Long ago, when I first met my sister-in-law-to-be, a student in her early 20s, she asked me where I’d grown up. I told her that I’d spent my elementary school years in Boonville, North Carolina, and that we’d moved to Winston-Salem when I was in high school.
She pondered my remarks for a moment and then said, “Those are strange names.”
Her comment nearly made me burst out laughing. We were speaking in the den of her family’s home in Milwaukee, near a community called Wauwatosa and a short distance from the Menomonee and the Kinnickinnic rivers.
Talk about strange names!
Like her, most of us are accustomed to the place-names surrounding us, so familiar in our ears that we rarely pause to reflect on their origins or meaning. In my case, I knew that Boonville was so named because Daniel Boone once spent a couple of nights there while exploring the Yadkin River Valley and sometimes spelled his name Boon.
The significance of the names of some other places I’ve lived, like San Diego (Saint Didacus of Alcalá), Charlottesville (named after the wife of England’s King George III), and Front Royal (origins debatable), I knew because I investigated them. But until now, I had no idea that Staunton (pronounced “Stan-ton” by the natives), Virginia, where I once spent two years, was named for Lady Rebecca Staunton, the wife of a colonial governor.
Though we may be ignorant of the stories behind the names of our towns, cities, counties, rivers, and mountains, they often contain miniature lessons in history that can help us better understand where we live and those who came before us.
From delving into commonplace names like New York and Boston to gritty American handles like Frog Level, North Carolina; Bugtussle, Kentucky; and Hell, Michigan, we can learn about our ancestors and our broader history.
The Old Country
Early settlers in America often named their settlements after the places and people they’d left behind. New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New England reference the British Isles. Over time, as other pioneers pushed west, they saluted other European cities as well, like Paris, Texas; Florence, Alabama; and Berlin, Wisconsin.
Charleston in South Carolina, Virginia’s Williamsburg, Baltimore, and Raleigh were named for people rather than places. Surely these honorifics bestowed on kings and nobles also acted as lifelines for men and women so far from home, reminding them not only of the part they themselves were playing in empire-building but also of the leaders and rulers who stood behind them.
Classics, the Bible, and a New Nation
The Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews influenced American nomenclature as well. Sparta, Athens, and Rome became American place-names, and settlements like Salem, Bethany, Bethel, Bethlehem, and Lebanon acquired their names from the Bible, which so many of these early settlers knew well and loved.
In the wake of their Revolution, Americans garlanded their towns with the names of their heroes. Today, for example, 88 cities and towns in the United States bear the name of our country’s first president. The names of Founding Fathers like Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison also dot the countryside.
Other lesser-known personages were also honored in this fashion. An example: The town in the Smoky Mountains where I lived for 20-odd years, Waynesville, received its name from a Colonel Robert Love, who had served under “Mad Anthony” Wayne during the Revolution. Another example: Virginia’s Warren County, which I currently call home, pays homage to Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who sent Paul Revere on his famous night ride and who gallantly died fighting the British at Bunker Hill.
Hundreds more places around the country honor the memories of the patriots who founded our nation.
Native American Names
Of our 50 states, 27 bear the names of Native American tribes or the terms used by those tribes to describe a region. Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, the Dakotas, Tennessee: These and others are Indian words adapted into English.
In addition, many of our rivers have retained the names bestowed on them by natives. Cities, too, like Tucson and Tuscaloosa, pay their respects to the tribes who once lived there or to famous warriors and Native American statesmen. By their names, national parks like Nez Perce and Sequoia salute Native American culture.
Sometimes geographical features, business establishments, or whimsy come into play. In North Carolina, for instance, we have Bat Cave, Flat Rock, Chimney Rock, and Kill Devil Hills down on the coast, where the Wright Brothers first launched their airplane. Tennessee has Pigeon Forge; and Hershey, Pennsylvania, is so called because of Milton Hershey and the chocolate company he established there.
The unincorporated town of Whynot, North Carolina, provides a perfect example of the breezy way we sometimes crown a place with a name. Legend has it that when citizens of this town were arguing over a name, asking “Why not this one?” and “Why not this one?” an exasperated man stood up and said, “Why not name the town Whynot and let’s go home?”
New Versus Old
In this swift run through American place-names, we might pause and notice a remarkable circumstance common to all these places.
Americans named their communities, cities, and states. Think about this for a moment. In the old countries from which these people emigrated, the ancient places of their birth had long borne the names by which we know them today. Canterbury, Hampshire, London, Marseilles, and Naples received their identities in the mists of time.
But in this “New World,” the explorers and settlers themselves chose the names of places, like Adam and Eve naming the animals in the Old Testament. The names chosen might be as stately and historically significant as Washington, D.C., or as straightforward and blunt as Deadwood, South Dakota, so named because someone found dead trees in a gulch. But whatever the case, Americans are the inventors of these names.
As a result, these names and their origins tell us much about the history of our country. Nearly every one of them contains some nugget of the past that, if investigated, can lead us to hidden pockets of gold.
Tracking the Stories Behind the Names
Suppose, for instance, you’re a high school student living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You wonder about the origins of the name of your city. You Google “Pittsburgh” and find that the name derives from a British prime minister, William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham. You read a bit about him, and then discover that a General Braddock and his subordinate Major George Washington fought and lost a disastrous battle near your city during the French and Indian War. You read on, learning about the Whiskey Rebellion, the glass industry, steamboats, the Great Fire, the Underground Railway, and the steel industry.
What’s in a name? Just possibly, an entire book of people and events.
Our American names are part of the glue holding us together as a people, even when we pay them no attention. Atlanta, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Culpeper, Corpus Christi, Deadhorse, Greasy Corner, Bear Dance: Behind such names is the tale of a place and a people that have shaped us and defined who and what we are.
We can find poetry in these names. We can find history. And most of all, we can find home.