It sat there in front of me, so tempting, so wanting to be bestowed with a clickbait title on this 12MC article. I could have called it Sex Folk or maybe Folk Sex. Certainly that would have attracted some undeserved attention and a few extra eyeballs. However, for what purpose? People who came to the site on that flimsy premise would create the classic one-and-done scenario, never to return again anyway. It’s not like Twelve Mile Circle ever tried to appeal to a wider audience beyond its faithful core of geo-geeks. I avoided the temptation. However now I have to describe what this article is all about because I spent the entire opening paragraph on a completely unrelated tangent.
The situation became apparent as I started my research for an upcoming trip to Cape Cod and environs in the next few weeks. Massachusetts, I noticed, had counties of Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The prefixes seemed directional, east, middle, north and south. The suffixes, well I knew they came from England during the colonial era although I’d never examined their meaning before. What did -sex and -folk mean, anyway?
At this point the UK audience can probably stop reading. This will likely be old news. It may also be old news for much of the North American audience too. I don’t know.
Oh, I have another interesting tidbit since we’re running down irrelevant tangents today. More 12MC visitors arrive on the site from London than from any other place in the world except for New York City. By that I mean 12MC has a surprisingly robust British audience and a lot of people could probably stop reading right around now and get on with their day.
Harvard Bridge, crossing between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts (my own photo)
Once on a trip to Boston, Massachusetts I walked across the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River between Middlesex and Suffolk Counties. I’d gone there to observe the birthplace of the Smoot in person. That simple stroll allowed me to travel from -folk (Suffolk) to -sex (Middlesex) and back to -folk. Let’s begin by evaluating -sex.
The geographic prefix -sex came from the Old English seaxe, meaning Saxon. The Saxons were a Germanic people who arrived in Great Britain in the fifth century and formed part of the larger Anglo-Saxon grouping that remained in control until the Norman conquest in 1066. Sorry to disappoint everyone with that rather mundane derivation. Thus, in England, Sussex was south Saxon, Essex was east Saxon, Wessex was west Saxon and Middlesex was middle Saxon. That middle Saxon was centered near London and the other lands of Saxons were correspondingly south, east and west. England in modern times split Sussex into West Sussex and East Sussex which are west and east of each other (generally southwest and southeast of London), all logically enough. It made sense.
Things got a bit turned around in the North American colonies when settlers arrived and brought their familiar English placenames with them. In Massachusetts, Essex was east of Middlesex and that was fine. In New Jersey, Sussex was north, Middlesex was south and Essex was in the middle (although one tiny corner extended farthest east). In Virginia, Middlesex was in the middle and Sussex was south as they should have been, however Essex was north.
Boston skyline by Bert Kaufmann, on Flickr (cc)
The City of Boston was located within the -folk when I crossed the Harvard Bridge. Many counties in New England have been disestablished and Suffolk has joined the list. It exists for various statistical purposes although Suffolk no longer has a separate county government. Nonetheless it retained its historical name with it’s pertinent suffix.
Sometimes the obvious guess provided the answer, and -folk means folk, i.e., people. Suffolk meant south folk, from the Old English suþfolcci. Norfolk, well, meant north people.
Suffolk and Norfolk in England were aligned geographically in an appropriate manner. Massachusetts was completely flipped. Suffolk was north and Norfolk was south. Either the etymology had been obscured or nobody cared by then.
One of the more obscure examples provided in New Difference involved New Bedford Inlet in Antarctica. The chilly inlet derived its name from New Bedford in Massachusetts, which in turn had been named for Bedford, the County Town of Bedfordshire, England. I encountered several other places named Bedford or New Bedford as I examined that original curious occurrence. Sequential hops between three interrelated names seemed pretty good. However, I did discover a more impressive example that featured sequential hops between five names.
(1) New Bedford, Ohio
New Bedford, Ohio, USA
The sequence began with New Bedford, a small unincorporated community in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. According to the History of Coshocton County, Ohio (1881)
New Bedford… was laid out in March, 1825, by John Gonser, while the country around it was scarcely all settled… Mr. Gonser was ably seconded by three sons Henry, David and Adam, each whom erected a house for himself in the town plat. The Gonsers were from Bedford county Pennsylvania hence the name of the village.
I followed the thread back to Pennsylvania.
