I remained vague when I discussed Boston — the Boston in Texas — in Named Like a Whole Other Country. I kept it to "the man who opened the first store in the area was W. J. Boston." Otherwise I might have tipped my hand that I’d discovered three Texas Bostons all within about four miles of each other in Bowie County. To wit,
- Boston was always Boston, and it’s newer than New Boston, although it’s now part of New Boston. Probably.
- Old Boston was the original Boston.
- New Boston was named for Old Boston back when Old Boston was still Boston.
- They’re all New Boston for postal purposes (Zip Code 75570) so maybe it doesn’t matter.
Got all that? It confused me too. Fortunately the Geographic Names Information System or GNIS provided precise locations for each location and the Handbook of Texas Online provided context and history.
(A) = Old Boston, (B) = New Boston, (C) = Boston
Notice the tight clustering of the Boston trio. This proximity would tend to justify a single town with a single name just about anywhere else. Maybe that would have happened here too except for several extenuating events. I took all three town histories from the Handbook, sorted through their intricacies and developed a timeline.
1830′s: Early settlers founded Boston and named it for the guy I mentioned earlier.
1841: Boston became the initial government seat for newly-founded Bowie County. That was while Texas was still an independent nation, the Republic of Texas.
1846: Boston gained a post office. Yes, it’s important to the story.
Some of the Railroad has been Decommissioned
1876: The new Texas and Pacific Railway laid track through Bowie County, and it skipped Boston. Residents feared Boston’s stagnation, a sad situation for many towns bypassed by railroads, so residents met with railroad officials to see what could be done about it. They agreed upon a station at the closest place possible along the line, about four miles north of Boston. Many Bostonians packed-up and platted a town around the new station, calling it New Boston because they lacked originality.
Mid 1880′s: The Bowie county seat moved from Boston to Texarkana which had become the largest town in the county by that time. Even so, Texarkana sat at the far eastern edge of Bowie County which inconvenienced just about everyone else. The county seat moved again about five year later, this time to the exact geographic center of Bowie. It corresponded to a spot about a mile south of New Boston.
1890: Bowie County started building a new courthouse at its nameless, centralized spot. The location lacked a post office and it needed to have one because of a quirk in the law that required a post office at every county seat. The Boston post office would move to the nameless spot — no issue there — although what should they call it? The Postal Service rejected several alternatives because they were already taken, otherwise Center, Hood or Glass would have sufficed. With preferred options unavailable, the county transferred the Boston name along with the Boston post office. Thus Boston became the county seat and the original Boston became Old Boston. Meanwhile, New Boston was still New Boston.
That’s the way things remained geographically and administratively for the next century even though the economics changed. New Boston, with its proximity to a railroad and later an interstate highway, expanded in size and influence.
1986: Bowie County built a modern courthouse in New Boston, on the edge of town near Interstate 30 and a Wal-Mart (map). The courthouse moved although Boston remained the legal county seat.
The Old Courthouse is Gone. Only the Abandoned Jail Remains
1987: An arsonist burned the old courthouse building in Boston, completely gutting it.
The story had an interesting postscript. An article in the Chicago Tribune reported on a suspicious situation in 1988.
The torching of one of Texas’ oldest courthouses has sparked a controversy nearly as hot as the flames that gutted the structure a year ago. At issue is whether to raze or restore the 99-year-old Bowie County Courthouse, one of the 10 oldest in Texas. An equally popular topic of discussion at local coffee shops is the timing of the fire, which was quickly ruled arson; it occurred two weeks after county officials increased insurance coverage on the building, at a time when the county budget was in the red. Another vexing question is whether the location of the new courthouse is legal.
The legal situation focused on whether the courthouse should have been allowed to move to its new location. By that time New Boston had annexed all of Boston except for the single block with the old courthouse. Apparently the move violated a Texas law about locating a courthouse too far away from the center of a county without adequate voter approval, or so it was alleged. Then there were the mysterious circumstances surrounding the arson. I couldn’t find out what happened after that time although eventually New Boston annexed the remaining vestige of Boston even though it continued to serve as the official Bowie County seat. That would make Boston a neighborhood of New Boston, and seemingly legitimize the new courthouse location.
I learned about an interesting tool from Twitter user @OsmQcCapNat as a result of the recent 12MC article on Trap Streets. The tool, Map Compare, displays the same location on several online maps simultaneously. That would have made my side-by-side comparison of OSM, Google Maps and Bing Maps so much easier. I’ll file that one away for future use.
DeKalb felt like such an odd choice for a relatively common place name in the United States. I’d seen it a number of times in various widely-distributed locations over the years. I’d pondered its pronunciation which seemed to sound like dee-KAB with a silent L, most of the time. I’d wondered about its origin, which didn’t appear to align with settlement patterns since it was clearly neither English nor Native American. It was easy enough to learn the secret once I made an effort, leading towards an obscure chapter of the birth of the United States and its struggle for independence.
The Geographic Names Information System listed nearly two hundred DeKalb features or variations. That included six U.S. counties found in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee. It applied to at least eight cities or towns in Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. Add to those examples a crazy number of municipalities, schools, streets, lakes and other features.
howderfamily.com photo: Stone Mountain is located in DeKalb Co.; commemorates a different war
DeKalb County, Georgia (map) might have been the most significant example of the phenomenon with nearly seven hundred thousand residents. DeKalb is largely a suburb of Atlanta, and forms a small portion of the eastern side of the city where it overlaps the county line. Anyone who has ever visited Stone Mountain (as I have) has been to DeKalb.
The largest city named DeKalb can be found in Illinois (map), with about fifty thousand residents, also located in a county of DeKalb so it earned double recognition. An agricultural company located here with the same name developed a brand of hybrid seeds and I can remember seeing its winged ear of corn logo (you know which one I mean) along rural roadsides when I was growing up in farm country. Monsanto purchased DeKalb Genetics in the 1980′s and continued the brand.
This simply underscores that one can find lots of features and things named DeKalb.
The preponderance and maybe every DeKalb place name in the United States derived directly from Johann von Robais, Baron de Kalb. Many students of U.S. history learned about Germans mercenaries — principally Hessians — who fought on the side of the British Empire during the American Revolutionary War. Lesser known were Germans with French connections that aided the Americans effort for independence. Johann Kalb fell into that latter camp. Consequently his surname spread throughout the eastern side of the nation following the conflict.
DeKalb statue by randomduck, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license
This de Kalb statue at the statehouse in Annapolis, Maryland looks great in Google Street View too.
Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia provided some useful biographical insight. Born in Bavaria, Johann Kalb enlisted in a German unit of the French Army — the Loewendal German Regiment — under a French language variation, Jean de Kalb. That accounted for the partially French (de = of) and partially German (Kalb = calf) conglomeration of DeKalb that carried forward into numerous American locations.
Despite his humble farming pedigree, de Kalb rose through the ranks and distinguished himself in battle long before the American Revolution. He also married well. The source noted that "There is some confusion as to whether Kalb received his title ‘baron’ as a result of his military service or his marriage to one of the richest women in France." Either way, the French foreign minister asked de Kalb to come out of retirement and travel to the British colonies in America. His secret mission was to gauge colonial discontent with British rule in the years immediately prior to the Revolution. He didn’t learn much militarily although he returned to France with an affinity for the Americans.
The Marquis de La Fayette, a much more famous figure in the American Revolution, convinced de Kalb to come with him to the colonies to join the Continental Army as the war began. A whole lot more happened after that point so I’ll skip ahead to the end of the story. Major General de Kalb was commanding a division of Continental soldiers from Maryland and Delaware in 1780 at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina, when he died of wounds sustained in battle. The clash was a complete debacle for American forces:
The American losses were enormous, nearly 1000 men killed and 1000 captured, besides numerous transport and ammunitions confiscated. The British lost less than 350 men. For the Americans, this was the most disastrous battle of the Revolution.
Where de Kalb Fell, North of Camden, SC
The commanding American general, Horatio Gates, never took to the field again. Nonetheless, Continental troops under de Kalb fought valiantly despite the rout and their actions were held in high regard. The revolutionaries also regarded his death in battle from multiple gunshot and bayonet wounds as particularly heroic. This accounted for abundant monuments, memorials, streets, towns and counties all named in his honor during the early decades after independence. Paradoxically, only a few interpretive signs exist at the Camden battlefield today along with a stone marker where Baron de Kalb fell. It may be one of the largest, most significant battlefields in the United States still in its basic original condition, and completely unimproved other than a couple of acres with the signs and marker.
Barron de Kalb was once a well-known revered figure, now remembered principally through the hidden origins of places created as memorials.
I love statistical clustering. Another moment of weirdness revealed itself on my never-ending family history quest. I’ve oftentimes searched for months without finding anything beyond mundane anecdotes of routine life. The latest one was far better though. It actually tied to geography in a concrete way so bear with me as I provide context, or skip the middle part and catch the last few paragraphs.
Once again the story involved someone who married into my extended family so I don’t have any kind of actual blood relationship with him. My family is boring although they appear to have an unusual ability to attract interesting characters. Sophia Whitney — first cousin of Nancy Whitney who’s husband confronted the body snatchers — married Moses Sherburne (1808-1868).
One of my go-to sources for this family said little more than "resided Saint Paul" Minnesota. That was hardly revelatory so I dug deeper.
Justice Moses Sherburne of the Minnesota Supreme Court
via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license
I discovered my first clue when I saw the gentleman’s portrait in Wikimedia Commons, the repository for all media files used by Wikipedia. That implied a status slight higher than some random dude who happened to live in St. Paul a century and a half ago. I’ll say. Check out Moses Sherburne’s greatly condensed résumé:
- Major General in the Maine Militia
- Elected to Maine House of Representatives
- Appointed by various Governors of Maine to statewide judicial positions
- Friends with Franklin Pierce who became President of the United States in 1853
- Moved to Territory of Minnesota after appointed by Pres. Pierce as Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court
- Prominently involved with Minnesota statehood and the drafting of its state constitution
Too bad he dropped dead when he was only sixty years old.
Ready for the geography?
Elk River, seat of Sherburne County, Minnesota
There is a county in Minnesota that honors Moses Sherburne, named Sherburne County appropriately enough. It’s located just northwest of Minneapolis and has nearly 90,000 residents. Regular 12MC readers understand my fascination with U.S. counties so imagine my reaction when I consulted my county-counting map and discovered that I’ve been to Sherburne County. Sherburne contained all sorts of Sherburne things, so by extension they’re all named for him too. That included the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, a breeding spot for sandhill cranes.
The most fascinating facet had to be that Moses Sherburne lived in Sherburne County during his final few years. Imagine walking around a place and thinking, "Yup, everything here named for me" all day long. That would have been one mighty ego boost. If someone crossed him he could have responded with authority, "well it’s my stinkin’ county so shut up already." Awesome.
I guess I should get to the City of Frogs part.
Sherburne Ave. through Frogtown
It wasn’t just a Minnesota county named for Moses Sherburne. There were other things too, like a road. Sherburne Avenue in St. Paul runs east-west through a portion of the city, with its eastern two-thirds through the heart of Frogtown.
Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first time Frogtown appeared on the pages of Twelve Mile Circle. Reader "David F-H" mentioned this neighborhood after I posted Canadian Ethnic Enclave:
So, my hometown appears to have roughly 15 neighborhoods though some of them officially go by names that I’d never heard of. If you’d ask me to get you to Thomas Dale (no hyphen) I’d have no clue. If you asked for Frogtown, I could send you on your merry way.
The Frogtown Neighborhood Association (which appeared to favor the hyphen between Thomas and Dale) explored the unusual name.
The exact origins of the name Frogtown are difficult to pin down. But this much is certain: the moniker was derived from the prevalence of frogs in what was originally a swampy, sparsely populated section of town. In fact, many of the early homes built in the neighborhood began to sink into the muck. Early German residents of the area called it Froschburg – literally frog city… Frogtown is among the most diverse neighborhoods in St. Paul. According to the 2000 census, nearly 40 percent of Frogtown residents are of Asian descent, with white and black residents each accounting for about a quarter of the area’s population.
Frogtown has long attracted immigrants, first newly-arriving Germans upon its founding, and now Vietnamese and Hmong.
Today’s tale took quite the strange meander, didn’t it? Somehow I connected grave diggers, sandhill cranes, Hmong immigrants, and a U.S. President within the confines of the same article, all connected tenuously through time and geography by the over-achieving Moses Sherburne.