Monday, June 15, 2009


American political geography is endlessly fascinating to me, as much for what it teaches us about the history of the continent as for what it does not.

Of the fifty states, for example, the majority, twenty-seven, take their names (a) from those of the First Nations peoples they supplanted; (b) from terms borrowed from certain of their languages; (c) concepts approximately formed out of either one, or (d) topographical features similarly concocted much earlier by non-English speaking European pioneers and explorers.

The peoples are represented by Alabama (the Muskogean); Arkansas and Kansas (the Kansas, closely related to the Sioux); Iowa (the Ioway); Massachusetts (the Massachusett), and Utah (Ute, broadly meaning people of the mountains).

The indigenous words are Alaska (Aleut, meaning the object toward which the action of the sea is directed, i.e. coast); Arizona (obscure, possibly O’odham for small spring); Kentucky (Iroquoi, meaning prairie); Connecticut (Mohegan, meaning place of long tidal river); the Dakotas, North and South (the name of the language spoken by the Santee-Sioux peoples); Hawaii (Hawai’ian, meaning homeland); Illinois (from Algonquin via French, meaning he or she speaks normally); Michigan (Ojibwe, meaning large water); Minnesota (Dakota, meaning sky-tinted water); Nebraska (Otoe or Omaha, meaning flat water); Ohio (Seneca, meaning large creek); Oklahoma (Choctaw, meaning land of the red people), and Texas (Caddoan language of the Hasinai, meaning friends).

The broad concept is Indiana (actually derived from the unabashedly commercial eighteenth-century Indiana Land Company), while the topographical features are Mississippi (River); Missouri (River); New Mexico (obviously); Tennessee (River); Wisconsin (River), and Wyoming (Valley, which was named after actually an altogether different spot in northeastern Pennsylvania).

Eight states derive their names from other geographical features or turns of phrase which were, in turn, applied much earlier by the French or Spanish or Dutch, namely California; Colorado (River); Florida (an abbreviation of Pascua Florida, meaning flowery Easter, i.e. that of 1513); Montana (from the Spanish, meaning mountain); Nevada (from the Sierra Nevada meaning snow-covered); Oregon (obscure, possibly Spanish for big ear, the term they applied indiscriminately to native peoples in the region, or else from the French-Canadian fur-trapping patois for storm or hurricane); Rhode Island (possibly from the Dutch Roodt Eylandt, meaning red island—even though it is quite clearly not an island) and Vermont (Acadian French, evidently meaning green mountains in general). 

Of these, California first appeared in an early sixteenth-century Spanish romance novel as a purely mythical land, apparently inhabited by Amazon-like women, and ruled over by an imaginary black Queen Califia.

No fewer than six states are named after Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian sovereigns, namely the Carolinas, North and South (King Charles I); Georgia (King George II); New York (Duke of York, later King James II); Virginia and faute de mieux West Virginia (Queen Elizabeth).

Three states regurgitate the names for Anglo-French places, namely New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Maine (probably the old county of Maine, bordering Anjou and Normandy), none of which they even vaguely resemble.

The name of Idaho was spuriously ascribed to the Shoshone language, meaning, it was claimed, the sun comes from the mountains. Maryland, meanwhile, commemorates the Virgin Mother of God. Louisiana was named in honor of King Louis XIV. Delaware still bears the name of Thomas West, third Baron De La Warr, sometime British colonial Governor of Virginia; Pennsylvania commemorates the grant of land by King Charles II to William Penn in settlement of enormous debts owed by the crown to his father Admiral Sir William Penn, while only one state, as distinct from the federal capital, commemorates a President of the United States, viz. the first, George Washington.

The state capitals observe quite different patterns of distribution. 

Sixteen of these are named after a mixed bag of persons, namely Augusta, Maine (Pamela Augusta Dearborn, daughter of Henry Dearborn, Secretary for War under President Thomas Jefferson); Austin, Tex. (Stephen F. Austin, pioneer settler); Bismarck, N.D. (Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the united German Empire); Carson City, Nev. (Christopher “Kit” Carson, scout); Charleston, W.Va. (possibly Charles Clendenin, father of Colonel George Clendenin, settler); Columbia, S.C., and Columbus, Ohio (together with the District of Columbia, all named after Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the New World); Denver, Colo. (James W. Denver, Governor of the Kansas Territory); Frankfort, Ky. (Stephen Frank, pioneer and victim of an early Indian raid); Harriburg, Pa. (John Harris, Sr., trader); Juneau, Alaska (Joe Juneau, gold prospector); Montgomery, Ala. (General Richard Montgomery, a hero of the Revolutionary War); Nashville, Tenn. (formerly Fort Nashborough, after Francis Nash, another hero of the Revolutionary War); Pierre, S.D. (Pierre Chouteau, fur trader); Raleigh, N.C. (Sir Walter Raleigh, seafarer, explorer, courtier, Member of Parliament, Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and Governor of the Island of Jersey); Trenton, N.J. (William Trent, landowner).

Five are recycled English or French place names: Boston, Mass. (Lincolnshire); Dover, Del. (Kent); Hartford, Conn. (Hertfordshire); Montpelier, Vt. (Montpellier, the Mediterranean port in the region of Languedoc), and Richmond, Va. (Surrey, now forming part of Greater London).

Another five are abstract concepts: Sacramento, Calif.; Atlanta, Ga. (actually a contraction of Altantica-Pacifica, a clunky name coined by the chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad); Concord, N.H.; Santa Fe, N.M., and Providence, R.I.

Thus far four state capitals commemorate Presidents of the United States, namely Jackson, Miss. (Andrew Jackson, seventh President); Jefferson City, Mo. (Thomas Jefferson, third President); Lincoln, Neb. (Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President), and Madison, Wis. (James Madison, fourth President), while only two are named after Stuart sovereigns, viz. Annapolis, Md. (Queen Anne, hurriedly upgraded post hoc from Anne, Lady Baltimore) and Albany, N.Y. (Duke of York and Albany, later King James II).

Another four are derived from First Nations names or terminology: Tallahassee, Fla. (Muskogean, meaning old fields or old town); Honolulu, Hawaii (meaning sheltered harbor); Topeka, Kans. (Kansa, Ioway, meaning to dig good potatoes); Cheyenne, Wyo. (the Cheyenne people).

A further four preserve the memory of topographical features, two of them big (Salt Lake City, Utah, and Olympia, Wash., after the Olympic Mountains nearby), and two very small, viz. Baton Rouge, La., (a signpost) and Little Rock, Ark., (a stone marker).

Three co-opted the names of other places in North America: Helena, Mont. (after Helena, Arkansas, which in turn was named after St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great); Lansing, Mich. (after Lansing, New York, which in turn was named after John Ten Eyck Lansing, Jr., sometime Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court), and Salem, Ore. (after Salem, Massachusetts, which in turn was derived from the O.T. Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace).

Two are French in derivation, i.e. Boise, Idaho (after the eponymous river, originally referred to by Canadian fur-trappers as the rivière boisée, or wooded river), and Des Moines, Iowa (another river, originally referred to by Canadian fur-trappers as the rivière des moines, or river of monks).

One capital stands in for an apostle (St. Paul, Minn.), and another for a mythical bird (Phoenix, Ariz.). Springfield, Ill., was highly optimistic, especially in the winter months, while, as far as I can see, Indianapolis, Ind., and Oklahoma City, Okla., exhibited a breathtaking lack of imagination.

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