Muskmelons: Not exclusive to Muscatine

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet ...”

So muses Juliet on her balcony in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

A Capulet herself, with Romeo a Montague — enemy families divided by a bitter ancient feud — she philosophizes that if either she or Romeo could shed the family name, there would no longer be anything to keep them apart.

Like Montagues and Capulets, names of significant items are sometimes weighed down by myths that perpetuate themselves until they’re accepted as truth in common lore.    

For example:

Until this past weekend I had always thought that “muskmelon” was the name of a particular melon resembling a cantaloupe that grows only near Muscatine, Iowa.

The prefix “musk,” I had “learned,” derived from the first syllable of the town’s name. I took considerable pride in the supposed fact that an Iowa location produced such a prized fruit.

But at our extended family’s Cousin Camp, held annually at Tom and Vikki Morain’s home on the hills south of Lamoni, some of us got around to discussing muskmelons. Among the choice items on the Sunday breakfast menu was cantaloupe, which generated the discussion.

Had there been a set of encyclopedias at hand, I would have looked up “muskmelon.” That method continues to be my preferred source of information — our decades-old, 24 Collier’s Encyclopedia volumes, purchased a number of years ago at the library’s used book sale, usually answer such questions. And my bias for finding truth is to do so in print rather than cyberspace.

But brother Tom and nephew Michael went immediately to their smartphones, and they discovered the sad fact that muskmelon, far from being a specialized melon from Muscatine, is actually a generic fruit found around the world.

In fact, all cantaloupes are muskmelons, although not all muskmelons are cantaloupes.

The sandy soil near Muscatine does indeed grow excellent muskmelons. But they’re not named after Muscatine. Another balloon burst.

Among Iowans, though, the Great Myth is the derivation of our state’s name.

If there’s a state with a greater variety of explanations for that type of mystery, I don’t know what it is. Confusion reigns supreme.

For many years, the state’s marketing and tourism agencies proudly proclaimed in their brochures that the meaning of the word “Iowa” is “The Beautiful Land.” You may have learned that bit of information in elementary school.

That definition goes back at least to the late 19th century. Writers, one after another, claimed that the name “Iowa” is from the Sauk and Fox tribes (ethnically Algonquin). They supposedly looked westward across the Mississippi River from their villages near Rock Island and called what they saw “iowa,” which the writers said meant “beautiful land.”

Following up on that theory, some writers then said that “ioway” was translated by the French into “ayuway,” which they said was what the Illini (also Algonquin) as well as the Sauk and Fox called one of the tribes living in what is now Iowa.

A more scholarly explanation is that “Ioway,” the Anglicized word for the Siouan tribe of that name, derives from the Dakota (Sioux) word for the tribe, which was “Ayuxba,” meaning “The Sleepy Ones.”

But that’s not what the Ioway called themselves.

Their own tribal name was “Baxoje,” which supposedly was what the Otoe, another Siouan tribe, called the Ioway. “Baxoje” means “grey snow” or “ashy snow-heads,” from an instance when ashy snow covered an Ioway encampment. The Ioway and the Otoe sometimes camped near each other.

That theory is probably the origin of yet another definition of the word “Iowa” — “the dusty ones” or “the dirty faces.”

So says that theory. Confused yet?

It’s pretty clear that the state of Iowa was named after the Iowa River, which was named after the Ioway tribe. And it’s one of the puzzlements of American history that regions, counties, towns and other geographical sites were regularly named after individuals or tribes that American settlers fought against or systematically deprived of their homelands.

Go figure.

Such were the Ioway.

The tribe originated in the Great Lakes region, but migrated south and west as both the American settlers and enemy tribes pushed them out. They made their home in what is now Iowa for a time, but gave up those lands under forced treaties with the United States in the 1820s and 1830s.

The Ioway eventually were settled onto two reservations, one on the Missouri River in Kansas and Nebraska and the other in Oklahoma. They now number only a few hundred souls, and their native tongue is nearly extinct.

So despite the mists surrounding the origin of the name “Iowa,”  the state is a prime example of Juliet’s pronouncement that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Unless you live in close proximity to an Iowa hog confinement whose owner operates it with little regard for the neighbors.

Juliet would have chosen a different metaphor for that.

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