Place Names Reveal Our Values, Vanities, Quirks

Names on the Land
Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States
By George R. Stewart
Introduction by Matt Weiland
Paperback, 432 pages
New York Review of Books Press
List price: $19.95

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George Stewart

hide captionGeorge Stewart's Names on the Land was first published in 1944.

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First published in 1944 and last revised in 1967, Names on the Land, an absorbing hunk of scholarship, is an inquiry into America's shifting values, enduring vanities and defining quirks. In his introduction to the reissued edition, Paris Review Deputy Editor Matt Weiland places author George Stewart (1895-1980) as a feisty generalist whose bibliography includes a definitive account of the Donner Party and the science-fiction masterpiece Earth Abides. Names on the Land earns its status as a classic by reading like a compendium of fun facts raised to a Whitmanesque prose poem.

The story gets into gear in the 1600s with England's Gabriel Archer, who seems to have labeled Martha's Vineyard according to the dictates of his own fancy; Stewart deems Archer the founding father of a poetic strain in place-naming. In 1784, the actual Founding Fathers suggested state names — among them the rejected Sylvania, Metropotamia and Chersonesus — that nicely illustrate Stewart's theory that politicians favor "rolling polysyllables": "Twenty-eight of the [state] names fit into the pattern most beloved of the orator — a long word accented on the next-to-last syllable, such as Montana or Minnesota."

Elsewhere, Stewart recounts controversies of yesteryear. "No feature of American naming has provoked fiercer attack," he writes, than the francophilia that produced Charlottesville, Louisville and, in Indiana alone, more than 100 other burgs ending in -ville. A populist, the author explains the fuss tartly: "It has been called ostentatious and lacking in good taste. Very well. Good taste was sitting comfortably in New York and Philadelphia when the town sites of Indiana were being cleared."

Onward he troops through tales of saint's days, street grids, immigration patterns and not a few hasty rechristenings. (During World War II, Swastika, Ariz., renamed itself Brilliant.) When Stewart left off, the most "precedent-shattering action of recent years" had been the Act of Congress that displaced Cape Canaveral — a name of three centuries' standing — to honor John F. Kennedy.

Names on the Land is a tribute to the American imagination, and we can hope it will inspire some young historian to pick up from there — to explain definitively how Manhattan got its TriBeCa and to explore the psychology that led suburban subdivisions to name their leafy cul-de-sacs after extinct Indian tribes. And I hereby move that we take up Stewart on his concluding idea to organize an "Association for the Preservation of Historic Names." Will the residents of Gene Autry, Okla., second the notion?

Excerpt: 'Names On The Land'

Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States
By George R. Stewart
Introduction by Matt Weiland
Paperback, 432 pages
New York Review of Books Press
List price: $19.95

Chapter I: Of what is attempted in this book

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. According to their ways of speech and thought they gave names, and in their generations laid their bones by the streams and hills they had named. But even when tribes and languages had vanished, some of those old names, reshaped, still lived in the speech of those who followed.

After many centuries a people calling themselves Americans held the land. They followed the ways of the English more than of any others, especially in their speech. 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 they took as a heritage many names of the past. Adding more names, they gave to their children with every generation the heritage richer than before.

A few hundred were great names, known to all Americans, of states and cities, mountains and rivers. But most of them were little names, known only to those who lived near by, of ponds and swamps and creeks and hills, of townships and villages, of streets and ranches and plantations, of coves and gulches and meadows. These little names arose by so many thousands that at last they were numbered by millions.

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. Yet the names had grown out of the life, and the life-blood, of all those who had gone before. From the names might be known how here one man hoped and struggled, how there another dreamed, or died, or sought fortune, and another joked, twisting an old name to make a new one — Providence and Battle Mountain, Hardscrabble, Troy, Smackover, Maine, Elrio, Pasadena, Troublesome Creek, Cape Fear, Nashville, Lincoln County, Fourth Crossing.

In this heritage of names the Americans were fortunate, for in general the names were good, and they were closely bound with the land itself and the adventures of the people. In older countries the story of the naming was lost in the ancient darkness. But in the land between the two oceans much of the record could still be read — who gave the names and when, and even why one name was chosen rather than another.

This is written, then, as the story of that naming — how the great names, one by one, came to stand large on the maps, and how the little names in their thousands arose on the tongues of the people, after the varying customs of time and place, of blood and language.

Chapter II: Of the naming that was before history

In the distant past, then, the land was without names. Yet the nature of the land itself prefigured something of what was to be. Where jagged mountains reared up along the horizon, many names would describe shapes, but in a flat country names of other meanings would be given. Where most streams were clear but one ran thick with reddish mud, a man coming to that stream would call it Red River, whether he said Río Colorado, or Rivière Rouge, or Bogue Homa, or blurted syllables in some now long-forgotten tongue. Since alders first grew close to water and desert-cedars clung to hillsides, they predestined Alder Creek and Cedar Mountain. Long Lake and Stony Brook, Blue Ridge and Grass Valley, lay deeper than tribe or language; the thing and the name were almost one.

