Image Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Naming America

All roads lead to Rome, Wisconsin.


The summer I turned 13, my family took me to visit my cousins in Shorewood, Wisconsin, my mother’s childhood home. My cousin Kate and I spent endless days riding our bikes around town, scavenging for the unwanted things people left in their front yards, browsing the aisles of the local drugstore; and on a few exciting occasions we even ventured to the Bayshore mall. I had saved money for the trip and for months had been looking forward to buying American clothes and candy. I obsessively collected all the free pamphlets offered in and outside every store and business, even though I had no idea what they were about. I think that to my eyes they somehow represented the vastness and wealth of America. Years later, I would throw away a whole shoebox full of pamphlets and the candy I had saved as a memento of that summer.

As part of my Grand American Tour, I went with Kate to summer camp in Plymouth, WI. On the first day, we were sent to a tent in the woods, where I sat with a dozen other girls my age. We were told to introduce ourselves and say where we were from. Shorewood, Wisconsin; Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Friendship, Wisconsin, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and so on. My turn came and I shyly said I was from Rome. One of the girls asked if I was from Rome, Wisconsin. I nearly fell off my log.

I did not want to be precious. Far from it. I felt like an alien, and having moved often during my childhood, I feared being an alien. I had hoped to find home in Wisconsin, my mother’s home. But when I told the other girls that, no, I was from Rome, Italy, my fate as a foreign outcast was sealed. The fact that I was completely inept at every summer camp sport did not help. Nor did the fact that I was always hungry. Dinner at Camp Anokijig was served at 5 pm, after a full day of physical activity—that is snack time in Italy, what we call merenda. When my mother phoned to ask me if I would like to stay another week in Plymouth, I said no, thank you, I’m hungry and I hate sports.

Fifteen years later, the emotions of that trip are still very much with me. Another side effect of it was an enduring fascination with American place names. What kinds of pamphlets would I have found in Rome, Adams County, Wisconsin, or in Rome, Jefferson County, Wisconsin? There are others, fictional ones: Rome, Wisconsin, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and Rome, Wisconsin, in the TV show Picket Fences.

Even though I have never been, Wisconsin’s Romes perhaps look a bit like Shorewood: tree-lined streets, a drugstore, a hardware store, a bus stop for those that can’t drive to the mall. But the names of those places spark my imagination.

It is through names that we are reminded of the different peoples and nationalities that named America as they moved westward—explorers and adventurers, colonists and settlers.

A few years ago, I came across a little-known book called Names on the Land, unofficially known as the American place-name Bible. Its author, George Rippey Stewart, knew that these names tell the story of how the United States of America came to be. The epigraph of his 1944 book quotes Francis Bacon:

“Name, though it seem but a superficial and outward matter, yet it carrieth much impression and enchantment.”

Stewart was drawn to the “little names, known only to those who lived nearby, of ponds and swamps and creeks and hills, of townships and villages, of streets and ranches” rather than those of “states and cities, mountains and rivers.” Today, in the era of Google maps, these little names are far more accessible, but two hundred years ago, “the land stretched away without names.” Stewart points out that in “older countries the story of naming was lost in ancient darkness,” whereas in the US these roots are far more easily uncovered.

We know that early nomadic groups navigated the land through landmarks. Some of these landmarks, like mountains, meadows, rivers, or crevices, were natural, while others, like mennirs, were man-made. Stewart calls these formations sign-posts, because they were “permanent and easily recognized.” Names like Red River or Cedar Mountain are examples of this kind of place-naming.

As people settled and became familiar with a region, so called sign-post names were often replaced with names originating from collective memories.

“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 lived on.”

It is through names that we are reminded of the different peoples and nationalities that named America as they moved westward—explorers and adventurers, colonists and settlers, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Swedish.

The English, who stayed the longest, contributed the most names.

