How Missouri Got its Name

A display at the American Indian Cultural Center at Van Meter State Park.

Ever wonder how Missouri, the river and the state, got its name?

Van Meter State Park, north of Marshall in the west-central part of the state, is the site of an old Indian village that holds the answer to that question.

When the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet arrived in 1673 at the confluence of what came to be called the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, they asked about the Native Americans living upstream on the Missouri. They were told the tribe living near a bend on the Missouri where the Grand River enters were the Oumessourit, which meant “people of the big canoes.” The name was recorded on their early maps.

The name evolved into Missouria for the tribe, and to Missouri for the river and state.

The arrival of the Europeans didn’t bode well for any of the nine Indian tribes that once called the state of Missouri home. The foreigners brought smallpox and other diseases that quickly decimated the native peoples. Their numbers in decline, the Missouria moved from their village on the great bend upriver to live with the Otoes in Nebraska.

When Lewis and Clark arrived on their famous expedition in 1803, there were some 300 Missouria surviving with the Otoes. In 1829, there were 80. The last full-blooded Missouria died in 1908. Members of the other eight tribes that survived were relocated to reservations, mostly in Kansas and Oklahoma.

As part of the commemoration of that expedition, a federal grant was used to create Missouri’s American Indian Cultural Center, which opened in 2005 at Van Meter State Park. The center seeks not only to preserve the history of the state’s original nine tribes, but to bring back living members to explain and share their heritage.

The center has two main display rooms. The first room has an exhibit the represents William Clark’s office and four glass cases of artifacts found at the site of the old Missouria village. The walls are hung with reprints of maps from the early 1800s, showing the locations of North America’s Indian tribes. One says “Wandering Indians and Maneaters.”

Artists such as Karl Bodmer and Charles Bird King contributed to the works in this display room.

The second, larger room has a firepit in the center and walls filled with poster-sized reproductions of paintings by the first artists to document the Native Americans. The works include images of tribal chiefs by Karl Bodmer, George Catlin and Charles Bird King, whose paintings are part of the McKinney and Hall Collection.

The room has a depiction of a Missouria thatched lodge with an interior containing cookware, food and skins. A mannequin wearing the beautiful dance regalia donated by an Osage chief stands in a corner. A bison hide is stretched beneath a mounted head and has been painted with symbols by representatives of all nine tribes – Delaware, Ioway, Kanza, Kickapoo, Osage, Illini-Peoria, Sac and Fox, Shawnee and Otoe-Missouria.

The center regularly invites tribal members back to give demonstrations on dancing, flute playing, storytelling and other Native American traditions.

Enjoy the natural beauty of Van Meter State Park by strolling along the boardwalk trail

Van Meter State Park has added a campground and picnic area and trails to the park’s features. The park has an 18-acre fishing lake stocked by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

One trail leads through mature woods to the site of an old earthen fort and three burial mounds built on a bluff overlooking the river valley by the prehistoric people who were ancestors of the Missouria.

The park also is home to the 300-acre Oumessourit Natural Area, which shows what the Missouri River’s meandering floodplain looked like before the river was channelized and constricted by levees. Three short boardwalks of steel grating lead into the wetlands for a closeup look at its rare plants and animals.

Geese, ducks and other waterfowl are frequent visitors to the wetlands. During spring and fall migration, V-formations of birds fill the air above, while the marshes below resound with their calls. The wetlands also have an active bald eagle nest, located within view of one of the boardwalks.

The Native Americans had first pick, and it’s easy to see why they chose this rich river valley bordered by high hills known locally as the Pinnacles for their home. The fertile marsh and forest provided abundant food and materials for their lodges.

Stand quietly amid the golden grasses covering the burial mounds, or by the tall reeds and cattails of the marsh, and you can hear, and see, what drew the first Missourians to this special place hundreds of years ago.

For more information on Van Meter State Park or Missouri’s Indian Cultural Center, visit MoStateParks.com.

Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks