Three American Moscows

I noticed an interesting aside on a Wikipedia entry for Moscow, Idaho while I examined background information about the University of Idaho for the recent What State U article:

It was reported by early settlers that five men in the area met to choose a proper name for the town, but could not come to agreement on a name. The postmaster Samuel Neff then completed the official papers for the town and selected the name Moscow. Interestingly, Neff was born in Moscow, Pennsylvania and later moved to Moscow, Iowa.

I couldn’t let an utterly fascinating tidbit like that go unchallenged without examining it further. One would imagine that something so precisely-stated would withstand a little scrutiny and basic fact checking. At the risk of spoiling the surprise, Samuel Neff existed, he very likely suggested the name Moscow and he did live in the states of Idaho, Pennsylvania and Iowa. The part labeled "interestingly" was bogus though, in my opinion.

Feel free to come back in a couple of days for a new article now that I’ve revealed the punchline, or follow along as I unravel the strings.

Moscow, Idaho

Moscow, Idaho

Most online sources and even the City of Moscow itself repeated a variation on that same theme. Allegedly Neff was postmaster and filed a permit circa 1877 requesting a new post office named Moscow in Idaho because he came from Moscow, Pennsylvania (and in many other versions also once lived in Moscow, Iowa). Most of these sources seemed to have copied directly from each other with or without attribution, and converted verbiage to fact.

The Idaho State Historical Society took a slighly different twist. In its version, Neff sold his farmstead on a site that would subsequently become Moscow to Asbury A. Lieuallen, and it was Lieuallen who filed the new name with postal authorities. Thereupon, "S. M. Neff, who previously had lived in Moscow, Pennsylvania, and Moscow, Iowa, took credit for suggesting that Lieuallen’s townsite on his farm be named Moscow."

I’ll note that this topic has inflamed passions and led to spirited Intertubes discussions on a number of fronts. The ones I reviewed focused on the timing of the founding of the various Moscows and ignored Neff. I examined both.

Moscow, Pennsylvania

Moscow, Pennsylvania

I reviewed the "History of Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Wyoming Counties, Pa" (Google eBook). On pages 483-484 it noted, "This village the principal one of the township was so named by Henry W. Drinker from the fact that there were living here a number of natives of the famous Russian city of that name" and referenced the first home as that of one belonging to Rev. Peter Rupert, a log house build in 1830. This explanation of etymology has been questioned because of a lack of physical evidence (e.g., lack of Russian surnames in the population, lack of appropriate architecture) that cast doubt upon the existence of early 19th Century Muscovites in northeastern Pennsylvania. Nonetheless Moscow, PA existed prior to Moscow, ID, and that’s what really mattered. I could search for Neff there.

I had to make sure I looked in the right place so I consulted the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. It confirmed that Lackawanna County, where Moscow can be found today, did not exist until 1878. It was part of Luzerne. U.S. Census records produced zero matches for Neff or any logical variations of that surname including soundex for anywhere in Luzerne County between 1840 – 1860.

Strike one.

Moscow, Iowa

Moscow, Iowa

Moscow existed in Iowa during the requisite period as noted by the Muscatine County GenWeb page. Moscow "was one of the first townships organized in 1842." The Newberry atlas confirmed the county boundaries. Nonetheless, I found no signs of Samuel Neff. I did see a single Neff family in various records for Muscatine over several decades, the household of George W. and Rebecca Neff and their children, however they were from Ohio not Pennsylvania and none of them were named Samuel.

Strike Two.

The Migration of Samuel Miles Neff

Samuel Miles Neff
SOURCE: The Spokesman-Review, Sept. 30, 1957,
via Google News

Several sources converged to identify Samuel Miles Neff, son of John Neff and Mary Grubb, born in 1841 in Pennsylvania, married to Josephine Adline Terhune in 1883, and died in Puyallup, Washington in 1927, as the likely Samuel Neff of Moscow, Idaho. A wildly exaggerated version of the Moscow, Idaho origination story printed in a 1957 newspaper article confirmed my theory. It was based upon family folklore as told by one of Neff’s daughters to the person who wrote the article. It never mentioned the other two Moscows, and believe me, it was so over-the-top that it most certainly would have made such a claim if it was even remotely true.

Federal census records showed that he resided in Indiana Township, Allegheny Co., Pennsylvania in 1850. That’s nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) (map) from Moscow, Pennsylvania. State census records showed that he then lived in Iowa, appearing in Jackson County first in 1852, a place where his father remained until at least 1880. That was 80 miles (129 km) (map) from Moscow, Iowa. He might also be the same Samuel M. Neff who appeared in the Civil War Draft Registrations Records in Mahaska, Iowa, even farther away from Moscow.

Neff seemed to slip between the most obvious records as he dropped briefly into Idaho (he slid in between the 1870 and 1880 Census). There were plenty of other sources that placed him there so that didn’t bother me too much. I feel quite confident that he was in Moscow, Idaho upon its founding.

Neff Was Here; Puyallup, Washington

He spent the second half of his life in Washington state. By 1920, the tail-end of his life, he resided in Puyallup at 315 2nd Street Northeast. Today that’s the home of Yellow House Yarns. Consider that for a moment as we ponder the paper and digital trails we leave behind us in the modern age.


Samuel Miles Neff was a real person who lived in Idaho, Pennsylvania and Iowa. He has been credited with providing a name to Moscow, Idaho, although the extent of his involvement in the founding of the town and the reasoning behind his recommended name may never been known. The true history has been obscured by an overabundance of embellishment, oral tradition and fanciful tales, some likely started by Neff himself in his old age as he spun yarns in a home that later became a yarn store.

It is unlikely that Neff ever had a connection to three different Moscows. He did own land that became Moscow, Idaho. It is doubtful that he was born or lived in Moscow, Pennsylvania or that he lived in Moscow, Iowa.

And I so wanted the Triple Moscow nexus to be true.

3 Replies to “Three American Moscows”

  1. I ran for office a few years back and Moscow Iowa was in my district. It’s unincorporated and there was no such thing as “zoning” so new trailers were next to old houses were next to old trailers were next to goats. The claim to fame was, after the last store in town closed, a guy set up a pop machine outside his house so kids could buy a drink. Not sure if it’s still there; lost my race and haven’t been back since.

  2. Years ago when I watched the movie Fail Safe on TV, I had an intriguing thought: when the crew of the errant USAF bomber opened their sealed orders and saw “Moscow” listed as their target, if they had wanted to carry out their orders yet avoid starting World War III they could have dropped a couple megatons on Moscow, Idaho. Nothing in the orders said which Moscow.

  3. Perhaps it’s just me but if I were moving about setting up new towns the last thing I’d want to do is give them all the same name.
    Further if I had moved from Moscow Russia it would most probably be due to persecution of some sort so again I don’t think I would continue the name of the old place – I’d pick something like “Liberty” or “Freedom” if you get my drift.

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