Cumberland

On February 1, 2015 · 3 Comments

People have expressed a couple of distinct thoughts as I’ve discussed my upcoming bike trip along the Great Allegheny Passage. The immediate reaction was that I must be crazy and then I’d explain that I’m not intending to ride it all in a single day. The second was confusion about its endpoint in Cumberland. There are multiple Cumberlands and the one in Maryland (map) may or may not be as familiar to some people as, for example, the Cumberland Gap which is several hundred miles farther away near the KYTNVA Tripoint. I agree, my ride would seem a bit more extreme if I were heading towards that more distant Cumberland.

The discussion brought up an interesting point in the process. Why where there two places named Cumberland? Actually, let’s make that more than two. I was also familiar with Cumberland County in Maine, the home of its largest city, Portland. That made at least three well-known locations plus numerous lesser-known spots all named Cumberland (GNIS listed 26). They were spread over hundreds of miles along the eastern edge of the United States. Was there a connection? Why yes of course, thank you for asking.


Prince William, Duke of Cumberland


Cumberland Falls
Cumberland Falls (my own photo)

I didn’t check every single Cumberland although all of the ones I did examine traced back to Prince William, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765) as their namesake. He was the third son of George II, King of Great Britain. Cumberland, Maryland began as Fort Cumberland on the extreme edge of British settlement in 1755. The Cumberland Gap, along that same wilderness line albeit considerably farther south, was named for the nearby Cumberland River which in turn was named for the Duke of Cumberland in 1750. One will find a nice string of Cumberlands all along the old colonial frontier — the part of British territory actively being settled and named in the middle of the 18th Century — all honoring the Duke of Cumberland.


Battle of Culloden


View of Culloden Battlefield on Culloden Moor, Scotland
View of Culloden Battlefield on Culloden Moor, Scotland
by Danie van der Merwe, on Flickr (cc)

There were plenty of members of the British royal family with places named for them during North America’s colonial era, although not every figure received equal treatment. Sure there might have been a town or county here-and-there named as a birthright for the nobility who never ascended the throne. However one should be impressed by the sheer volume of Cumberland’s fingerprints. The preponderance traced back to a single event, the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Britain had been in political and religious upheaval for several decades by that point. Without getting into too many details, the exiled House of Stewart was attempting to wrestle control of the throne from the House of Hanover in a series of Jacobite Risings. The final rising began in 1745 ("the Forty-five"). Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) sailed to Scotland, rallied Highlanders and marched south. British troops pushed them back towards Inverness, onto the moor of Culloden (map). The Duke of Cumberland commanded British forces during this decisive battle and defeated the Jacobite army. This crushed the Stewart’s attempts to overthrow the Hanoverian dynasty and regain the crown.

This also began a great flurry of naming things for the Duke of Cumberland in the colonies. He was hailed widely as a hero for his military victory that preserved the House of Hanover and it reflected in geography. History was less kind to him. He came to be known as the "Butcher" because of his brutal repression of the Jacobite movement subsequent to the battle and his assault on Scottish culture and traditions in general.

Very few places would have been named for the Duke of Cumberland without the battle. He would have counted Prince William County in Virginia as his legacy, established when he was ten years old, and maybe that would have been about it. His geographic impact on North America might have matched a lot of other British noblemen of the era, which would have been minor.


What of this Cumberland?


Carlisle Castle
Carlisle Castle by Andrew Bowden, on Flickr (cc)

The principal source of the Cumberland name in North America had been solved. However that still left me wondering about the underpinning of the Duke’s name. Land of Cumbra? For that piece of the puzzle I turned to sources such as the Online Etymology Dictionary and an old book published about a century ago, The Place-names of England and Wales. Cumberland, of course, was an historic county in northwest England in the vicinity of Carlisle. That area is now part of Cumbria (map). Cumberland and Cumbria shared a common root with Cymry, the people of Wales. Thus, Cumberland referred to the land of the Welsh. This area was once part of a Brythonic kingdom up until the 10th Century. The name remained afterwards as a reminder of the people who ruled the territory in ancient times.

On February 1, 2015 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “Cumberland”

  1. Joel says:

    Interesting that a man whose name derives from a Gaelic people is best known for defeating another.

  2. John of Sydney says:

    My home town (or more correctly city) of Sydney is located in the County of Cumberland.
    The county was named in 1788 soon after British settlement after the same Duke of Cumberland. Counties in Australia exist only as administrative concepts for land surveying so sad to say there is no governing body named for the Duke.

  3. Patrick Sheridan says:

    Interestingly, there is also a Culloden, West Virginia. Guess the people in WV weren’t as pleased with Prince William.

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