No one knows when man came, or who gave the first names. Perhaps the streams still ran high from the melting ice-cap, and strange beasts roamed the forest. And since names — corrupted, transferred, re-made — outlive men and nations and languages, it may even be that we still speak daily some name which first meant "Saber-tooth Cave" or "Where-we-killed-the-ground-sloth."

There is no sure beginning. At the opening of history many and various tribes already held the land, and had given it a thin scattering of names. The names themselves can be made to reveal the manner of the earliest naming.

Once, let us say, some tribesmen moved toward a new country, which was unknown to them. Halting, they chose a good man, and sent him ahead. This scout went on, watching not to be ambushed or get lost, knowing he must report shrewdly when he returned. First he skulked along the edge of a big meadow, where he saw many deer. Then he came to a stream where he noted some oak trees, which were uncommon in that country. All this time he was skirting the slope of a great mountain, but because he was actually on it, and because the trees were so thick, he did not think of a mountain; and, besides, it made no difference to him one way or the other. So he went farther on — through a little swamp, and to a stream which he crossed on a beaver-dam. This stream was the same as the one where the oak trees grew, but he had no way of being certain, and besides it did not matter at all — each crossing was a thing in itself. He went on, through a narrow defile with many tall rocks, which he knew would be an ugly spot for an ambush. Going back, he noted all the places in reverse, but did not actually bestow any names on them.

When he told his story, however, he unconsciously gave names by describing places, such as the big meadow and the stream where the oak trees grew. He did not speak of the mountain, because the mountain was everywhere and the whole country was merely its slope; and he did not speak of the deer in the meadow, because he knew that deer are at one place for sun-up and another for nooning, so that only a fool would try to distinguish one meadow from another by mentioning them.

The others listened to his words, nodded and questioned and remembered; they knew that they would have no other knowledge of the next day's march, and that life and death might hang on how well they remembered his landmarks. So they thought to themselves, "big meadow," "stream where oak trees grow," "stream with a beaver-dam," and the rest. When they went ahead into that country, they recognized each place as they came to it.

Then, when they lived there, they used the descriptions first, saying, "There is good fishing in the stream where oak trees grow." But soon they said, "stream-where-oak-trees-grow" in one breath, and it had become a name.

The first simple names were like sign-posts, noting something permanent and easily recognized, something to distinguish one place from other places — size, or shape, or color, or the kind of rocks or trees found there. After the tribe grew familiar with the region, such sign-post names were no longer much needed, and as the people began to have memories of what had happened here or there, names of another kind sprang up.

At some stream, perhaps, a hunter saw a panther drinking in broad daylight, and killed it with a single arrow. This was a matter of wonder, and people began to say: "the stream where the panther was killed." After a few generations the actual story may have been forgotten, but the name retained. In the old Choctaw country there is still a Quilby Creek, from their words koi-ai-albi, "panther-there-killed." Far in the Southwest a ruined pueblo is Callemongue, "where-they-hurled-down-stones." But the name is the only testimony; no man knows the story of that desperate siege, or who hurled down stones at what besiegers.

Not all these adventures need have been real. If a young man saw a vision, what happened to him then may have been as vivid as the killing of a panther. Or he may have thought that his dream made manifest the world of spirits. So in the country of the Sioux many places had the suffix -wakan, and among the Algonquians -manito, to show that a presence haunted them. The Cherokees had a belief in a race of huge snakes. Each was great as a tree-trunk, horned, with a bright blazing crest. Even to see one was sure death. Where they were thought to lurk, in deep river-pools and lonely passes in high mountains, the Cherokees called Where-the-Uktena-stays.

From visions or from often-told and much-distorted exploits came a few mythological names, although sometimes the story arose later to explain an unusual name. The Abnaki of the far Northeast told of the giant Glooscap. Once he pursued an enormous moose, killing it finally close to the shore of the ocean. There they pointed out a ledge of rock which at one stage of tide looked much like a moose's rump, and so was called Moos-i-katch-ik. To reward his dog, Glooscap threw him the entrails. These became a reddish rock known as Osquoon, "the liver," and a vein of white quartz, Oolaghesee, "the gut."

If a tribe lived in the same region for many generations, the name-pattern grew more complex. The land itself might change. Stream-with-a-Beaver-Dam might fill with silt and become a mere swamp, so that the beavers no longer lived there. The dam itself would be grown over with trees and bushes. After the dam became indistinguishable, the name was actually misleading. Then it might be changed entirely, but a traditional-minded tribe would sometimes keep the old name, as in a modern city Canal Street may remain after the canal has long been filled in.

