Friday, July 11, 2014

What Does "Ozark" Mean?

We say “Ozark” but where did that name come from and what does it mean? Is it French, perhaps formerly “Ozarque”? Is it Indian? Which Indians, the Osage, or maybe the Sioux, who named Missouri, calling it Oumisourite, meaning “men with large canoes”? I wondered.

Although the name “Ozark” is fixed on maps by 1815, its origins are unclear. The most common explanation goes like this:

The Arkansas River was a great trade route flowing from Pueblo, Colorado (!), through Kansas and Oklahoma and then Arkansas, draining through a huge swamp into the Mississippi. The Quapaw (Sioux) Indians living in its delta were called the Arcansea, from the Sioux word "acansa" meaning "downstream place," and other Indians called that river the Arkansas before Europeans got there. In 1686, Frenchmen established a trading post about 35 miles north of the confluence at a bend on a tributary. They either shortened the word “Arkansas” and called this place “aux Arcs,” or “place of Arcansas Indians,” or, less likely, they called the river bend an “arc” and referred to the place as “aux arc.” Either way, surviving letters from trappers and traders prove that the post was indeed called something like that. Eventually it shared its name with its whole watershed including multiple rivers and mountainous areas to the north and west, including Missouri.

The Ozark plateau, vast as it is, the size of Tennessee, is pretty much a petticoat for the formerly volcanic St. Francois Mountains in east central Missouri. Travel southwest from St. Louis on Interstate 44 about 30 miles and suddenly an ordinary road opens out onto a majestic vista of hills. Those are the Ozark foothills.

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