I stumbled upon the history of St. George, the city in Utah. I was surprised to learn that its name had nothing to do with the Saint George I assumed it referenced. By using the title "counterintuitive saints" I meant counterintuitive to me. I realize some of these examples might sound completely natural to others in the 12MC community arriving from different perspectives.
St. George, Utah, USA
The story of Saint George, the one more familiar to me, was attributed to a Roman soldier during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This marked a period of particularly intense and brutal persecution of Christians. By tradition, Saint George professed his faith to Diocletian, whereupon the emperor ordered his death. As Catholic Online noted: "Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to rescue a beautiful lady. The dragon stands for wickedness. The lady stands for God’s holy truth. St. George was a brave martyr who was victorious over the devil."
His veneration spread throughout much of medieval Europe and he came to be acknowledged as the patron saint of England sometime around the Eleventh Century: "The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly in the reign of Richard 1, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy."
St. George Utah Temple by J Brew on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license
I’d assumed that St. George — the city in Utah — must have been connected back to England somehow. Perhaps, although the name clearly was not. The saintly namesake of St. George turned out to be George A. Smith (1817-1875), an early leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a First Counselor to Brigham Young. He had numerous descendants including a grandson George Albert Smith who became an important Mormon figure in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
My apologies in advance to followers of the LDS church, as no offense is intended. I don’t know how sainthood works within the Mormon faith, and whether it included a formalized vetting process or whether the title came to be applied as an honorific or as a more general term of art. The larger point was my surprise at finally understanding that a city of a hundred-thousand residents traced its name independent of England and/or any supposed slaying of dragons.
However that led me to wonder if there might be other places in Utah named "St. Something-or-Other" for early Church leaders. I found a small handful of additional possibilities in the US Geographic Names Information System.
St. John, Utah, USA
My intuition and upbringing also lead me to assume that just about any place in the United States called St. John would have derived its inspiration from Saint John the Apostle. Certainly there were other Johns who came to be sainted in various faiths although most of them would have had qualifiers appended to their names as differentiators, as in the case of Saint John the Baptist (e.g., the Parish in Louisiana).
St. John was once an independent town in Utah, still recognized as a place name by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names although merged with other locations in the 1930′s to form the amalgamated town of Rush Valley. In a Mormon context, this particular Saint John referred to John Rowberry (1823-1884), presiding and first LDS Bishop of Tooele County. From the Latter-Day Saints Biographical Encyclopedia (1901):
He emigrated from England with one of the first companies of Saints that came to Nauvoo from England… He crossed the plains in 1849 in Ezra T. Benson’s company, and in the fall of the same year moved into Tooele valley, and made his home, together with a few others… He presided over the people in Tooele valley as their Bishop until the county was organized into a Stake of Zion, in 1877.
(St.?) Elmo, Utah, USA
Elmo, Utah had a couple of name variations, one saintly and one not. Neither explanation had anything to do with anyone Mormon, though.
Catholic Online provided a brief description of Saint Elmo as it applied within its Church:
St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)… He was the bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy, and suffered martyrdom during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians… one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers… Legend records that when a blue light appears at mastheads before and after a storm, the seamen took it as a sign of Erasmus’s protection. This was known as “St. Elmo’s fire”.
That source also mentioned Elmo as a patron saint of "stomach cramps and colic" in addition to sailors.
The first origination theory for the Utah placename failed to mention sainthood whatsoever. This was offered by the government of Emery County, where Elmo was founded in 1908. Elmo, in its opinion, was an acronym formed by the names of four early families that settled there.
The second explanation verged on folklore. The US Board on Geographic Names listed Saint Elmo as a variant name for Elmo as recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1941, part of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. Supposedly the name reflected a wildly-popular romance novel written by Augusta Jane Evans in 1866 titled, as one might expect, St. Elmo. The book title came from a primary character, St. Elmo Murray. He was no saint, LDS or otherwise (book) (synopsis).
As noted on Evans’ Wikipedia entry,
Within four months it sold a million copies… So popular was this novel that it inspired the naming of towns, hotels, steamboats, and a cigar brand… It ranks as one of the most popular novels of the 19th century.
This would have been my third theory
Own photo, taken at 2013 White House Easter Egg Roll
Was St. Elmo a realistic variant of Elmo? Who knows. However, I preferred the tantalizing acronym anyway because it had the backing of local government and because I appreciate odd explanations.
There was one final saintly Utah community, Saint Albans (location). I couldn’t find any information beyond its GNIS citation.
The final tally: two Sainted communities in Utah named for LDS leaders; one definitely not; and one unknown.
I mentioned Colfax, Louisiana in "Just the -fax, Ma’am." Something rang in my mind with a sense familiarity. Where had I heard of the town’s namesake, Schuyler Colfax before? I combed through the 12MC archive and discovered he’d made an appearance in a different context, mentioned originally by reader John Deeth and then featured in First Name, Surname Symmetry. Mr. Deeth noted that there was a town of Schuyler that served as a seat of local government for Colfax County, Nebraska. This was intentional; both the town and the county were in fact named for Schuyler Colfax.
Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
If I could be bold or perhaps exceedingly lazy, I think I’ll quote from myself as presented in that earlier article.
Schuyler Colfax isn’t exactly a household name, however he was quite accomplished during his lifetime. He rose to Speaker of the House of Representatives and then became Vice President when he was only 45 years old. There’s no telling how successful he may have become had he not been implicated in one of the many scandals of the Reconstruction era. His downfall came during the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal which involved gifts of stock to influential government officials from a construction company helping to build the transcontinental railroad.
I then went on to reference the irony of Schuyler, the town in Nebraska, having been situated along the Transcontinental Railroad so that the man and the scandal would be link forevermore. Actually the town was founded two years before the Crédit Mobilier scandal broke in 1872 so the irony didn’t come until later. However it served thereafter as a visible reminder of Colfax’s political demise, certainly visible to Colfax personally and to those who happened to possess knowledge of an obscure Nineteenth Century bribery scheme like the members of the 12MC audience.
That would become prescient. Railroads, as I noticed once I began to reacquaint myself with the life and times of Schuyler Colfax, would continue to trail him to his death and beyond.
Cold and Alone
Where Colfax Died, Mankato, Wisconsin, USA
I featured Mankato, Minnesota recently in the Blue Earth series. Little did I realize that I’d return to Mankato for its prominent role in the death of Schuyler Colfax. An historical marker sat in a public park although it wasn’t always a park. It was once an railroad depot. Waymarking.com recorded the Washington Park Historical Marker, including the key paragraph.
… On January 13, 1885, Schuyler Colfax, former U.S. Vice President and Speaker of the House, was traveling in Mankato, Minnesota. In order to get from the depot located along the Minnesota River to the depot on Fourth Street, he had to walk three quarters of a mile in 30 degrees below zero weather. After he arrived at the depot on Fourth Street, he collapsed and died…
His biography on the United States Senate website attributed his death to a heart attack and duly noted, "Unrecognized by those around him, the former Speaker and vice president was identified only by papers in his pocket."
Rest in Peace?
City Cemetery, South Bend, Indiana, USA
Schuyler Colfax, recently departed, was delivered to the place where he’d spent much of his adult life, and he was interred in the City Cemetery in South Bend, Indiana. Always a popular figure in Indiana, Colfax was further honored by town officials when they renamed a street Colfax Avenue adjacent to the cemetery.
Notice, however, the proximity of several nearby rail lines and railyards. They practically extend all the way to the cemetery gates, no doubt their warning whistles and clacking tracks taunting his gravesite.
Colfax Gets a Statue
Schuyler Colfax Statue by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Undoubtedly, Colfax would have been pleased by the statue of his likeness placed prominently in a town named for him in California. However, the location added to the irony. Take a look at a map in Street View. Colfax town officials placed the Colfax statue on Railroad Street at the Amtrak train station. This line also formed part of the original western route of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Police sergeant Joe Friday never actually said "just the facts ma’am" on the vintage television show Dragnet, according to Snopes. Rather, the character played by Jack Webb uttered different lines that were later confused with the classic phrase now erroneously attributed to the show.
A similar confusion surrounded the suffix "-fax" appended to surnames and place names, and also to surnames that later became place names. -Fax had an interesting etymology as described in Wiktionary and in other sources:
From Middle English, from Old English feax (“hair, head of hair”), from Proto-Germanic *fahsą (“hair, mane”), from Proto-Indo-European *poḱs- (“hair”, literally “that which is combed, shorn, or plucked”), from Proto-Indo-European *peḱ- (“to comb, shear, pluck”).
