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 spied an island full of deviants. What else could explain a cluster of geographic features with names such as Freak, Lunatic, Menace, Germ, Moron, Filthy and Maniac? I plotted my discoveries along with several other bizarre placenames I’d encountered within a single map. This included the only spot in the United States named, and I kid you not, Nazi — as in Nazi Creek — according to my search of the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). They all tracked to remote Kiska Island, part of the Rat Island grouping in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain.
View Kiska Island Oddities in a larger map
I’d found the first couple of features accidentally. Others revealed themselves as I pulled at threads, and pulled some more. Every bump, every crevice, every rivulet, every rock, every windswept plain seemed to have a name. Some were labeled oddly like the ones I marked on my map while others reflected topics rather more ordinary and mundane. They also seemed to cluster alphabetically, with L-named features near other L-named features, and likewise for F and M and so on.
What could possibly account for such an unusual clustering and concentration of geographic features in a place so remote and desolate? The story began to appear as I consulted Geological Survey Professional Paper, Volume 567 (Google eBook) 1967, "Dictionary of Alaska Place Names." For instance, with Lunatic Lake the dictionary said "An arbitrary name beginning with ‘L’ to correspond to ‘L’ grid used by the U.S. Army for tactical purposes during World War II; published on a 1943 Army map." The reference provided a similar explanation for other Kiska Island features and other letters of the alphabet.
I’d stumbled upon the remnants of battlefield planning
Allied troops invade Kiska island in the Aleutians
The Japanese invaded and occupied a part of the United States during a mostly-forgotten phase of the Second World War. It’s been largely overshadowed and obscured by much more famous military campaigns both in the Pacific and throughout Europe during the conflict. Japanese forces captured Attu and Kiska Islands in 1942. While remote, these islands were strategic. They both sat along shipping lanes between North America and Asia. Potentially, whichever side controlled geography through this slot could use the islands as bases to disrupt enemy maneuvers or to launch attacks against the other.
The Pivotal Placement of Kiska Island
Most of a year would pass before Allies amassed sufficient forces and priority to even attempt to dislodge the dug-in Japanese troops from their Aleutian strongholds. Attu’s liberation arrived in May 1943. The fighting and the weather had been ferocious, with thousands of U.S. casualties plus a last-ditch suicide charge that left all but a handful of Japanese soldiers dead.
The Allies learned their lesson and would arrive better prepared when they got to Kiska Island. They amassed a much larger force of thirty-thousand Americans and five thousand Canadians, many trained in the intricacies of winter warfare.
Kiska Island 1943 in Wikimedia Commmons
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license
Operation Cottage would begin with rounds of shelling and bombardment then transition to separate invasions on different parts of the island beginning August 15, 1943. Allied forces stormed the beaches only to discover… the Japanese had abandoned Kiska a couple of weeks earlier. Even so friendly-fire mishaps occured in the fog and confusion, booby traps and mines maimed others, and cold weather took an inevitable toll. Allied casualties amounted to 168 soldiers including 71 killed on the destroyer USS Abner Reed when it struck a mine while patrolling near the island.
The place names I’d stumbled upon marked each of the significant geographic features on Kiska in a logical manner. Those would have served as preordained reference points during the retaking of Kiska had the Japanese not slipped away a few days earlier. I was not able to locate the original 1943 Army map, however, the names and locations survived within the U.S. Geological Survey’s database.
The Place Names Weren’t the Only Artifacts
Japanese Anti-Aircraft Guns by akseabird on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
Evidence of Japanese occupation and the Allies’ response remained remarkably well preserved within the National Park Service Kiska Battlefield. As described in the Anchorage Daily News, Forgotten battlefield: Museum offers rare look at Kiska war relics:
Kiska is far and away the most significant intact battlefield remaining from World War II… Critical to the survival of Kiska’s relics has been its remoteness. Nearly 1,400 miles west of Anchorage, 800 miles east of Kamchatka, the island was so out-of-the-way that even the intrepid Russian fur hunters avoided it… “You can stand on a hill and look down at the valley and see the piers, the airstrips, the Japanese telephone poles, depressions for the Allies’ tents, thousands of them. It’s massive. And, 70 years later, it’s all still there.”
