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North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current

News online for Encinitas, Calif.

North Coast Current


Historically Speaking: Truckee and Des Moines, the history behind the names

Donner Peak in Truckee. (Photo by Jeff Hopper via Unsplash)

There’s a good deal of obscure city names scattered across America that are derived from either native inhabitants or from early 17th and 18th century French explorers and trappers. Here are two more examples: Truckee and Des Moines.

Truckee is a Northern California town of 16,000 situated in the high Sierra Nevada mountains that has been in our weather news these past few weeks. Truckee was named after a Paiute chief whose name was Tru-ki-zo. He was the father of Paiute Chief Winnemucca, who also has a city (in Nevada) named in his honor.

The first European outsiders who crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains reportedly were met by the friendly Chief Trukizo, who rode toward them yelling, “Tro-kay!” In the Paiute language, that word means “Everything is all right.” The newcomers thought the Paiute chief was yelling his own name. Chief Trukizo later served as a guide for Col. John C. Frémont, who is credited with militarily securing the territory of California for the U.S. during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Historically Speaking by Tom MorrowThe tragedy of the ill-fated Donner Party is the city of Truckee’s most infamous historical event. In 1846, a group of 81 settlers from Illinois, originally known as the Donner-Reed Party, became snowbound in early fall as a result of several trail mishaps, poor decision-making, and an early onset of winter. Choosing multiple times to take shortcuts to save distance compared to the traditional Oregon Trail, coupled with infighting, a disastrous crossing of the Utah salt flats, and the attempt to use the pass near the Truckee River, now known as the Donner Pass, all caused delays in their journey.

A massive, early blizzard (not unlike that of our recent weeks) brought the remaining settlers to a halt at the edge of what is now Donner Lake. The story of the party’s tragic ordeal, which ended in some of the survivors resorting to cannibalism, has been told many times in articles, books, and on film.

Des Moines, pronounced “Dee-Mo-in” (as in coin) is the capital and most populous city of Iowa. It was incorporated on Sept. 22, 1851, as “Fort Des Moines,” which in 1851, was shortened to “Des Moines.” It is located on, and named after, the Des Moines River, which likely was adapted from the early French name “Rivière des Moines,” meaning “River of the Monks.”

One popular interpretation of Des Moines concludes that it refers to a group of French Trappist monks, who in the 17th century lived in huts built on top of what is now known as the ancient Monks Mound at Cahokia, the major pre-historic center of culture along the Mississippi River. Based on archaeological evidence, the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers has attracted humans for at least 7,000 years.

At least three late prehistoric villages, dating from about AD 1300 to 1700, stood in or near what has developed as downtown Des Moines. In addition, 15 to 18 prehistoric Native American mounds were observed in this area by early settlers. All have been destroyed during the development of the city.

In May 1843, U.S. Army Capt. James Allen supervised the construction of a fort on the site where the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers merge. Allen wanted to use the name “Fort Raccoon.” However, the War Department preferred Fort Des Moines. The fort was built to control the Sauk and Meskwaki tribes, whom the U.S. government had moved to the area from their traditional lands in eastern Iowa. The fort was abandoned in 1846 after the Sauk and Meskwaki tribes were again moved to the Indian (Oklahoma) Territory.

Settlers soon occupied the abandoned fort and nearby areas. On Sept. 22, 1851, Des Moines was incorporated as a city. The charter was approved by voters on Oct. 18 of that year. In 1857, the name “Fort Des Moines” was shortened to “Des Moines,” and it was designated as the second state capital. The previous capital was Iowa City. Growth was slow during the Civil War period, but the city exploded in size and importance after a railroad link was completed in 1866.

Early in the 20th century, a new Army facility was established as the Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School, which became a military base and training facility. It was established near the original fort. In 1901, the base trained African-American officers for the U.S. Army during World War I and was where women first began training for Army service in 1942 as part of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) during World War II. In 1974, surviving older portions of the base were declared a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its vast history.

The growth of Des Moines’ outlying suburbs has continued, and the overall metropolitan-area population presently is more than 700,000. Today, Des Moines is a major center of the insurance industry and has a sizable financial-services and publishing business base.

Tom Morrow is a longtime Oceanside-based journalist and author.

Columns represent the views of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the North Coast Current’s ownership or management.