Names on the Land
Kauai, the name of my favorite island in the Hawaiian group, comes from an ancient time and people, and possibly from an older language language, from an ancient and prehistoric strata of place names stretching back way before King Kamehameha and Captain James Cook.
Wailau Valley (Hawaii) translates into “Many Waters”, according to one tour guide website, or more exactly “four hundred streams” according to George R. Stewart, author of Names on the Land (Lexicos, 4th Ed., San Francisco ©1945, 1958, 1967) – available at Amazon.
Wai, “water”, comes across in so many Hawaiian place names, such such as the Wailua River in Kauai County. The river mouth flows into the Pacific through the town of the same name.
The North Fork of the North Fork of the Yuba River underwent the scrutiny of the California Board of Geographic Names in the mid-twentieth century.
Part of the problem was, there were two North Forks, and two North Forks of those northern forks of the Yuba River. The problem was resolved, in part, by renaming one of those forks the Downie River, after Downieville, through which it flows — the town having been named after Major William Downie when it was settled in 1849.
California’s 1849 Gold Rush brought a huge influx of settlers and transient prospectors, all seeking their fortune in the gold fields, or selling goods or services to those who were. Many of these men brought little they could not carry, and cared not about the genteel sensitivities of postal regulations and tradition in bestowing their place names across the rivers, foothills and mountains of the Sierras. They brought us celebrated names like Rough and Ready and Poker Flat, exploited and popularized by early western writer Bret Hart, among others.
Name Clusters (my term) – Stewart describes how you can sometimes tell just by looking at the density and distribution of place names on a map where major events and population shifts occurred. Sometimes a name cluster gives insight into the fancies of the explorer bestowing the names. California’s gold country was certainly one of those local regions about which one could write a book on place names.
Stewart mentions an E.G. Gudde who was working on that project for California (and he cites numerous other researchers mining place names in other parts of the country). Sure enough, a Google search on ‘Gudde’ finds an EBay posting: California Gold Camps, by Erwin G. Gudde, printed 1975, 1 available, $175, 467 pages; “place names, glossary and bibliography, list of places by counties. Maps, black-and-white drawings and photographs. Rare!”
Mention “Groundhog Day“, and we automatically think of Punxsutawney Phil, and of course we might associate the groundhog and his Pennsylvania town with some local name for the groundhog. Not so; Stewart explains it comes from Indian words meaning roughly “punkie” or midge, the annoying little flying insect, joined to another native word for “town”.
Mooselookmeguntic is the name of a lake in Maine.
It is found in the Androscoggin watershed, feeding the Rangeley Lakes where I fished as a boy. The word is Indian for “moose feeding place”. We visited “Pond In The River“, pictured at left, south of Middledam. Place names could be very practical, too.
To the west of the island I visited was Lake Umbagog. New Englanders are also very familiar with New Hampshire’s famed resort Lake Winnipesaukee, another Native American name – reported by Wikipedia to mean either “smile of the Great Spirit” or “beautiful water in a high place”. The exact meaning of place names often gets lost in history, to be carried on anecdotally.
Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg is a lake my parents told me about in Webster, Mass. whose name was a hoax. The hoax was contained in the story passed on to me:
“So they named this beautiful lake after terms of that treaty. Chargoggagogg, ‘you fish on your side,’ Manchaugagogg, ‘I fish on my side,’ and Chaubunagungamaugg, ‘Nobody fish in the middle.’”
In truth, the lake name meant “The Fishing Place at the Boundaries—The Neutral Meeting Ground”. But somebody came up with the hoax translation, and it stuck. It has not yet been officially adopted as an explanation, but it will be. Trust the American instinct for local color.
You won’t find all of these place name etymologies in George R. Stewart’s wonderful and carefully researched book “Names On The Land”, but you will find others, more than you could possibly believe, in over 400 pages of gracefully literate narrative. Stewart started this work in 1941 before I was born, to become a definitive classic tracing the history of place naming in the United States.
If your American History is a bit weak, possibly because you suspect works of history of being a bit dry, this is just the ticket to shake you out of your rut. It is the story of geology, geography and the history of our peoples all rolled up into place names. It is nothing if not a fascinating, hard to put down read.
By researching every available resource of the time in libraries, periodicals, historical surveys and act of Congress, Stewart began with the names of the states as they worked their way westward, and shows how the local place names were a distinctly American blend of ethnic roots (New York, Germantown, Paris, Essex and so forth), tradition and established local usage, the nomenclature of discovery (Vancouver Bay, Bering Sea) and American Indian heritage.
