Center of the Nation, Part 3 (Trails)

On October 4, 2015 · 0 Comments

Evidence of earlier migrations appeared as we rolled along our Center of the Nation journey, evoking a time when people crossed these High Plains without benefit of motors. Initially the migration involved early Nineteenth Century explorers and hunters of European descent pushing from the East Coast into lands long settled by Native Americans. Then came their brethren at mid-century in successively larger waves to avoid religious persecution or to reach the goldfields or later to homestead in fertile valleys farther west. A few of them remained in the empty plains although most of them simply passed through on their way to Utah or California or Oregon or wherever.

oregontrail by erikthenorsk on Flickr (cc)

I encountered small slivers of their ghostly paths in Wyoming and later in Nebraska. There weren’t a lot of options for those people brave or desperate enough to consider a transcontinental journey in the days of covered wagons. Emerging trails featured different starting and ending points although many of them converged at places towards the middle due to underlying topography, the river valleys and mountain barriers that favored certain routes. The Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express, the telegraph system and railroads all followed similar paths at points. I converged there as well for a stretch of about 75 miles (120 kilometres), reflecting upon some of those early pioneers’ experiences at several noteworthy landmarks.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Ironically I’d climbed a different Chimney Rock earlier in the summer in North Carolina. Arguably, the Chimney Rock in western Nebraska garnered much greater historical significance and name recognition (map). Pioneers walking the trails would have seen this landmark looming on the western horizon, a bony finger to the sky, for days before they passed it. Even today, so instantly recognizable, the state of Nebraska chose to feature Chimney Rock on its border signs and its state Quarter.

Chimney Rock rose more than 300 feet (91 metres) above the surrounding, almost level terrain. It became iconic, a famous landmark referenced ubiquitously by pioneers compiling journals of daily life along the trails. There were hundreds if not thousands of accounts. Native Americans revered the outcrop too. The local Sioux didn’t have chimneys and named the spire for something more recognizable to their hunting and gathering society, bestowing variations of the name Elk Penis upon it. That didn’t sit well with the sensibilities of new arrivals so it became Chimney Rock to those conversing in English.

Regardless of name, the towering stone signified an important transition in a long journey across a vast continent. People walking the emigrant trails understood that the promontory marked the end of the plains. Soon travel would slow, with a gradual uphill climb towards the Rocky Mountains.

Scotts Bluff

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Another thirty miles (50 km) farther west following the banks of the North Platte River, emigrants encountered Scotts Bluff (map). This presented a significant obstacle. Early trails skipped the 800 foot (250 m) bluff using a southern bypass called Robidoux Pass. Mormons on their way to Utah and the gold rush 49’ers heading to California generally took the detour. A few hearty souls took a more difficult shortcut at a lowpoint between Scott Bluff and a neighboring bluff. Things changed in 1851 when the US Army Corps of Engineers improved the shortcut and named it Mitchell Pass. It shortened the trail by eight miles (13 km) — saving at least a half day of walking — and it quickly became the preferred route.

Trail widths weren’t as precise as one might imagine. Anyone who has ever experienced a dry dirt road during the summer would understand. Oxen and wagons threw dust into the air. Pioneers didn’t travel sequentially one-behind-the-other, rather they fanned-out widely to avoid dust, so trail widths bore little resemblance to precisely defined modern roads. However the tables turned at Scotts Bluff. Wagons had to pass single-file through narrow Mitchell Pass. The pounding of 350,000 people with wagons and oxen created some of the most visible signs of the Oregon Trail still in existence. Here, at Scotts Bluff National Monument, one can literally walk in the footsteps of those earlier travelers. The swale created by thousands of wagons dug several feet deep into the underlying soil (clearly visible in the photo I took).

Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie

Continuing west along the passage of the North Platte River another fifty miles (80 km) brought emigrants to its confluence with the Laramie River. Fort Laramie (map) offered respite and protection, a spot occupied since the 1830’s when a private fur trading post opened. The US Government recognized the strategic significance of this position and acquired the post in 1849. It became the Army’s most important presence on the Northern Plains, a way to protect wagon trains and keep a strong military force amongst Native American tribes who rightfully resented incursions upon their territory.

Fort Laramie held its key position through the entire pioneer period of the late 19th Century. It become an anachronism when transcontinental railroads replaced wagons and as Native inhabitants were forced onto reservations. The fort disbanded in 1890 and most of its assets were sold to the public. Much later the Government re-acquired what was left to create Fort Laramie National Historic Site.

Cold Spring Campground

Rifle Pit Hill

Cold Spring Campground (map) was much less significant than the other trailside sites I encountered. It was the westernmost site on my brief journey on the trail so I wanted to mention it anyway. Leaving Fort Laramie, pioneers would have arrived at the Cold Spring Campground probably after the first full day of walking. It offered a place to camp overnight with a reliable source of water. Soldiers from Fort Laramie also dug rifle pits into the nearby hillside for additional protection both for the emigrants and for their own workers who quarried stones nearby to improve the fort. There were dozens of other sites like this along full length of the trails.

I had an opportunity to cover only a very short segment of the conjoined Mormon-California-Oregon Trail path. Now I’d like to pick one of those trails and follow it in its entirety from east to west. I will place that on the long 12MC list of activities I hope to cover someday.

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Directional Upstart Eclipses Namesake

On September 23, 2015 · 14 Comments

Loyal reader Cary suggested an article idea that built upon a previous topic, Upstart Eclipses Namesake. In that previous posting I offered "new" places that grew more prominent than their original namesakes. Examples I proposed included New Zealand (vs. Zealand), New South Wales (vs. South Wales) and others. There were several comments and a lively discussion — for instance the relative prominence of New Jersey and Jersey seemed to depend upon the side of the Atlantic of one’s abode — and it was all good fun.

Cary’s proposal took these efforts in a different direction, literally. Instead of new places, what if we looked at directional places instead? For example, suppose there was a town of Podunk and later a new settlement grew just to its north, and people lacking originality or hoping to ride Podunk’s coattails decided to call it North Podunk. Then suppose, over time North Podunk continued to grow until it eventually became significantly larger than Podunk. Cary was even kind enough to provide examples. I’m going to simply plagiarize Cary’s ideas in a callous manner, wrap a little text around them and call it a day. I like articles where someone else provides the hard part and I get to take a small break. Keep those ideas and suggestions coming!

Palm Beach vs. West, North and South Palm Beach, Florida

Palm Beach - "Whitehall" (Flagler Mansion)
Palm Beach – "Whitehall" (Flagler Mansion) by Roger W on Flickr (cc)

Palm Beach, that ritzy settlement on a sandy stretch of barrier island on the Atlantic side of south Florida, traced its founding back to the efforts of Henry Flagler. He was one of those Gilded Age gazillionaires at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century with abundant money to burn. Anyone familiar with Florida history should recognize the Flagler name. It’s everywhere. He laid the Florida East Coast Railway along the length of the state and plopped a string of luxury hotels down the tracks to Key West. He, maybe more than anyone else should be credited with opening Florida to mass tourism and settlement. Palm Beach was a crown jewel, the place he chose to build his winter mansion Whitehall in 1902 (map).

The opulence and wealth of Palm Beach attracted his well-heeled peers, however supply-and-demand with geography created limitations. There was only so much land available on a thin strip of barrier island. Parcels became obscenely expensive as wealthy industrialists seized the best spots for competing displays of extravagance. Those of lesser means built nearby in other directions, principally west across a narrow channel on the mainland. They still wanted to grasp a bit of the "exclusivity" of the Palm Beach brand, however. Thus grew additional towns of West Palm Beach, North Palm Beach and South Palm Beach. West Palm Beach has ten times more residents (about a hundred thousand) than Palm Beach (a little less than ten thousand). North Palm Beach is slightly larger (about twelve thousand). Only South Palm Beach has fewer residents (about fifteen hundred).

Certainly West Palm Beach overshadowed Palm Beach by population. However Palm Beach could still take some consolation. It’s most recent median annual family income was $137,867 while West Palm Beach was only $42,074.

Orange vs. West, East and South Orange, New Jersey

East Orange Station
East Orange Station by Adam Moss on Flickr (cc)

The story of "The Oranges" — and that’s how the collection of New Jersey’s orange-named places are often grouped — was quite a bit different. Why Orange? Like many places named Orange it referred to William III of England, a.k.a. William of Orange. A group of breakaway Puritans left the New Haven Colony in Connecticut in 1666 and settled in lands that would later become Newark and the Oranges (map). According to the City of Orange Township, the area composing the Oranges served as an agricultural portion of Newark. The interests of the two began to diverge by the end of the Eighteenth Century, with Orange finally detaching in 1806. Internal rifts appeared within Orange over the next few decades and it too split not long after earning town status in 1860.

… Orange was permitted to establish fire, police, street and other town departments. On March 13, 1860, Dr. William Pierson was elected as the first Mayor of the Town of Orange. Almost immediately, the new town began fragmenting into smaller independent communities primarily because of local disputes about the costs of establishing the new departments. The other areas separated from the Town of Orange…

That resulted in four Oranges: Orange, West Orange, East Orange and South Orange. Today Orange has about thirty-thousand residents, West Orange has about forty-five thousand, East Orange has about sixty-five thousand and South Orange has about fifteen thousand. Thus, two of the three directional Oranges grew larger than Orange.

Demographically the Oranges are starkly divided.

Orange and East Orange are relatively urban and working-class, while South Orange and West Orange remain affluent suburban enclaves. In addition, the residents of Orange and East Orange are predominantly African American (75.1% and 89.5%, respectively), while those of South Orange and West Orange are predominantly white.

Battleford vs. North Battleford, Saskatchewan

Downtown North Battleford
Downtown North Battleford by waferboard on Flickr (cc)

Battleford in Saskatchewan provided another interesting tale. First I wondered about its name. Was there really a battle on a ford or was it simply some Englishman’s surname that transposed to the colonies and found its way to the Canadian prairie? Battleford (map) sat near the confluence of the North Saskatchewan and Battle Rivers, and a ford actually existed there. That solved part of the mystery. Also the "battle" wasn’t a single clash, rather it reflected an ongoing series of conflicts between Cree and Blackfoot tribes within the larger geographic footprint. Learning that, I felt comfortable and could move on with my investigation.

Poor Battleford. It should have risen to such greater prominence. Things began well at its founding in 1875 and soon it became the capital of the North-West Territories. Then came the railroad. Originally the Canadian Pacific Railway would have passed directly through Battleford, cementing its future.

But in 1881 the community’s destiny was altered with the federal government’s abrupt decision to alter the route of the trans-continental railway to cross the southern plains: as a consequence, the territorial capital was officially transferred to Regina in 1883…

Then, to add insult to injury, the Canadian Northern Railway came along in 1905 and built a line to Edmonton, placing its route on the other side of the river from Battleford. Naturally a new settlement migrated there and became North Battleford, soon eclipsing the original Battleford. Current Battleford has about five thousand residents compared to North Battleford with at about fifteen thousand. Battleford could have been Saskatchewan’s capital. Instead it became North Battleford’s smaller cousin.


Cary offered several other examples although I got tired of typing:

  • North Richland Hills vs. Richland Hills in Texas
  • North Tonawanda vs. Tonawanda in New York
  • West Covina vs. Covina in California
  • West Babylon vs. Babylon in New York

I’m sure the 12MC audience can find others. Thanks Cary!


On September 20, 2015 · 0 Comments

I’ve always thought that places named Braintree sounded odd. I knew it couldn’t have derived from a tree with brains dangling from its branches although that’s exactly what came to mind. The Osage Orange or Hedge Apple (Maclura pomifera) might come closest to that twisted image. Still, my overactive imagination went directly to literal brains.

Maclura pomifera, "Osage orange"
Maclura pomifera, "Osage orange" by John Lillis on Flickr (cc)

My familiarity with Braintree drew from the town of the same name in Massachusetts. I surmised correctly that it wasn’t the original Braintree, that its peculiar phrasing must have sailed across the Atlantic with the original European settlers.

Braintree, Essex, England

Day 82,365,Postcard From Braintree
Postcard From Braintree by Andreas-photography on Flickr (cc)

Indeed, Braintree migrated from a place in England, a town dating back at least a thousand years (map). I’m usually pretty adept at digging into obscure corners of the Intertubes discovering etymologies, especially for a name so delightful as Braintree. I didn’t do so well this time however, running up against the dreaded, "nobody really seemed to know" excuse. Wikipedia included a long paragraph without attribution. In essence the tenuous claim came down to "the origin of the name Braintree is obscure" and it might "indicate that Braintree literally means ‘town (or village) by the river’" It could mean that, or it could mean something completely different. Take your pick.

However, the Braintree in Essex definitely conveyed its name to the Braintree in Massachusetts, USA. People who emigrated from the English Braintree to the colonial Braintree included influential citizens such as the ancestors of future US presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Both of them were born in the Massachusetts Braintree (a portion now in Quincy) as I noted in an earlier article, Presidential Birthplaces.

Braintree, Massachusetts, USA

Sacco and Vanzetti via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Adams Family notwithstanding, I first encountered Braintree and wondered about its unusual name because of a more recent and completely unrelated historical event. Many people probably recognized the names Sacco and Vanzetti even if they didn’t fully remember the notorious events that happened in Braintree in 1920. Two robbers shot and killed a paymaster for the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company and his guard as they transported payroll boxes to the factory building on Pearl Street (map).

Authorities quickly arrested Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, known anarchists born in Italy who belonged to an extremest group called the Galleanists that advocated violence against government officials and institutions. The alleged motive involved funding future bombings. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death. This caused an international uproar with allegations of unfair treatment deriving from prejudices against Italian immigrants. Historians have long debated whether Sacco and Vanzetti committed the crime. However the consensus seemed clear that their "prosecution, trial, and aftermath constituted a blatant disregard for political civil liberties" at the very least. The state electrocuted the pair in 1927.

The Governor of Massachusetts issued a proclamation in 1977, the 50th anniversary of the execution,

…that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, from the names of their families and descendants, and so, from the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and I hereby call upon all the people of Massachusetts to pause in their daily endeavors to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.

A small marker now memorializes Sacco and Vanzetti at the intersection of Pearl Street and French Avenue (map), in Braintree.

New Braintree, Massachusetts, USA

New Braintree, Massachusetts

There was a New Braintree in Massachusetts too? Why, yes there was, and it was situated about 75 miles (120 kilometres) west of the other Massachusetts Braintree (map). I figured that Massachusetts residents must have migrated away from the coast and brought the name along with them, just like there forebears had done when they crossed the ocean from England. Now I’m not sure.

The Town of New Braintree said,

In 1709, 6000 acres were granted to the residents of the village of "Braintree Farms". Additional tracts of land which were formerly part of Brookfield and Hardwick were acquired and in 1751 the town was incorporated as New Braintree.

I dug a bit deeper and discovered more information from a book printed in 1902, published to commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary. It referenced the "Braintree Grant" that dated back to 1666 that formed the later Braintree Farms and a portion of the future town of New Braintree.

The incorporation of Braintree outside of Boston happened in 1640 so it’s possible that it influenced the name of the Braintree Grant. It think it’s more likely that the Braintree in England provided the name directly though, since Grants generally (although not always) were bestowed by Royal decree. That remained just a hunch for now.

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