Sometime before the 1600's, the Kaws lived as one nation with a large number of Siouan-speaking people known as the Dhegiha Siouan group. Originating east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River, the Dhegiha tribes migrated west down the Ohio River. Although scholars differ as to exactly when this translocation occurred, it is clear that by the 1600s the Dhegihans had separated into the five tribes we now know as the Kaws, Quapaws, Omahas, Osages, and Poncas.
The Quapaws moved down the Mississippi River to the present east Arkansas area while the other four tribes went upstream to the present St. Louis area then headed up the Missouri River. By 1700 the Omahas and Poncas established a presence in the present eastern Nebraska–western Iowa area, and the Osages occupied present southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, northwest Arkansas, and northeast Oklahoma. Sometime in the later 1600s the Kaws established villages on the west side of the Missouri River in what is today Doniphan County Kansas.
The reasons for the Kaws migration west are open to speculation. It is possible that the Kaws were subject to pressure from better-armed eastern Indians who, in turn, were being forced west by European colonists getting established on the eastern seaboard. The ravages of contagious disease among Native Americans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulting in tribal re-configurations and population dislocations may have affected the Kaws’ move west. Tribal factionalism, the ambitions of individual chiefs, or the pursuit of westward-trending bison herds may have been factors as well.
Scholars are unable to agree on the English meaning of the name of the tribe. One source of confusion is that there are over 125 different spellings of the tribal name including Can, Caw, Ka-anzou, Kancez, Kanissi, Kansies, Kantha, Caugh, Keniser, Quans, Escansques, Escanzaques, and Excnjaques. For generations, Kansas school children have been taught that the literal meaning of Kanza in English is "People of the South Wind," "Wind People," or "South Wind People." However, it is uncertain that the word Kanza means anything at all to the Kaws themselves, let alone possessing an equivalent in English. Mahlon Stubbs, long a teacher, agent, and friend of the Kaws, claimed the name of the tribe meant plum to the Kaws.