Hangman’s Ridge, Leper Lake and Mangy Hill might have become well-known battlefield names had events unfolded differently. Now they stand nearly forgotten along with the many physical scars on Kiska’s barren landscape.
I have a soft spot for places now obscured that "might have been" had history unfolded a little bit differently. I’m not sure that it’s an interest shared universally by the 12MC audience. Hopefully the topic appeals to a few of you though because that’s what this article offers. I think it was about a year ago that I discussed Alabama Capitals. I’ll jump one state to the right and provide something similar for its neighbor, Georgia.
Immediately, I noticed that greater research — or at least more data available publicly on the Intertubes – existed for Georgia than Alabama. Readers who want comprehensive details can refer to better sources like The Story of Georgia’s Capitols and Capital Cities, where I found the chart I’ve reproduced below. I’ll pick out a few oddities and let the experts provide a more complete narrative.
1780-81 Heard’s Fort*, miscellaneous sites in Wilkes County
1782 Ebenezer*, Savannah
1784 Savannah, Augusta
* Temporary meeting sites of state government
Georgia’s Shifting Capital Cities
The volatility struck me right away. The dates suggested an explanation for the ping-ponging capital; the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865). Despite the long list and the back-and-forth, Georgia is recognized generally as having "only" five capital cities: Savannah, Augusta, Louisville, Milledgeville and Atlanta. I’ll focus on the two lesser-known locations, Louisville and Milledgeville, since the other three receive plenty of attention on their own.
Louisville, like the more recognizable city with the same name in Kentucky, derived from Louis XVI of France. However it’s pronounced differently: LEWIS-ville. The capital shifted to Louisville because it was thought to more centralized when the Georgia population began moving away from the seacoast towards the growing interior. The site stood at a crossroads linking several larger towns including Savannah and Augusta.
While a capital for only a decade, it became an interesting historical footnote when it served as the focal point of a scandal called the Yazoo Fraud. Georgia sold a huge territory, most of the northern half of present-day Alabama and Mississippi, to a small number of land speculators at rock-bottom prices. Well, surprise, a number of elected officials and legislators supporting the act that authorized the sale were bribed by the beneficiaries. The fraud came to light and people reacted with rage. It got ugly in the capital city. A marker has been placed near the site of the old capitol building, to commemorate perhaps the most significant event occurring during Louisville’s brief tenure as a state capital.
Louisville Market House
Louisville was also known for The Market House, one of the few structures constructed during its capital period that survived to the present (albeit heavily restored). Everything imaginable was sold from this location. Allegedly it even served a slave market although the local community claims, "Recent research… casts doubt on this and suggests that the old Market House may have a much more benign history as an ordinary commercial market."
Milledgeville experienced a much longer tenure as Georgia’s state capital, lasting beyond the first half of the Nineteenth Century in the years leading into the Civil War. From this location, the state of Georgia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy. Milledgeville laid in ruins by the end of the conflict.
The history of events leading to the transfer from Louisville to Milledgeville are a bit hazy. It was a planned community though, built from scratch to serve specifically as a capital city. Milledgeville was centrally located like Louisville and it additionally stood at a point where the coastal plain met the Piedmont’s hills like so many other important cities along eastern edge of the United States during that time. This was the farthest navigable inland point when shipping was so vitally important to transportation and trade. Milledgeville was placed at the fall line, connected directly to the larger world via the Oconee River.
Old Georgia State Capitol, Milledgeville, Georgia by Ken Lund, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license
Milledgeville became an obvious target during the war, the capital city of a rebellious state. General Sherman’s troops decimated the city during The March to the Sea.
Houses, stores and barns were looted by Sherman’s troops, who rampaged through the city “foraging.” The capitol building was occupied and a group of soldiers led by Brigadier General Judson H. Kilpatrick held a mock legislative session and “repealed” Georgia’s ordinance of secession before looting the building and inflicting thousands of dollars in damage. The roof of nearby St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was blown off when the soldiers ignited captured Confederate armories and magazines.
That was it. Milledgeville never fully recovered. The capital moved to Atlanta during Reconstruction, "a city emerging as the symbol of the New South as surely as Milledgeville symbolized the Old South." The seat of power has remained in Atlanta ever since 1868.
Two significant signs of the old capital still remain in Milledgeville, the former capitol building, now a museum, and the former Governor’s Mansion.