How Arkansas Got its Name

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Do you know the history of the name “Arkansas” and how it became the name of our state? From spelling to pronunciation, Arkansas hasn’t always been “Arkan-SAW.”

Arkansas was named after a sect of the Quapaw tribe of Native Americans. The Algonquians called them “Akansa,” or the “people who lived downstream.”

Quapaw Native Americans

A group of Quapaw Native Americans (Photo courtesy of the University of Oklahoma, Western History Collection, circa 1899)

French explorers, who soon stumbled upon the tribe, left their mark on the state’s current pronunciation. French documents and books spell the region’s name in a variety of different ways, such as: Arcancas, Acansa or Arcanceas. However, the state’s final name was derived from the “Arcansas” spelling. English speakers who took over after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 decided to go with a modified French spelling, and the state’s official name of “Arkansas” was born.

It has been noted that the “s” on the end was simply a French addition, since the “s” is silent in the French language, however, according to the Publications of the Arkansas Historical Association, there is evidence that some people tried to pronounce the “s” at the end of the state’s name. In 1881, during a heated debate, the Arkansas state legislature ruled on the matter, because of the confusion of pronunciation. Soon after, lawmakers formally recognized the “saw” ending, discouraging any pronunciation similar to Kansas.

We celebrate the history of our great state and how it came to be at the Old State House Museum. Visit today and learn more.