Language also changed with the generations, and names more rapidly than the rest of language. A lengthy descriptive name of an important place was said so often that it was likely to be clipped and slurred. Before long, it sounded like words having some other meaning, or else like meaningless syllables. The tribe had no written records to show what the name should be. Eventually some story-teller might build up a tale to explain the new name. Thus Allegheny seems most likely to have meant "fine river" in the language of the Delawares, but they later told a story of a mythical tribe called the Allegewi who had lived on that river until defeated by the all-conquering Delawares. More often, when a common name became meaningless, the Indians, like other people, merely accepted it — "Just a name!"


A tribe entering a new country also faced, unconsciously, the problem of what to name. In even a small area there were thousands of "places." But the Indians had no written records, and the ordinary man could not well burden his memory with more than some few hundreds of names. The corn-growing Pueblos, who seldom wandered far from their villages, placed their names thickly. In a nomadic tribe, like the Pawnee, the ordinary man may not have known very many more names than a Pueblo farmer, and they were scattered thinly over a range of several hundred miles.

The more distinct a place was, the more likely an Indian was to name it. A small lake set cleanly in the forest was a thing in itself, as individual as a person; so was a small island, or a single up-standing rock.

Also, the more useful a place was, the more it was frequented, and the more it needed a name. If a bay had a mud-flat with a fine oyster-bed and another without any, there was no need of wasting a name on the useless one.

On both counts, mountains generally went unnamed. They were huge and vague; they mingled one with another, and faded off into their own shoulders; no one was really sure just where a mountain began. Some high peaks served as landmarks, but most mountains in themselves were of little use. An Indian might have names for the game-haunted glades on the slope, and for the lakes and streams where he fished—but no name for the mountain itself. Most of the resonant Indian names of high peaks were placed there later by white men.

Rivers were closest of all to the life of primitive man. In a dry country they supplied the water of life itself. If a tribe knew the use of canoes, the rivers were the highways. To nomads wandering across country, rivers were barriers to be crossed. Everywhere they furnished food—clams, turtles, and frogs; catfish and perch; in their season the salmon and shad and alewives crowding up from the sea. Game trails led to the water, and the hunter lay in wait by the drinking place. First of all, any tribe named the rivers.

But a well-known river seldom had the same name throughout its course. Crossways, a river was cleanly set off, but lengthways it was like a mountain in having no limits. A tribe often had no idea where its rivers came from or went to. In thick forest country a primitive Indian knew the river only at the spots where trails touched or crossed it. Each of these spots was for him a place in itself, and the flowing of the water from one to another was of no importance. If later he learned to use canoes, he was then likely to name every reach and rapid and bend — a very practical procedure, since a single word then identified both the river and the place on the river.

Anything as large and vaguely marked off as a region or territory, most Indians did not name at all. The place where a certain tribe lived was known after that tribe, and if they shifted ground, the name shifted with them.

Names also were affected by the absence of any "Indian language." To say that a name is Indian is even less than to say that it is European, for among the tribes the languages differed much more than English from French, Dutch, or Russian. Because of this multiplicity of languages a large river or lake usually had several totally different names, which might or might not have the same meaning in translation. This was also true of tribal names.


When the white men arrived, the pattern of Indian naming had grown somewhat complex. Here and there, as with the pueblo-dwellers of the Southwest and the Iroquois of the Northeast, tribes had lived for many generations in the same country. With them, many names had become meaningless, or referred to some forgotten incident. Most tribes, however, were apparently newcomers in the regions where they lived. Their legends told of migrations; their names were simple and understandable. Many tribes shifted during historical times. Far from being universally very old, many Indian place-names are recent. Some make reference to pigs, cattle, gunpowder, drunkenness, or something else of which they were ignorant before the coming of the whites.

The Europeans constantly made mistakes about Indian names, in form, and in application. They thought in terms of kingdoms and provinces, and failed to realize that Indians thought in terms of tribes. They assumed that a river or a lake had the same name everywhere. They failed to conceive the vast differences between languages of near-by tribes. They were used to names like Cadiz and Bristol which had long since lost literal meaning, and so they were likely to use a name as a mere counter, applying that of a river to a bay, or that of a tribe to a lake.

Our heritage of Indian names is rich and treasured — twenty-six states, eighteen of the greatest cities, most of the larger lakes and longer rivers, a few of the highest mountains, and thousands of smaller towns and natural features. Other names are translations of the Indian words. But merely to tell what such names mean literally or may possibly have meant to some long-vanished tribe is to miss most of the flavor. The meaning of a name is more than the meaning of the words composing it.

Arizona and Connecticut, Seattle and Des Moines, Niagara and Potomac — all these are Indian, or once were. But the white man reshaped and reapplied them, adapting them to his own language and ways of thought, until sometimes the names became more European than Indian. The story of each name is different — sometimes simple enough, as with Chesapeake and Massachusetts; sometimes very strange, as with Oregon. Such stories can best be told in connection with their later history rather than their first origins.

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Names on the Land

by George R. Stewart

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