Lecture 6:
Names on the Land: Place Names as Historical Evidence


  • The first paper assignment is due at the beginning of lecture next Monday, October 3.
  • You have one additional required reading for next section next week: William Cronon "A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative," Journal of American History 78:4 (March, 1992), p.1347-1376, downloadable here: http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/cronon_place_for_stories_1991.pdf

Suggestions for Further Reading:

George R. Stewart, Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (1945, 1958, 1967: still the best general introduction to this topic).

George R. Stewart, Names on the Globe (1975)

George R. Stewart, American Place-Names: A Concise and Selective Dictionary for the Cotinental United States of America (1970)

Robert G. Gard & L. G. Sorden, The Romance of Wisconsin Placenames (1968)

Edward Callary, Place Names of Wisconsin (to be published October 2016)

Frederick G. Cassidy, Dane County Place-Names (1947) (available online through UW Library)

William Bright, Native American Placenames of the United States (2004)

Virgil J. Vogel, Indian Names on Wisconsin's Map (1992)

Margaret Gelling, Place-Names in the Landscape (1984): classic study of the ways British place names reflect the landscape they label

Eilert Ekwall, A Concise Dictionary of English Place-names (4th ed., 1960): longstanding reference work on this subject, with helpful introductory essay

Victor Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (2004): the new standard reference work on this subject.

Fred McDonald & Julia Cresswell, The Guinness Book of British Place Names (1993): lively, fun, accessible overview of the subject, well organized for browsing (out of print)

C. M. Matthews, Place Names of the English-Speaking World (1972): accessible popular overview of English place-naming practices world-wide.

Charles Whynne-Hammond, English Place-Names Explained: Their Origins and Meaning (2005): brief, accessible introduction with wide-ranging explanations and examples of different categories of place names.

Mark Monmonier, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame (): explores the persistence of racist and sexist names in the American landscape, and efforts to try to expunge them

I. Getting started: Why study place names?

Today's lecture considers names on the landscape. Place names are among the most interesting and powerful documents we have for exploring changes to landscape over time.

Start with this 1890 topographical quadrangle map of Madison. Topographical maps like these (users of these maps often refer to them as "quadrangles" or "quads"), and especially the practice of trying to standardize the place names they record, owe a debt to Henry Gannett (1846-1914) of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Gannett contributed to material for this class in a number of ways: Gannett's were the maps that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner was looking at when, in 1893, he concluded that the U.S. western frontier had "closed." But for our purposes today, Gannett is important because he lobbied for the creation of a new U.S. Board on Geographic Names, established in 1890, to collect and standardize place names. http://geonames.usgs.gov. He also authored The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States (1902), which you can download here: https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/0258/report.pdf. It was the first major compilation of place names for the United States, and helped launch the serious study of this subject in the U.S..

You don't need to remember all of the following, but the lecture gave a list of Gannett's very significant contributions to American geography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Henry Gannett “Father of the Quadrangle Map” 1871-79: served as mapmaker for Ferdinand Hayden’s survey of Yellowstone and area 1879: among those lobbying for new U.S. Geological Society (USGS) 1880: served under Clarence King as geographer of 1880 Census, pioneered statistical maps 1882: began topographic quadrangle maps 1882-96: Chief Geographer of USGS 1888: helped found National Geographic Society 1890, 1900: served as chief geographer for Censuses of 1890 and 1900 (his statistical maps were basis for Turner’s 1893 frontier thesis) 1896: last year at USGS, introduced benchmark 1904: among founders of American Association of Geographers (AAG)

It's important to remember that when we try to trace the origins of any place name, there is lots of misinformation making claims that simply aren't true. Gannett's 1902 volume tells us that "Wisconsin" was "a Sauk Indian word having reference to holes in the banks of a stream," which is factually incorrect. This should remind you that origin stories about place-names are themselves a form of myth and folktale--perhaps inaccurate, but interesting in their own right because they record people's beliefs about place names even when those beliefs lack factual grounding. As scholars of place names, it is important to pay close attention to local folklore, storytelling, and "antiquarian" topics that you might otherwise dismiss.