It also noted cognates that existed in Dutch, German, Norwegian, Icelandic and Sanskrit generally translating to something like hair, head of hair, mane, and so on.
This might lead one to conclude that English place names ending in -fax might have something to do with hair. Those theories certainly existed with frequency, with some substantiated, some wrong and some uncertain, not unlike Joe Friday sort-of uttered his famous catchphrase using different words. A second title for this article — since I’m in the mood for bad puns — might have been, "Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow."
I focused on four -fax place names that traced to England. I’d be interested to know if there were more, and particularly, their etymologies.
Fairfax, Virginia, USA
I was sensitized to Fairfax right away because it was both a county and an embedded independent city in Virginia just outside of Washington, DC, and quite near where I live. Longtime readers might recall my epic journey to the City of Fairfax highpoint, the so-called Water Tower Tour a number of years ago.
Fairfax had the cleanest history, etymology and past association with hair. County and city were both named for Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, the county earning its name during the colonial era and the city afterwards. In this instance the peerage was named for the surname so one must start there. I’ll help readers avoid a pile of sleazy baby-naming pages and sketchy genealogy websites peddling advertisements and skip directly to an etymological dictionary. Fairfax meant "fair haired." The million-plus residents of Fairfax, Virginia can decide whether that confers some kind of exalted level of status upon them or not.
Nearly every Colfax was located in the United States, and many traced their naming origin to Schuyler Colfax, the scandal-plagued Vice President who served under President Grant during his first administration (1869-1873).
One such Colfax town named for him, the one in Louisiana, had particular historical significance.
Colfax Massacre, Colfax, Louisiana, USA
As described by the Public Broadcasting Service,
On April 13, 1873, violence erupted in Colfax, Louisiana. The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, clashed with Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia. The resulting death toll was staggering. Only three members of the White League died. But some 100 black men were killed in the encounter. Of those, nearly half were murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered.
The other side of the story, as noted by an article in the New Pittsburgh Courier Online, was reflected by an historical marker placed outside the Grant Parish Courthouse in Colfax in 1950. The marker stated, "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpet bag misrule in the South." To be fair, the nation was undergoing racial turbulence during the 1950′s and the marker reflected certain sentiments of that period. Nonetheless the marker hasn’t been removed either (street view image).
American Surnames discussed two possible etymologies for Colfax. From German, Kohlfuchs referred to a specified color for horses, "dark sorrell or liver chestnut," with the fuchs part referring specifically "a very dark red." Alternately, from Old German, it could refer to the previously-noted hairy explanation. I couldn’t find anything definitive either way.
I worked hard to make sure I didn’t make any typographic errors on that last paragraph! This is a family-friendly website.
The preponderance of Halifax place names in North America were traced to George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax (1716-1771), for example Halifax in Nova Scotia, North Carolina and Virginia.
Unlike Fairfax, the Halifax peerage derived from a place name rather than a surname. The original underlying Halifax used both for the earldom and the primary North American locations was Halifax in West Yorkshire, England.
Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, UK
Legends floated across the Intertubes about how Halifax descended from "holy hair" with some fanciful tale about a pious virgin who was executed and her hair displayed in public. The explanation had fallen out of favor though, making way for a much more mundane theory about how it may have derived "from the Old English halh-gefeaxe, meaning an ‘area of coarse grass in the nook of land.‘"
Readers from the United States likely did a double-take after seeing Carfax mention because it’s better known there as a company that bombards viewers relentlessly with advertisements for vehicle history services. No worries, the Carfax reference in England seemed to be completely coincidental.
Carfax Tower by Holly Hayes on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Carfax, a crossroads, marked the central point of Oxford, England. Carfax itself also had a central point, Carfax Tower, the remnants of a medieval church (map). It’s a tourist attraction now and visitors can climb to the top of the tower for panoramic views for a modest fee.
Most sources seemed to believe that Carfax derived from the French carrefore, "a place where four ways meet" and and earlier Latin quadrifurcus, "four-forked." Some earlier sources discounted that etymology largely on the grounds that French place names weren’t common in England, and halfheartedly wondered if hair figured into the etymology. Those theories didn’t seem to reach beyond the 19th Century, though.
Overall, -fax was a mixed bag: one usage likely related to hair; one maybe and two probably not.