Tuesday, January 22, 2008

On Wisconsin

Ok, the jarring experience. I give my schpiel – member of the Wisconsin Province, working in New York, originally from Chicago, home of the White Sox, etc. etc. sigh.

And the Jesuit across from me, an 79 year old Australian who has spent much of his life on the Western coast of Australia, in Perth, says, “Hmm. ‘Wisconsin.’ What does that mean?”

The question, in fact the very idea of the question flabbergasted me, mostly because I had no idea. Had never even thought of the name of the state as having a meaning.

At this same time, just days earlier I had been wondering where the name Sydney came from.

This situation could not stand. After lunch, I went immediately to Google, and made some great discoveries at the website of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Wisconsin, it turns out, means “river running through a red place.” It emerges from the language of the Miami Indians, who guided none other than the Jesuits’ own Jacques Marquette in June, 1673, from their village in Green Lake County through the Fox River, across quite a bit of dry land and onto a river that they, according to Marquette’s journal, called the “Meskousing.”

In 1674, another explorer, Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, misread Marquette’s “M” as a cursive “Ou” and this misreading ended up being printed on maps, such that Miskonsing became Ouisconsing. According to the Historical Society, over the next 150 years both the river and the region became known as “Ouisconsin.”

After the War of 1812, large numbers of miners began to enter the region. Most used the French spelling. However, U.S. government spellings varied between “Ouisconsin” and “Wisconsin” until the latter became the standard. July 4th, 1836, federal territorial status was granted to “Wisconsin”.

A funny story – the first governor, James Duane Doty, hated that spelling. He preferred “Wiskonsan”, and insisted on it until he was given lifetime season tickets to the Green Bay Packers. (In actuality, to shut him down the legislature eventually issued a joint resolution declaring the official spelling as “Wisconsin”.

As for the meaning of the name, the Historical Society notes that at various points of the river, such as near Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids, the surrounding rock is red in color. Hence the name: river running through a red place.

I returned to my new friend, loaded with all of this information. The next day at lunch he thanked me. Someone else at the table asked what we were talking about, and I told them the story: “He asked where I was from, I had said I’m from Chicago but I’m in the Wisconsin Province, and then he had wondered what “Wisconsin” meant and I had no idea. So I looked it up.” I ended, very pleased with myself.

And my friend looked up and said “Hey, what does Chicago mean?”

Which just about ruined my day.