If you're interested in a recent summary of what place name scholars now believe to be true about the origins of Wisconsin's name, see this web page on the Wisconsin Historical Society website:

Studying place names can reveal fascinating origin stories: take, for example, Frederick G. Cassidy's Dane County Place-Names (1947), which represents a far more rigorous effort to trace the histories of place names of the county in which Madison is located. He traces the origins of the name "Lake Mendota" to a suggestion from a Madison resident named Frank Hudson in 1849. What we now call Lake Mendota had been known to local residents as "Fourth Lake" since the 1820s, but the name "Lake Mendota" gained popularity both because its perceived beauty when spoken, and because it evoked associations with Native American legends—even if not local Native legends: even though people probably now imagine that the name of the lake was original to the native peoples who once lived here, Mendota in fact is a Dakota word (mdó-te) meaning "a confluence of rivers," which supplied name of the village of Mendota, Dakota County, in Minnesota...and Frank Hudson based his proposed name for Madison's largest lake on the name of that village. All of this suggests the need to be very careful about taking place names at face value (especially true of Native American place names in the United States, which were often recorded or proposed by English-speakers who didn't actually know the languages from which such names ultimately derived.)

Studying place names is not just an exercise in understanding how past people have thought about a place, but can also help us trace the historical collisions of language, cultures, and empires. For example, 200 to 300 different Native American languages underlie place names we use in the U.S. today. This makes place names complicated and challenging as historical document. (For standard references on U.S. and Wisconsin place names based on Indian languages, see the list of Suggested Readings agove.)

The formal study of place names is called "toponymy" and such names are themselves sometimes called "toponyms," but we'll stick with the informal "place names." This lecture owes a great debt to Dick Ringler, English and Scandanavian Studies professor at UW-Madison who taught a course on "The Anglo Saxons" and was Bill's most important teacher and mentor as a an undergraduate. (You can read Bill's homage to this wonderful teacher in the second half of Bill's presidential address for the American Historical Association: William Cronon “Storytelling,” AHA Presidential Address http://www.williamcronon.net/aha-writings.html.)

As Ringler argued, and as the next section of this lecture will model, we can learn a lot about past places and landscapes by studying English place names, which have been studied more rigorously and comprehensively than any other such names in the world. The tools for English place-name study (see the Suggested Readings above) are unquestionably the best in the world. So let's spend some time looking at the British Isles to get a sense of how powerful place names can be as historical documents. (Remember too that many English place-names were transferred from the British Isles to North America, so if you want to understand their original meanings, you need to look at their origins on the far side of the Atlantic.) Pay attention to the types of questions we ask and the different insights gained from studying place names. Thinking about how places in England got their names can give you tools for thinking about how places get named everywhere else in the world.

II. The History of the English Language and the Value of British Place Names as Historical Documents

The English language is itself a historical document of repeated invasion, colonization, displacement, conquest, and empire: the accretion of linguistic elements from different historical moments and the result of myriad collisions any hybridzations of different cultures.

Starting with the Neolithic Era, we can trace the following waves of invasion that shaped the English language:

  • Celtic Bronze Age Britain 2.5 millennia ago
  • Roman Britain from Julius Caesar's conquests in 55-54 B.C.E. until the 5th century C.E.. During this period, Latin became an important new language spoken in the British Isles and was spoken by elites, even as native Celtic languages persisted.
  • Anglo-Saxon invasions (starting 5th century) introduce Germanic languages to British Isles, so that Old English (Anglo-Saxon) becomes dominant language over next several centuries, supplying core grammar and vocabulary for modern English.
  • Viking invasions and settlements in eastern portion of England create area called the "Danelaw" (8th-10th centuries) where place names derive from Old Norse (root of modern Scandinavian languages, closest to modern Icelandic).
  • 1066: Norman Conquest brings Anglo-Saxon England under rule of Norman French (themselves descendants of Viking invaders in Normandy and Brittany). French would be spoken to rulers and elites of England for the next three centuries (1066-14th century), introducing many vocabulary terms from and eventually helping lead to the transformation of Old English to Middle English (the language in which Chaucer wrote). Majority of place names didn't change, but their pronunciations did.

The result of all these invasions is that the English language we speak today is a complex historical document of these many different cultural and linguistic traditions. For example, many of the 1-syllable words you use for animals you eat ("pig" or "cow") tend to be Anglo-Saxon; many of the 2-syllable words for how you cook typically derive from Norman French ("cuisine"). [Interesting details that you don't need to remember: Bill made a mistake in lecture when he chose "beef" as an example, since that word in fact derives from French bouef. His mistake is actually an interesting example of English/French word pairs in which the names for animals originated in Anglo-Saxon, whereas the names of the meats we prepare in the kitchen from those animals (meats eaten by French-speaking Norman lords) originated in French: cow/beef, swine/pork, pig/pork, sheep/mutton, and deer/venison all exemplify this pattern.]