Sometimes they adopted and adapted the place-names used by Native Americans. These were often very long and because there was little reading and writing going on, they changed drastically over time. A little bay in Virginia was originally called Powhatan. Subsequent spelling transformed it into Poetan, then Portan, Purtin and finally Putin. As we know, they also baptized places with the names they brought from Europe. Generally, in Florida and California, Spaniards chose the place-names, often misspelling Native American names and drawing inspiration from the geography, or naming conquered lands after Spanish locations, people, or Christian landmarks. A group of Spanish conquerors gave Texas its name. In the 1680s a Native American group from the east came to El Paso to ask for help in fighting a war. The Spanish knew of this group through trade and word of mouth and called them Teyas, from the “great Kingdom of Texas.” In 1689 they visited the region and were greeted with the word “Techas!” They soon found out that it meant ‘Friends.’ But it was too late — Texas stuck. During the Spanish exploration of Texas, on May 13, 1691, a river was reached and baptized San Antonio. It was the day of Saint Anthony of Padua. A mission was established here and eventually a city was born.

The French also liked Christian names. In 1535, Jacques Cartier, an early French explorer was caught in a storm along a dangerous coast. He found safety in a bay of islands on the feast day of St. Lawrence and baptized it after him. Eventually the entire river that fed into the bay came to be called St. Lawrence.

The English, who settled the longest, contributed the most names. They established the Massachusetts General Court, which on its second meeting on 7 September 1630 began to discuss a policy for place-names. Several lands were named, not after saints, but after random people, as well as lords and kings (of England). Turkey Isle was given its name due to a large presence of turkeys in the region. To get an idea of this process, it is helpful to read excerpts of the discussions that occurred throughout the new world verbatim:

“There is a way of naming which seeks to give pleasant names so that more men will come, and there shall be more wealth in trade.”

“A huckster’s way! The Lord’s own shall not attract the ungodly seeking riches. But rather let us, like those men of Salem, plant here a New Canaan, and call our chief city Jerusalem, and our other towns, it might be—Sharon and Shiloh.”

“Nay, many think Salem is presumptuous. And surely, the New Jerusalem is not of this world!”

Over the centuries place-naming trends overlapped into the intricate fabric we see on Google maps today.

Indeed. Not of this world. Although a few people in Ohio might beg to differ. All of the opinions stated above triumphed in some way or another. Also, the Court of Massachusetts concluded that the names of England would be transplanted to New England. “It is ordered, that Trimountain shall be called Boston; Mattapan, Dorchester; and the town upon the Charles River, Waterton.”

Over the centuries place-naming trends overlapped into the intricate fabric we see on Google maps today. Stewart’s chapter titles work as a chronological summary of this process: ‘Of Ancient glory renewed,’ ‘America discovers Columbus,’ ‘Yankee flavor,’ ‘How congress took over,’ are just a few. He also identifies some important categories, sometimes mapping them across the nation: descriptive namings, creek, brook, run and stream; counties with saint’s names; states with counties named for Washington, distribution of coulee (creek) in place-names, Winchester, -ville, -burg.

Place-naming slowed down significantly with the advent of the twentieth century. But some places changed their names. Hot Springs, New Mexico, became tired of its awfully common name, and in the 1950s the town decided to name itself after a radio program called Truth or Consequences. The name was too long and official road signs now call it Truth or C.

Stewart does not offer a history of Rome, WI, though perhaps it was one of the towns he mentions that chose their names in grand meetings, with the hope of  attracting newcomers. This is the story of Troy, New York, known as Vanderheyden’s Ferry until 1789, a town along the Hudson River. Thirty other places were subsequently named Troy. Seneca Lake also spread, as did Constantinople, Athens, and Rome. Conquering the new world required more than a little bit of hubris and wishful thinking. This ensured that the new empire would be a highly referential enterprise, and that, in Wisconsin, all roads would lead to one Rome or another.


The main source for this article has been George R. Stewart, The Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States with an introduction by Matt Weiland. All quotes are drawn from the book.