Surprise, Fair Play and Monotony: Naming new towns in the American West.
The westward expansion of the American frontier was a move unique in modern times for western civilization. Unlike developing coastal colonialism, the great movement to the American west was the settling of vast, sparsely populated lands. Perhaps the only similar example of mass movement into a wild land of native peoples was the Czarist / Soviet expansion into Siberia. However, that was planned or mandated – the American movement simply occurred as people sought a better life as their own masters, their own land and fulfilled the idea of manifest destiny.
As with most immigrant waves arriving on the shores of the new world, the westward tide was composed of those in search of land, freedom, control of destiny, a chance – sometimes a last chance. Mingled among the farming settlers were men of the cloth seeking a new flock to share the word of God, merchants and traders plying their profession, hustlers sensing new game, blacksmiths, carpenters, horse thieves and the virtually invisible men who would shape the future of everything for over a century – the railroad surveyors.
To these people arriving on the new frontiers fell a unique task – naming new towns that were just rising along streams and from the waving grass of the open prairie. Geography, ego, history, religion, pride of origin, hope, faith and bitter experience all influenced the rich diversity of the names found on the maps of the late nineteenth century. Many, but not all, survive to this day. Some are found only on highway signs and local maps, as if the local people feel that to consign a name completely to history might bode ill for their own town or hamlet.
To compare map of Kansas from the1880s with a contemporary version is to see the opposite of settlement – as if two of three towns in parts of the state never existed. They did – but perhaps their spring dried up, a fire burnt down the wooden buildings, the crops failed several years in a row – or the railroad passed them by. The competition to attract the railroad was intense. Towns that didn’t find a line through them generally faded . And for those that did get a branch, it didn’t always last or if it did they might have found that later, faster trains could pass their town by with the same result. Some counties in the 1880s boasted fifteen towns, in the 1980s two or four. Long gone on the plains of Kansas are the days when America City was just down the road from Ontario Station, or a day on the horse would take you from Flavius to Birds Nest.
The eternal optimism that drives people forward was certainly present among the founders of many towns – Pretty Prairie, Happy, Paradise. Success and Delight among them. Arriving in wagons and living in sod houses and tents, these souls selected names which created a place. A location can be anywhere, but once a name is given it becomes a place, a destination, a home. (However finding a new home did not always mean a hospitable climate on the rolling plains, those settling Liberal chose a site that has seen recorded temperatures as high as 114 / 46c and as low as -17 / -27c, while their future neighbors two hundred fifty miles northwest in St. Francis found their recorded high temperature a bit milder at 111 / 44c, but a bit chillier for the winter at -31 / -35c.)
The places of Kansas, as throughout the central and western US and Canada, found names drawn from the land itself, religious faith, patriotic fervor, whimsy, history, people and far away homes. In many cases, as settlers struggled to build a first home or break virgin soil to plant a crop the names chosen represented what one saw around them or what one hoped would come to be.
The land shapes people before people can shape the land. Descriptive and factual names lay across maps old and new. Towns such as Alta Vista, Pleasant Valley, Garden Plain, Goodland, Belle Plaine and Cottonwood Falls draw to mind pastoral scenes of undisturbed lands and bounty for the taking. The great bend of the Arkansas River gave rise to Great Bend, as did the waters of Blue Rapids, Grasshopper Falls, Elk River, Deep Hole and Silver Lake.
Function and fact are also great traditions among the first wave of settlers on the prairies and hills of the Midwest. The military outposts of Fort Scott, Fort Hays, Fort Leavenworth and Fort Dodge gave birth to towns sharing their names which have outlived all but the storied installations. How much more direct could Bazaar, Trading Post, Pillsbury Crossing, St. Jacob’s Well and Ben’s Place have been? These organic names arose and stayed on, however obscure they might be today.
Pride of country was not absent as town founders created new places for mapmakers to record. A still young country found it citizens out incorporating Independence, Soldier, Liberty, Americus, Bunker Hill, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Republic.
Pride of origin also motivated community leaders and grant holders to show who they weere and where they came from. Roaming through Kansas will allow you to visit Berlin, Chicago, Pilsen, Denmark, Cuba, Rome, Hanover, Holland, Zurich, Stuttgart and Bern.
Enthusiasm certainly played its part as well. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune is credited with the phrase “Go west young man!”, encouraging the vigorous younger generation to go seek their destiny on the frontier. Some took him at his word. Today, as in the late 19th century, you will find Greeley County and its towns of Horace and Tribune on the high plains, 1,000 meters above sea level where Kansas gently rises into the eastern plateau of Colorado.
The Native Americans too live on in maps of then and now. Topeka is believed to mean “a good place to grow potatos.” That it is. It sits on the Kansas River, which itself comes from the Kansa, or people of the south wind. Shawnee, Pottawatomie, Cheyenne, Waubunsee, Osage, Pawnee, Cherokee and others grace cities and counties and remind us that we are merely the newer tenant in the vast land.
My favorite names to contemplate are those of hope and optimism, faith in humanity. The act of naming a new spot on the rolling prairie Hope is a leap of faith in itself. Sweet Home. Delight. Success. Free Will. Good Will. Good Intent. El Dorado. Was it religion, optimism or just the hope that a name is destiny.?
What motivated the selection of names such as Loyal, Protection, Kismet, Friend and Fair Play? The values of the first arrivals? The creation of a talisman to attract like minded souls? Perhaps its was the desire to see a new home be a reflection of the purpose and promise of the new land and the new beginning all the inhabitants shared.
No shortage of whimsy or humor was evident in the newest Kansans. Settlements sprang onto the map with a wide variety of nonsensical names. Boonie Doon, Happy, Speed and Pop Corn and Bird’s Nest were there for the conquering if one where a light spirited soul. On the other hand, Troublesome, Monotony, Loco, Surprise and Rattlesnake were not picked by the local chamber of commerce or a real estate marking guru. Perhaps they names reflected reality – or maybe the good folks there first didn’t want to have too many neighbors.
Today we rarely give a thought to the how and why of a town’s name. It is fact. Think of your friends and neighbors. Imagine the neighborhood or town as open fields and what you would suggest as a name for your home to be. One I like says it best, lost in the fields today, Home.
Function & Fact
St. Jacob’s Well
History & Legend
Pride and Patriotism
Pride of origin
Hope and Optimism
Faith & Morals