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Names on the Land

My bring-along book for this trip has been the majestic Names on the Land, by George R. Stewart. I won’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this man, but there have been several aspects of our world that he was directly or indirectly responsible for.

In 1941, he wrote a novel more or less from the point of view of a massive storm quite similar to the historic storm of a few weeks ago, sweeping in from the Pacific and raging across North America. In this novel, called Storm, a meteorologist is tracking the storm and in a moment of whimsy begins to refer to it as Maria (pronounced Mahr-ya). Soon after the book was published, the Weather Service introduced the convention of naming hurricanes not by the longitude & latitude at which they were first observed, but by a woman’s name.

Stewart was a native Californian and wrote many books of history in which the vast, the geologic, the global, is examined by focussing in on one small facet of the world. He wrote a study of US Hwy 40; of the final skirmish of the battle of Gettysburg; and many studies of various aspects of the westward migrations to Oregon and California throughout the 19th century. He also the definitive book on the Donner party’s plight, called Ordeal By Hunger.

His main concentration, however, was on names, both place names and given names.

Names on the Land has long been among my very short list of favorite books, and it has been of special interest this fall as we drove around the Hudson river valley in September, and now on this long drive into the West.

We watched, for example, as towns ending in -ville blossomed then gave away to -burg and -burgh as we drove through eastern Pennsylvania. The German settlers after the Revolutionary War were simply mad for -ville, and tacked it onto practically every town they settled in the last decades of the 18th century. Indeed, the new country was nuts for all things French, since they had played such a critical role in supporting the Colonies.

Another name that got tacked onto seemingly every county and town during those decades was that of General Washington. So, a town with a name that might otherwise sound a bit clunky and unimaginative, such as “Washingtonville,” very clearly reminds us of a time when our new country was bananas for our French allies, and swept up in a giddy adulation for a national hero the likes of which has hardly been matched since.

We also marvelled to read that a single summer’s expedition of several Frenchmen looking to discover the mythic river Missipi gave us the following names: Wisconsin, Peoria, Des Moines, Missouri, Osage, Omaha, Kansas, Iowa, Wabash, and Arkansas. No other expedition has had such a high success rate. Lewis & Clark, for instance, named everything in sight, of course, but the lag between their journey and the later migrations allowed nearly every one of their names to have faded. On the other hand, De Soto had travelled far more extensively than practically any other explorer of any age, but he apparently didn’t bother to name so much as a single creek or sandbar (or the Mississippi, although he was certainly the first European to see it and attest to its existence).

Those Frenchmen themselves left their own names (or others paid them the honor) all over my home region: Jolliet, Hennepin, Marquette. And another explorer, de la Salle, named the entire Mississippi watershed to honor the Sun-King with a single line in a letter home: Louisiane.

The French expedition indeed discovered the river, and sailed down from roughy what is now Stillwater to somewhere south of St Louis, but they failed to nail down a definitive name. In fact, it consistently bore three names among the seven explorers: the illiterate boatmen persisted in referring to it in the Indian style; Marquette called it “Conception” for the Immaculate Conception; and Jolliet called it “Buade” after one of his patrons back home in France. How “Mississippi” stuck and prevailed over not just the other two (admittedly shitty) candidates, but over the literally dozens of other names it bore, is a tale for another time.

Tonight, we are in Boise, Idaho. The name “Idaho” was almost the name for an earlier state. Other candidates for that territory were Yampa, Nemara, San Juan, Lula, Arapahoe, Weapollao, Tahosa; the “non-barbarian” candidates were Lafayette, Columbus, Franklin. The finalists, however, were Idahoe [sic] and Colorado. The latter won. But “Idaho,” without the final e, became a pet project of a California senator named Gwin, who thought it was an awful pretty name. He started shilling for it as the next few territories lined up for statehood and rechristening, including the Arizona territory, and it finally stuck on the western portion of the Montana territory. In reading the congressional record as the senators bickered about the relative merits of “Idaho” and “Montana” as names, you are reminded that the one thing Congress has consistently excelled at is whipping itself up into a furious and laughably righteous lather.

It is curious, too, that it took so long to name a state after Washington, given how consistently ape-shit Americans of all political persuasions have been for him over the years. That story, too, is for another time.

To dinner, and thence bed.