Much of the material in this article was kindly submitted by Dr. Dunbar Rowland, Director, Department of Archives and History of the State of Mississippi, Jackson, Miss.
sippi meaning ‘flowing water,” which taken together literally mean “large river.”3
It is interesting to note that missi is the same as micco of the Creeks, meaning “great” as an adjective and “chief” as a noun. Michi of Michigan is the same word, and, also, the massa of Massachusetts is of like derivation.
The name would be more accurately spelled “Missisippi” in French, or “Misisipi” in Spanish, both being pronounced Meeseeseepee which is near the sound of the Indian words. The Spaniards of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew of the river as the “Rio del Espiritu Santo,” or the River of the Holy Ghost. They also called it the “Rio Grande del Florida,” or more simply the “Rio Grande.”
By the early French, it was given the name of “La Palisade,” on account of the large cottonwood trees that grew in abundance on the lower passes of the river. These trees were used by both the Indians and the French trappers for pirogues or dug-out canoes in this region, since the Lower Mississippi and its branches were dangerous for lighter craft on account of huge logs and snags that were washed down-stream during high water and lodged in the channels of the rivers. Then, too, birch trees did not grow in southern latitudes, so that birch bark canoes were left for use in the lakes and clear waters of the country in the North.
After the exploring expedition of La Salle, down the Mississippi, the French sometimes called the river, “the Colbert,” in honor of the minister and the favorite of Louis XIV. Jean Baptiste Colbert’s name was uppermost in the minds of the French people, for it was his genius that organized the finances of their country at that time, though his most lasting achievement was the establishment of the French marine. In connection with this latter work, James Thomson Shotwell, Professor of History in Columbia University, New York City, said in a biographical sketch of Colbert:
“Letters exist written by Colbert to the judges requiring them to sentence to the oar as many criminals as pos-
3Information obtained through J. N. B. Hewitt, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, D. C.
sible, including all those who had been condemned to death; and the convict once chained to the bench, the expiration of his sentence was seldom allowed to bring him release. Mendicants also, against whom no crime had been proved, contraband dealers, those who had been engaged in insurrections, and others immeasurably superior to the criminal class, nay innocent men—Turkish, Russian and negro slaves, and poor Iroquois Indians, whom the Canadians were ordered to entrap—were pressed into that terrible service. By these means the benches of the galleys were filled, and Colbert took no thought of the long unrelieved agony borne by those who filled them.”
After 1699, when D’Iberville was locating the first French colonies in the Lower Mississippi region, the river was called “Saint Louis,” in honor of the French King. Nevertheless, all its European names were forgotten at last, and the Indian name, “Mississippi,” given the great river in the dim ages of the past, remained for us to-day.