(2) Bedford County, Pennsylvania
The Coffee Pot, Bedford, PA by Joseph, on Flickr (cc)
Bedford County had its local seat of government in the town of Bedford. It took an effort to avoid confusing those particular Bedfords with another town found elsewhere in Pennsylvania called New Bedford (and named for Dr. Nathaniel Bedford, an early landowner). Clearly Pennsylvania had an affinity for Bedford.
The correct Bedford, the original homestead of the Gonser family, dated to 1771. According to the county itself, it was carved from "parts of Cumberland County, and is named for the fort that tamed the area for settlers to follow."
The most interesting sight in Bedford had to be the Coffee Pot-Shaped Building. It was built along the old Lincoln Highway during the 1920’s to attract passing motorists. The building fell into disrepair until moved and restored by preservationists in 2003. (Street View). That had nothing to do with this story. I’m just a sucker for offbeat roadside attractions.
(3) Fort Bedford
Fort Bedford Museum by Darren and Brad, on Flickr (cc)
The so-called "fort that tamed the area" was Fort Bedford located in what later became the town of Bedford in Bedford County, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t difficult to find. The Fort Bedford Museum marked the proper spot (map).
Fort Bedford had its heyday during the French and Indian War, a part of the larger Seven Years’ War between Britain and France et. al. As described in Legends of America,
Completed in the summer of 1758, the fort featured five bastions with walls that enclosed an area of approximately 1.45 acres and was surrounded by the river and a dry moat that was nine foot deep, ten feet wide at the bottom and fifteen feet wide at the top. The main gate was located on the south side of the structure and was protected by an earthen rampart. The north side, which faced the river, featured the unique gallery to the riverbank. Described as the "Grand Central Station of the Forbes campaign", the fort became an important communications and supply link for Forbes’s army as it moved deeper into the wilderness.
An older source, the History of Bedford, Somerset, and Fulton Counties, Pennsylvania (1884), revealed the source of the name.
It appears that when Forbes troops first occupied this point it was termed in letters and orders the "Camp at Raystown" or "Raystown Fort" but before the close of a twelve month it was called Fort Bedford in honor of "his Grace the Duke of Bedford" one of the "Lords Justices," also one of “his Majestie’s Principal Secretaries of State” during the reign of George II
The hunt was on for the namesake Duke.
(4) Duke of Bedford
John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford
via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
The Duke of Bedford at the time of Fort Bedford’s establishment was John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford. He held a number of high positions in the British government and had various places named in his honor in North America. Fort Bedford was one example. Others included Bedford, New Hampshire and Bedford County, Virginia.
The Bedford peerage was named after Bedford, England.
(5) Bedford, Bedfordshire, England
Bedford Bridge On The River Great Ouse. by Jim Linwood, on Flickr (cc)
Bedford (map) in Bedfordshire ultimately inspired the naming of tiny New Bedford, Ohio through that rather laborious, circuitous route outlined above.
The story should end there although I wondered if I could take it one step farther. Where did Bedford get its name? The Bedford Bureau Council’s Brief History of Bedford said, "Bedford probably takes its name from an otherwise unknown Saxon chief called Beda who settled with his followers where the River Great Ouse was fordable some thirteen centuries ago."
(5½ – Bonus!) The Bedford Name
I quickly checked the Bedford surname for additional clues. Ancestry.com explained,
English: habitational name from the county seat of Bedfordshire, or a smaller place of the same name in Lancashire. Both are named with the Old English personal name Beda + Old English ford ‘ford’. The name is now very common in Yorkshire as well as Bedfordshire.
The Bedford Surname Origins Study offered additional hypotheses. The "ford" portion was obvious; a place where one could cross a river. "Bed" might have derived from the personal name Beda or from Anglo-Saxon terms for prayer or battle, or maybe even from other more obscure sources.
I arrived at the final stopping point: New Bedford, Ohio → Bedford County, Pennsylvania → Fort Bedford → Duke of Bedford → Bedford, England → possibly some dude named Beda who controlled a crossing point on the River Great Ouse.
At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.
Canadian-US Boundary by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.
The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:
This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.
Divide County Courthouse by jeremiah.andrick, on Flickr (cc)
The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.
Divide County North Dakota
Created Using USGS’s National Map Viewer
The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.
What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.
The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.
Brush Lake, Montana
Maybe we should track down Gilmore’s heirs and ask for the $5 back?