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.