So what can we learn by combining a knowledge of British history and the English language with a study of British place names?

Streets, forts, mining areas promulgated in the Roman-Celtic landscape. This is nicely exemplified by the town of Chester: -chester as a suffix (as in Leicester, Winchester, Dorchester, etc.) comes from the Latin castra, which means camp or fortification. Thus, by learning the history of place names we learn that the first cities in Britain were early Roman army forts that grew into larger towns.

In approximately the 4th century C.E., Angles in the north and Saxons in the south captured the eastern British Isles. By the 7th century C.E. of this Anglo-Saxon invasion, we see a number of kindoms and many place names in the eastern portion of the British Isles with Anglo-Saxon names (whereas in Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland Romano-Celtic names persist). By the 8th century, Viking invasions meant that the region in the east of the British Isles, "The Danelaw," began to accumulate Norse place names akin to names in Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. For instance, the suffix -by, -bie in English place names comes from Old Norse for yard, courtyard, farmhouse, tilled field; the suffix -thorpe comes from Old Norse an outlying farm settlement. Thus, by studying place names we can map the areas of Viking dominance and work out a geography of the cultural groups dominating different part of the British Isles.

Following the 1066 Norman Conquest, the takeover of Anglo-Saxon England by the Norman French meant that French became the language of the ruling elite. English remained a fundamentally Germanic language in its underlying syntax, during the next three centuries acquired many French words (while its syntax became much simpler compared with modern German). The Normans didn't rename many places; they merely changed the pronunciation of many place names.

In 1086, William the Conquerer called for the creation of Domesday Book, a tax roll that meticulously surveyed the taxable wealth, including landholdings and livestock, of England. For us today, it serves as an extraordinarily rich document of the 11th-century landscape: by studying the Domesday Book and the many place names it contains, we can work out the distribution and variety not just of settlements, but of landforms and vegetation types present in Britain almost a thousand years ago! The great English historical geographer H. C. Darby (1909-1992) spent much of his career exploring the ways Domesday Book could be used for this kind of analysis.

One strategy for using place names and the Domesday book is to burrow down from the national scale to the county scale: into specific counties and then to specific local place names. For example, do places that are wooded today have wooded names, or is this forest relatively recent? One of the stories that Domesday records is the long-term deforestation of England (along with the rest of Europe from Neolithic times forward) and the spread of livestock, cropland, and pasture. By comparing Domesday Book place names with the landscape today, we can glimpse how the lanscape has changed over the past millennium.

The Domesday Book, church registers, and other local archives are rich documents for studying place names in Britain. The English Place-Name Society, founded in 1923, has produced an extraordinary body of scholarship: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/research/groups/epns/ For those of us interested in landscape history, the work of Margaret Gelling, who published her classic Place-Names in the Landscape in 1984 and who served as President of the English Place-Name Society from 1986-1998, is especially valuable.

Here are some common place-name elements that often appear here in the United States. Notice that as people's forget and cease to understand the original languages in which particular place names were created, the original meanings of the names are lost and come to seem arbitrary. All of the place name elements below were originall meaningful when English place names were first created from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse roots in the 6th through 11th centuries, but few of us remember those meanings today.

Examples: -ay, y, ey: island beck: stream berg, berry: hill (cf. “iceberg”) bourne, bern: large brook or stream bury, borough, brough, burgh: fortified enclosure by, bie: settlement, village (Old Norse) caster, chester, cester, ceter: camp, fortification (from Latin castra) cot, cott: cottage, small building field: open land, forest clearing ford, forth: ford, river crossing foss, force: waterfall (Old Norse) ham: farm, homestead, settlement kirk: church (Old Norse) -lea, ley, leigh, leah: a forest clearing mere: lake, pool minster: large church or monastery -pool: harbor -port: port, harbor stan: stone, stony -stead: place, enclosed pasture streat, street: road (Roman) -thorp, thorpe: secondary settlement (ON) -thwaite: forest clearing with dwelling -tun, ton: enclosure, estate, homestead weald, wold: high woodland -wick, wich, wych, wyke: place, settlement -worth, worthy, wardine: enclosure

By mapping out the distribution of some of these elements, we can gain insight into the natural features, land-use practices, and settlement patterns that characterized the British Isles many centuries ago. For an excellent collection of place-name maps that illustrate this point, see Keith Briggs's website at http://keithbriggs.info/English_placename_element_distribution.html

III. U.S. place names:

In the U.S., resources for studying place names are nowhere near as sophisticated as in the British Isles, but that's partly because so many of our place names are so much more recent (with the exception of some Native American names, the study of which requires special care), and the languages from which they are drawn are very different as well.

