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What’s Hiding in a Place?

By Daniel Hubbard | August 16, 2010

Though we think of hope as something for the future and memory as something of the past, they are entwined and entangled. Our dreams are imprinted by our past and our memories are shaped by our desires. Hope springs eternal, so the saying goes, and eternity is not only the future, it also includes the past. The names we give to our places reflect many things. Most importantly they reflect both hopes and memories—New Athens, New Albany, New Jerusalem, New Britain, New Bergen… Sometimes hope for the future, sometimes memories of places left behind, and sometimes both. As our ancestors moved from place to place, they brought those hopes and memories with them, and left behind names.

Sometimes our places exceed the original. Who today even thinks of York when New York is named? How many even know that there is another Boston for which Boston, Massachusetts is named? More often the names, if they do represent someone’s hopes, seem to have gone unfulfilled and in retrospect appear bizarrely unrealistic.

There are many possible origins of place names. They can come from earlier place names—sometimes with “New” (New London, Connecticut; New Rome, Ohio; New Glasgow, Ontario) and sometimes without (Stockholm, Wisconsin; Dublin, North Carolina; Paris, Tennessee). Some, like those just listed, seem rather obvious. Others can be more subtle. Hartford, Connecticut was named for Hertford in England. Some such small changes might seem obvious and yet be hiding the real origins. Frankfort, Kentucky was not named by German settlers pining away for Frankfurt. It simply means Frank’s Ford.

Places can be named for people. That can be in honor of someone who had little to do with the area. Think of all the places in the United States named Washington, Adams and Jefferson. More interestingly for the family historian, it can also be after a founder or early settler of the town (Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Hubbardton, Vermont). At least for one place, honor was implied but not really given. Bismarck, North Dakota, was named for someone in an apparently shameless ploy to attract outside investment. In this case, naming the town for Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was designed to attract investment from Germany. As far as I know, it didn’t. (Don’t blame the townsfolk for the scheme though. It was a railroad company that named it).

There are places named for events. Marengo County, Alabama was named in honor of Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo. You might be tempted to think that a place in Alabama named for a battle between France and Austria, that took place in Italy would not have much to say to a family historian. If it turned out that you descend  from some of the French exiles who left after Waterloo and became the area’s first white settlers, it might seem more intriguing.

A place name can originate with earlier inhabitants. Sometimes it seems that all the European place names to be found in North America sit like a thin patina on an enormous number of older names, though often only misunderstood versions of them. Whole provinces and states have names that make no sense in European languages. We take those names for granted but to people from other places, they seem as alien as Greek does to me.

In any language, a place name may describe what the place was like when it was named. Sometimes the name still rings true (Death Valley would still seem to be an apt description). Other times the name says something specifically about the past. The garbled name of native origin, “Peoria,” may once have aptly described that part of Illinois as a “Prairie of fires” but it can’t be said to be true any longer.

All place names tell a story but it is the stories of memories of other places that are probably the most valuable to the family historian, because they give us an arrow pointing back to a place that may be a part of our origins. The arrow may not point correctly. Pittsfield, Massachusetts was the first of many American towns by that name. Some Pittsfields, like the one in Illinois, are named for that place. At least one, Pittsfield, New Hampshire was named for the same man, Prime Minister William Pitt, as the Pittsfield in Massachusetts. At least Pittsfield, Maine has a name that has a different origin all together. One of my ancestors, who came from the original Pittsfield, later turned up in Pittsfield, Wisconsin. Coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not. Had I first found him in Pittsfield, Wisconsin, perhaps I would have thought to look back to an older place named Pittsfield.

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Topics: Forgotten History, Genealogy, History, Methods | No Comments »

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