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The Origin of American Place Names.

The Author of this hub is well read in history, having studied history at University in England. He has been on HubPages for many years.

The Humble Origins of American Settlements.

The United States of America is often described as a cultural melting pot. Throughout its history, it has assimilated many ideas and made them its own. America is blessed by the many flavours that make it what it is and although its history has seen much upheaval, it has maintained its core belief in the American way.

No matter where you are born, you can become an American and even those with a proud heritage from thousands of miles away, can soon find a place in their heart devoted to their adopted country.

The United States of America is built on the lives of those who came to the country and their influence can be seen in the place names of their thriving cities.

Ellis Island, the Gateway into the United States

Ellis Island Operated as an Immigration Centre until the 1950's.

Ellis Island Operated as an Immigration Centre until the 1950's.

The Many Influences That Contribute to the Name.

Much of the initial settlement of the America's was by Europeans. The native peoples of the continent were already well settled a few thousand years by the time of the European colonists arriving. The native Americans obviously had descriptive names for many of the areas that were eventually settled but these names fell out of fashion as the new colonists stamped their own essence on the lands they hoped to prosper on.

Many of the original settlements drew their names from the French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and English languages. These initial settlements often sought to flatter nobility and royalty in their names.

The area of Louisiana was named to honour the French king at the time and Virginia was named to stake a claim for the British under Queen Elizabeth the First. The waves of immigration after the European empires had been dismissed brought German, the Swedes, Italians, Polish and Eastern European influences into the names of settlements. These new towns and small settlements still honoured their original homelands but these naming conventions were not designed to stake a claim for the old world.

Cities With a Colonial Past.

New York City, New York State.

The city that never sleeps was initially settled by the Dutch and they chose to call it 'New Amsterdam'. The embryonic Big Apple was eventually given over to the British as the settlement was given up by the Dutch after a number of skirmishes and battles. The Treaty of Westminster settled the issue and the British were given control of the settlements. The British renamed the city in honour of the Duke of York and the name has remained New York ever since. The names of the boroughs such as Brooklyn and Harlem, echo their original Dutch names.

There were several Native American tribes that called the area around New York their home and many of their words have been appropriated into current place names within both the city and state of New York.

Commack, Mahopac, Manhattan, Owego and Ticonderoga are all settlements that owe their names to the original American peoples.

San Francisco, California.

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The Spanish settlers in this area chose to honour St. Francis of Assisi in 1776. San is Spanish for Saint and Francisco is the Spanish name for Francis. Much of California is influenced by the Spanish settlement of the surrounding area and its closeness to the former Spanish Imperial possession of Mexico.

San Diego, Alameda and San Lorenzo have a similar origin to San Francisco.

Wilmington, Delaware.

The site of Wilmington was originally where the Swedish colonists first settled land in the new world. The Swedish colony was soon taken over by the Dutch, who ended the Swedish encroachment into North America. The Dutch gave over much of their mainland possessions to the British as they spread their influence through the thirteen colonies. Wilmington got its name in honour of the Earl of Wilmington once the city received a royal charter. Previous to changing its name to Wilmington, it was also known as Willington after the British developer of this new land.

San Francisco

Upon the Pacific Coast rests San Francisco.

Upon the Pacific Coast rests San Francisco.

Former French Possessions

Mobile, Alabama. A city that used its strategic location to grow and grow.

Mobile, Alabama. A city that used its strategic location to grow and grow.

French Colonial Settlements.

New Orleans, Louisiana.

In 1718, this piece of land was claimed by France to honour the Regent of the kingdom of France. Philippe the Second was known as the Duke of Orleans and the name has been in use for over two hundred years. The whole of the state has names originating from the Spanish, French and British empires.

Mobile, Alabama.

Mobile is both the name of the city and the river that it rests alongside. The French settled this area and co-operated with the Native Americans to grow a settlement that thrived. The name is said to derive from those native peoples that assisted the first European settlers in Alabama.

Baton Rogue, Louisiana.

The state capital of Louisiana gets it name from the French language. Baton Rogue translates into English as 'Red Stick'. The red stick was a native boundary pole to highlight the boundary between two native tribes. The name stuck and over the years the city of the red stick has grown into a city of nearly a quarter of a million people.

The Railroads Opened up America

The transportation network encouraged the growth of new settlements.

The transportation network encouraged the growth of new settlements.

Examples of Non-Colonial American Place Names.

The Native American and Colonial authorities had a large hand in the naming of the American settlements. But there were other influences that often escape the attention of the majority of people. Sometimes new settlements were named just to get people to move there or as a favour to friends in high places.

Here are a few examples of that courtesy still alive and well hundreds of years after their gesture.

  • Bismark, North Dakota. - This settlement and state capital got its name in order to encourage German people to settle the area. The railway company honoured the German chancellor Otto von Bismark in 1872.
  • Honolulu, Hawaii.- The former city was known as Kou. But Honolulu in the native Islander tongue describes its location as a sheltered port or harbour.
  • Phoenix, Arizona.- Phoenix owes its name to the desire of a Civil War veteran to see a community thrive like a 'phoenix' from the ashes. A lesser held theory is that it owes its name to the ancient Phoenician civilization of a few thousand years ago. Inhabitants of Phoenix as called Phoenicians as a collective term.
  • Orlando, Florida.- The site of one of the most entertaining cities in America owes much of its development to the United States Military. The area saw much action in actions against the native tribes and there was a lot of military activity. Once the military had left, the settlements which began to grow needed a name. Orlando was settled on, as a local historical landmark was 'Orlando's Grave'. Orlando was believed to have been killed and buried in the local area, but many do not believe he is the reason for the cities name. Some believe that a prominent city leader used this story in order to use a Shakespearean character as the city name.
  • Corvallis, Oregon.- This city was originally known as Marysville but a name change due to another Marysville in California along the same transit route necessitated a name change. Corvallis was chosen as the new name in 1853 as the name translated from Latin meant 'Heart of the Valley'.
  • Dayton, Ohio.- This city gained its name from a local landowner and a former war hero who signed the American Constitution. Captain Jonathon Dayton would give his name to the sixth largest city in Ohio.

The Home of Disneyland

Orlando, Florida. A city with plenty to offer everyone who visits here.

Orlando, Florida. A city with plenty to offer everyone who visits here.

The Main City of Hawaii

The safe and calm harbour of Honolulu

The safe and calm harbour of Honolulu

Other Naming Conventions of the USA

There are many other settlements throughout the United States of America not covered by the conventions above. Many of the American settlements follow British naming conventions and they are often given the prefix of 'New'

Examples of this are....

New Brunswick, New Jersey.

New Berlin, Wisconsin.

New Madrid, Missouri.

Other popular prefixes often seen in the United States are..

Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

This usually points to the military past of the settlement. Often it relates to the actions and history of the United States Military.

A Related Article.

  • The Origins of English Place Names
    Have you ever wondered why some English place names have a strange sounding name? This article will answer why these names have come into use and why they have remained intact into the modern age.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Andrew Stewart


Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 03, 2019:

Very interesting and well done. I still wonder about many.

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