Curious histories lie behind names of American states, cities

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UNEXPECTED: The Colorado River, near Page, Ariz., also runs through Idaho, and almost leant its name to that state.
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Nevada was named after the Sierra Nevadas - but most of that snow-covered mountain range lies in California, including the mountains.

Bug Tussle, Ala., Igo, Calif., and Peculiar, Mo. We have given our towns and states some unusual names.

This has been happening for hundreds of years. For example, when explorer Ponce de Leon came searching for the fountain of youth in 1513, he landed in what is now Florida. When he and his men first spotted land on April 2, they searched for an appropriate name. The ship’s chaplain reminded de Leon that it was the Pascua Florida – or the Feast of Flowers. The name ‘Florida’ stuck, and it is the oldest place name of European origin still in use in our country today.

When Columbus came to America, he thought he had reached the portion of Asia known as the Indies. Until his death in 1506, he insisted that was where he had been. John Cabot, another early explorer, sailed into what is now the Canadian province of Newfoundland in 1497, and he reported to his sponsors that he had reached China.

In 1501, explorer Amerigo Vespucci called America a ‘new world,’ and Martin Waldseemuller, one of his admirers, published a map in 1507 calling the continent ‘America’ (the feminine form of ‘Amerigo’). The name was by no means settled, though.

In 1776, our country was referred to in the Declaration of Independence as the ‘United States of America.’ However, there were many who thought that name was too long and cumbersome.

Two contenders for the name of our country were ‘Columbia’ (the popular favorite) and ‘Fredonia,’ which was the Latin word for freedom. Washington Irving, one of the best-known writers of the time, suggested ‘Appalachia’ or ‘Allegania.’ None of these names took hold, however, and by 1800 the use of ‘United States of America’ was established.

Naming the states

When it came time to name the states, many received names of American Indian origin. These included Massachusetts, Connecticut (which means ‘upon the long river’), Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North and South Dakota, and Utah.

When William Penn received a land grant in 1681, he wanted to call his land ‘New Wales,’ but Parliament rejected this name. Finally, he chose ‘Sylvania,’ which is the Latin word for ‘forest.’ King Charles II, a great admirer of Penn’s father, Adm. William Penn, tacked ‘Penn’ on the front.

When Congress was looking for a name for the state of Idaho, some of the names under consideration were ‘San Juan,’ ‘Arapahoe,’ ‘Colorado’ and ‘Yampa.’ In 1861, ‘Idaho’ was chosen. ‘Colorado’ was one of the choices because the Colorado River runs through the state.

Another western state was named for its mountains. In 1858, Congress carved Nevada out of Utah and voted to give it half of the place name ‘Sierra Nevada.’ Most of that mountain range is located in California, though.

Alaska, an Aleutian name for ‘mainland,’ was first called ‘Seward’s icebox’ after Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who was part of President Andrew Johnson’s administration). Seward made its purchase possible. People also wanted to call it ‘Icebergia’ or ‘Walrussia.’ Seward chose its final name.

Wacky towns

There are some curious stories about town names. A town official in Canton, Mass., wanted his town named ‘Canton’ because he believed that if you dug a hole through the earth from the town, you would end up in Canton, China. He thought places at either end of the Earth should share the same name.

Immediately following the American Revolution, General Lafayette, the French hero, was so popular that scores of towns across the country wanted to be called Lafayette. Finally, postal authorities objected to so many Lafayettes – and insisted they choose other names. So, look on a map, and you’ll find Lafayette Hill, Lafayette Springs and even LaGrange – named after his estates in France.

The citizens of Ink, Ark., wanted a post office for their town so they wouldn’t have to travel to get their mail. They wrote the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. The only problem was that their town did not have a name yet. The Postmaster wrote them back and told them to choose a name. He suggested a petition. The petition said, ‘Please write in ink.’ And that’s what everyone did, and that is how Ink, Ark., got its peculiar name.