The institutional keeper of U.S. place names is the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that Henry Gannett helped found in 1890. You can visit its website here: http://geonames.usgs.gov, which makes the Board's entire database of U.S. place names downloadable for people to study and map as they see fit.

For a somewhat more user-friendly way of accessing these data, try the database of U.S. Place and Geographic Names at https://www.melissadata.com/lookups/placenames.asp

For a sense of what can be done with these downloaded place names, check out this lovely map of generic terms for streams in the contiguous United States, developed by the graphic designer Derek Watkins: https://derekwatkins.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/generic-stream-terms/

Finally, for an accessible, easy-to-read (though now rather dated) introduction to U.S. place naming practices, the classic work continues to be George R. Stewart's Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (1945, 1958, 1967).

There are multiple cultural, colonial, and linguistic traditions that have informed U.S. place names. Because of extensive literacy and legal records that existed here in the US in a way that they have not always existed in Britain, we can construct the origins of many place names here in the U.S..

Place name study in Britain often focuses on the statistical distribution of place name elements whose origins can no longer be recovered; in the United States, on the other hand, place name study most frequently focuses on the first appearance of a name and the reason they original namer chose it--something that can be recovered with surprising frequency. Many states have dictionaries of place names that appear within their boundaries.

For an example of well-known place names whose first appearance can readily be documented, consider the 1673 journey of Pierre Marquette and Louis Joliet that was briefly described in the first lecture of the course. On their journey across Lake Michigan, up the Fox River, down the Wisconsin River, down the Mississippi as far as Arkansas, then back up to Lake Michigan via the Illinois River,, the explorers learned collected many place names from their Native American guides. Recall that in the course of their travels, they would have encountered a number of different linguistic traditions (although the Algonquin language family was dominant in the region through which they traveled at the start of their journey).

What are the names recorded by Marquette and Joliet that have been left on the map of North America today?

  • Wisconsin: Mescousing, Mesconsing, Ouisconsing (Note: they learned this as the name of the river, not of the state. The State of Wisconsin obviously did not exist yet at the time of Marquette and Joliet's explorations, and ultimately borrowed its name from the river.)
  • Peoria: Peouarea
  • Des Moines: Rivière des Moingouenas, abbreviated to Rivière des Moings
  • Missouri: Pekitanoui “muddy” river; Ouchage & Messouri living on river
  • Osage: Ouchage
  • Omaha: upstream people
  • Kansas: Kansa nation, pluralized
  • Iowa: Ouaouiatonon, abbreviated to Ouaouia
  • Wabash: Ouabache
  • Arkansas: Arkansa pluralized

The Mississippi River is an especially interesting case from this same journey. The river had been encountered by Europeans for a century and a half prior to Marquette & Joliet's journey

1519: Pineda was the first Spaniard to see the river from the gulf coast. He called it Espirtu Santo, “Holy Spirit.”

1541: De Soto encountered the river during his land journey west from Florida, but didn’t name it. His men called it "Río Grande," the Big River. When his scribes asked natives for its name, they were given several different alternatives: Chucagua, Tamalisieu, Nilco, Mico; at its mouth, it was called simply “The River.” Other local names included Okachitto, Olsimochitto, Namosi-sipu, Sassagoula, Culata.

1673: Marquette & Joliet approached the river from the north (via the Fox-Wisconsin route), so the first native peoples to describe it to them were Algonquin speakers. One branch of the river that ran along the edge of the lands occupied by the Ojibwas, Miamis, Outagamis, Illinois, who called it Kitchi-zibi, Mis-sipi, Misisipi: e.g., Ojibwa mshi- ”big” + -ziibi “river”

Because Marquette and Joliet learned the Ojibwe name for the river, they carried that name downstream with them. Because they were traveling downstream rather than upstream, they carried the Algonquin language name for the river and Mississippi became the river's name as a result. Also, because they were traveling south from Wisconsin, they experienced the Pekitanoui (Missouri) River when they encountered it near what is today St. Louis on their downstream journey, they experienced it as a tributary to the river they were on. Had travelers from the south been traveling upstream, they likely would have carried a southern name with them, and might well have chosen what is today called the Missouri River as the main branch. So not only the name "Mississippi River" but also the choice about its main stem were partly determined by the accident of Marquette and Joliet's route.

