Here’s a bit of trivia: The population of Iowa’s capital city is larger than the combined populations of the capitals of New York and Illinois.

Des Moines, according to 2018 census estimates, has a population of about 217,000, while Springfield has nearly 115,000, and Albany has around 97,000 residents.

That’s somewhat misleading, because Albany has a much larger metropolitan area that encompasses 11 counties with a population approaching 1.2 million. The five counties in the Des Moines metropolitan area have about 680,000 residents, while roughly 208,000 live in the Springfield metro area.

Like Des Moines, Albany and Springfield were selected as state capitals because they are located near the geographic centers of their states, but each city has a unique history.

The area around Albany was frequented by Dutch fur traders during the mid-1500s. When the English took over, they named they named the city, which was chartered in 1686, after the Duke of Albany, who later became King James II. Today, Albany, which predates New York City, is said to be one of North America’s oldest European settlements.

Before and during the Revolutionary War, New York’s governments moved among five cities, including Albany, but in 1797, Albany became the state’s permanent capital.

The area around Springfield was also settled by fur traders, who in 1821 named their community Calhoun after South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun. But Calhoun fell out of favor and in 1832 the town was renamed Springfield in honor of Springfield, Mass.

Springfield is Illinois’ third capital. In 1809, Illinois’ first territorial capital was Kaskaskia, a village south of St. Louis, Mo., that had more than 7,000 residents in 1818 but has only about a dozen today.

Kaskaskia was founded on the east side of the Mississippi River, but an 1881 flood destroyed the town and placed the site on the west side of the river, much like Carter Lake, Iowa, was moved from the east to the west bank of the Missouri River by a flood in 1877.

Vandalia, a town 60 miles east of St. Louis, served as the Illinois capital from the year the state joined the Union in 1819 until 1839, when Abraham Lincoln and other residents of Springfield persuaded legislators to move the capital to a more central location.

The founding of Des Moines as a military fort in 1843 was associated with the removal of the Native American Sauk and Meskwaki tribes in anticipation of white settlers who arrived in numbers substantial enough to incorporate the city of Des Moines in 1851.

Iowa’s territorial capital was in Burlington from 1838 until 1841, when it moved to Iowa City to be nearer the geographic center of the developing territory. Following statehood in 1846, a decision was made to relocate again to be nearer the center of Iowa, with Des Moines eventually getting the nod.

Des Moines takes its name from the river that bisects the community, but there are multiple interpretations about how the river received its name.

Some said it was French for “the monks,” although historians have pointed out that the name preceded a colony of Trappist monks who once lived in the area where the river merges with the Mississippi River.

My favorite explanation comes from Mary Challender, who wrote in the Des Moines Register in 2003 that language experts believe “Moines” was a French derivation of “Moingoana” a Native American tribe that lived along the river during the 1670s when the first French explorers arrived.  

But Challender wrote, “rather than denoting the tribe’s true identity, the name was a ribald joke” perpetrated on the explorers by a rival tribe because the name “translates, politely, to ‘the excrement faces.’”