In particular, we mostly avoided the European process of naming and renaming places to honor political correctness and toady up to political patronage. Of course, there were many blatant exceptions, and some very understandable ones as well. Cape Canaveral was renamed to honor our President Kennedy, and there were few who could take exception to that, except perhaps for the precedent that wasn’t really a precedent at all. I note that the media have taken to calling it by its old name again, though I’m not sure of the division of labor: there’s the city of Cape Canaveral, and Kennedy Space Center, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
When Jackie Kennedy learned that the original name was 400 years old, she blessed the restoration of the geographic place name “Canveral”, with the Space Center justly retaining the Kennedy honorific.
Of Native American names, Stewart shows that there was a semi-codified procedure for name-giving, and rule #1 was: if it had a local name before, use that name on the maps and charts.
You can see this in all the regions of the US, from the Okefenokee to Mooselookmeguntic, across the states of the Plains Indians, to (especially to) Alaska and Hawaii.
The picture inset is of Denali National Park, Denali meaning “the great one” in the native Athabascan language. The name Alaska itself is reputed to come from several unidentified roots, including Alaeksu, Alaschka, and Alaxa. Wikipedia credits it to the native Aleut word alaxsxag, loosely meaning “the mainland”.
You can also see that when an “Indian name” did not come to hand readily, we could manufacture one to honor the heritage, such as Sioux City, or, for better or worse, to combat it: Fort Apache. And did we forget the states’ names – Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and possibly Wyoming?
In the Northeast, many towns were named or renamed after French heroes who aided us during the Revolutionary War. They had to put a stop to Lafayette in some areas (there’s even a Lafayette in California), and the Postal Service had to enforce it: you cannot have two post offices of the same name in the same state.
The coming of the railroads added a sudden need for many more station names than there were towns, and many towns grew up around stations and took their names, which often as not were given to honor railroad officials.
Of the lakes and rivers, the major rivers were all named before the states, and it is hard to think of all the states that took their names from the rivers: Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado (though the Colorado does not officially flow through it; that is the Green River, as originally named). Once the largest lakes were named (Tahoe, an Indian name), tens of thousands of smaller unnamed lakes took fanciful names from someone’s sweetheart or daughters. There are whole chains of lakes named after daughters.
Similarly, with the mountains, once we were done with Pike’s Peak, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Ranier, the Appalachians and the most prominent or historical high-rise landmarks, there were thousands upon thousands of smaller mountains. My favorite, not noted by Stewart, is Painted Lady (King’s Canyon): its rich red bands really looks like a reclining lady in somewhat risque repose.
You can see the Painted Lady herself faintly on the peak in the photo to the left, imagining a figure reclined left to right on the peak above the pine trees. It shows better in late afternoon. It was no doubt named by a prospector who had not seen a female in 15 months and who may, possibly, still have been working on the precious whiskey supply.
Geological names are a favorite adventure of mine on rainy winter nights. On the USGS Mt. Pinchot map (15 minute series) we find Mt. Clarence King, honoring the pioneering surveyor, a contemporary of Major Powell (after whom the lake was named). Also in Kings Canyon National Park, in Evolution Valley (Mt. Goddard quadrangle, 15 minute series), we find a field holiday for scientists and students of science: Mt. Spencer, Mt. Mendel, Darwin Canyon and Mt. Darwin, and, gosh, wouldn’t you know it, Wanda Lake.
For you ancient history buffs, just south of there and way high above the John Muir Trail, USGS gives us the peak Scylla, the Ionian Basin, Charybdis, and the Three Sirens.
So, you see, once you get into the spirit of the research, you can find your own place names and surmise the history or research it from there. The names tell a story. Stewart begins the story as cited below, and you can continue the story every time you look at a map or tour this rich continent of ours:
Once, from eastern ocean to western ocean, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected nameless mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays …
Men came at last, tribe following tribe, speaking different languages and thinking different thoughts … after many centuries a people calling themselves Americans held the land. They followed the ways of the English more than of any others … yet they gathered together in their blood and in their manner of life something of all those who had lived in the land before them.
Thus the names lay thickly over the land, and the Americans spoke them, great and little, easily and carelessly – Virginia, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Deadman Creek, Sugarloaf Hill, Detroit, Wall Street – not thinking how they had come to be.
Alex Forbes © November 1, 2007
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