Other French travelers had attached still more names to the river: Buade, Conception, Colbert, Louisiane, St. Louis. But Mississippi eventually became stable name for whole river.

Pull back and think about language as an expression of conquest and colonization: imperial nations making territorial claims in North America included:

  • English: British colonies (predominantly Protestant) on the eastern seaboard and around Hudson Bay.
  • French: (predominantly Catholic) in the St. Lawrence valley and the Mississippi Valley.
  • Spanish: New Spain in Florida and the Southwest. In Catholic areas, place names associated with saints (often named on that saint's day on the Catholic calendar) became common, something that was rarer in Protestant English regions.

There's an interesting demonstration of these colonial/linguistic traditions reflected in the following map of the most common surnames in different states of the U.S., colored according to the languages from which those names derive:

One way to think about place names: English/French/Spanish colonists took place names from their homelands and reproduced them on the North American landscape. Certainly this was true of English colonists, who often named their settlements after the communities in England they had left behind--and such names could then be repeated in other parts of North America as people migrated again from those towns. A few of these are mapped in the following article:

Here are a few other examples of what you can by downloading place name data from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and mapping selected place name elements:

Angelic vs demonic place names:
Interestingly, the angelic names on these maps tend to be associated with settlements, whereas the devilish names tend to be associated with more remote, outlying areas.

Many states in the US have Native American names (26 states); their origins are summarized by Wikipedia here:

In English colonies, many places were named for English monarchs and aristocrats, as in the following examples:

  • Virginia (Elizabeth)
  • Jamestown (James I)
  • Delaware (Lord De la Warr, courtier of Elizabeth)
  • Carolina (Charles I)
  • Charlestown, then Charleston (Charles I)
  • New York (Duke of York, later James II)
  • Georgia (George II)
  • Maryland (Henrietta Mary, wife of Charles I)
  • Pennsylvania (William Penn)

After the American Revolution, this affection for the English monarchy unsurprisingly receded. In its place, heroes of the new republic began to appear in place names, for instance:

  • George Washington
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • James Madison
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

Interestingly, some of these names for prominent national figures themselves derived from place names originally situated in England. For instance, major western cities were named for:

  • James Denver (western soldier & administrator)
  • Samuel Houston (Texas revolution)
  • George Dallas (Vice President

But notice:

  • Denver's name came from a place in Norfolk: Dean faer, “crossing place of the Danes”
  • Houston's name came from a village west of Glasgow
  • Dallas's name came from a place in Morayshire in Scotland, “meadow by the wood”

Another favorite place name convention in the early republic were names expressing ideals for that place or its inhabitants:

  • Philadelphia (Penn’s choice from Greek words for brotherly love)
  • Freedom
  • Friendship
  • Fredonia
  • Unity, etc.

Literary borrowings were taken from almost any language that sounded euphonious:

  • Arcadia
  • Aurora
  • Flora
  • Panacea
  • Belvidere
  • Bijou
  • Monticello
  • Rosebud
  • Fairylawn

There was great enthusiasm for places ending in –ville (a French suffix, not much used in Britain, but not even used as much in France as in the United States):

  • Jeffersonville
  • Washingtonville
  • Higginsville
  • Beaverville
  • Knoxville
  • Nashville

-polis (from Greek for city) was also very popular for forming city names. One of the best known examples is Minneapolis: which originally derived from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s much-loved poem “Hiawatha." The name of the woman that Hiawatha loved in that poem was was Minnehaha (a name from the Dakota name for river, Mnisota, “clear or cloudy blue water”). So, in 1852, the local citizens of the new city at the Falls of St. Anthony on the Minnesota River proposed that their town be called Minnehahapolis, which was then shortened to Minneapolis.

Such stories are endless, scattered everywhere on the map of North America. Place names are rich historical documents. We hope this lecture has shown some of the questions we can ask about their origins and changing meanings.