International Capitals in the USA

On April 7, 2013 · 4 Comments

The capital of a nation is often its most important city, or certainly one that citizens would recognize by name if not. Place that exact name into another nation and its significance would almost always drop. I wondered if I could find the name of every other capital city within the physical boundaries of the United States as a recognized geographic feature. The short answer was that I could identify many of them but not all. The longer answer took some interesting turns.

View International Capitals in the USA in a larger map

First I had to find a source. I decided that Wikipedia’s List of national capitals in alphabetical order would suit my purposes with the several caveats already there (e.g., "including territories and dependencies, non-sovereign states including associated states and entities whose sovereignty is disputed"). Some of the selections come with strong emotional strings and I’m sure the Wikipedians who compiled that list would love to discuss selection criteria on their talk page. I’ll take a neutral stance, the classic easy way out, and simply start from there.

Next I had to find an example of each city within the United States. I selected only one appearance per city. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) listed 42 populated places for Athens, for instance. I selected the one in Georgia. Any of the other 41 would have been fine too. Finally I placed my source data and lat/long coordinates in a shared Google Docs spreadsheet that you are absolutely free to review.

I considered actual cities or towns to be the gold standard. The history of the United States provided abundant examples reflecting a Greco-Roman educational heritage and a later wave of European immigration from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. It was easy to find Athens and Paris. The challenge came with Yaoundé, Lilongwe and the like, where I failed.

If not a town, I tried to find a lesser known USGS-recognized feature such as a populated place (often a neighborhood), an historic site (former settlement or ghost town), or a natural landmark such as an island, lake or stream. I turned to street names as a final resort. Readers might be surprised by the number of communities and subdivisions with appropriately-named street grids. There are several South Florida developments, for example, with a variety of Caribbean themes. Airports often featured international street names too, and US military bases commemorated long-ago (and not-so-long-ago) battles that occurred in exotic places.

I suppose I could have gone all the way down to the retail level — maybe I could have found a Kyrgyzstani restaurant named Bishkek somewhere — although I had little faith that they would be useful as permanent landmarks. Restaurants go out of business with striking regularity. Street names at least seemed to have a better chance of sticking around for awhile.

I’ll feature a few of my favorite finds although they barely scratch the surface. I think you’ll have fun discovering your own gems hidden in the map, and of course please let me know if you find any of the missing capitals. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it simply means I couldn’t find them with a cursory search. I got a little cross-eyed after nearly 250 individual investigations.

St. Helier, Jersey

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Jersey, of all the international locations available, might appear to be an odd initial choice. It’s a British Crown Dependency with fewer than a hundred thousands residents so why would I start there? Saint Helier is the Jersey capital and that’s where I noticed the connection.

Saint Helier doesn’t appear often in the US, and in fact the only instance I could find was a single street in Texas… in Jersey Village, Texas. The Handbook of Texas speculated that Jersey Village’s name derived from a nearby dairy farm with Jersey cows, a breed that originated on the Isle of Jersey several centuries earlier. Someone laying out the township must have made a conscious decision to honor Jersey with a Saint Helier Street. Thus it’s possible to live in Saint Helier, Jersey, in Texas, and for that I salute an unknown suburban planner.

Rome, Italy

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I selected Rome, New York to represent the Italian capital, an easy choice because of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. The New York version of Rome has it’s own interpretation of St. Peter’s Basilica! The only condition that would have made this even better may have been if Rome — the one in New York — had declined to annex the property where where the church had been built. Then it would have completed the analogy by creating a miniature version of Vatican City.

I did find the Vatican, by the way (a USGS populated place), but it was nowhere near Rome, not even the one in Mississippi.

Vientiane, Laos

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I thought Vientiane would be a tough find, and that would have been true if I hadn’t stumbled upon a small Laotian community in Broussard, Louisiana. Notice the street names: Vientaine is the capital of Laos; and Savannaket (Savannakhet) and Luangphbang (Louangphrabang) are Laotian provinces. The community in Louisiana is even anchored by a Buddhist temple along its western edge, Wat Thammarattanaram-La.

A little Internet sleuthing led to an explanation in The Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rouge.

Laotian immigrants first settled in Iberia Parish in the late ’70s and early ’80s after refugees left Laos when communists gained control there. Federally supported training for oil-field work led many of the refugees to the parish. Xanamane said the land for what would become Lanexang Village was purchased in 1985 and divided among the families within the community. Today, the community is home to 65 households — with a total population of 400 — and is one of three residential clusters of Laotian immigrants within Iberia Parish. The village is best known for its celebration of the Laotian New Year, which typically falls during the Easter holiday, Xanamane said.

I never would have imagined a community of Cajun-Laotian oil workers in Louisiana prior to this mapping exercise.

Mogadishu, Somalia

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Mogadishu would seem to be an unusual option although I found a street by that name at Naval Station Norfolk in southeastern Virginia. I’m speculating that it’s a tribute street, a way to commemorate the Battle for Mogadishu which was also portrayed in a 2001 movie, Black Hawk Down. Four Navy SEALs participated in this largely Army operation and their home base was located nearby.

A Few More Tidbits

I could go on-and-one with other examples presented by these data. Is San Marino, California larger than San Marino? (no). Wouldn’t it be better if the Slovenian Society Home faced along adjacent Ljubljana Drive instead of Recher Avenue? (yes). Is there any chance that someone in the US will name a street after Pyongyang (probably not) or Islamabad (perhaps not in states preempting Sharia Law).

Next time I’ll have to build a map with fewer data points.

On April 7, 2013 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “International Capitals in the USA”

  1. Dziban says:

    I didn’t know about the Laotian community in Lafayette, but I’m not surprised. There are lots of southeast Asian immigrants in southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in general; New Orleans has a large community of Vietnamese.

  2. Pfly says:

    Now of course the opposite—US state capital names in other countries. Some are obviously easy, like Olympia, Dover, Santa Fe, etc. But some would be highly challenging. Salt Lake City? Well maybe in translation somewhere… Indianapolis? Still…who knows?

  3. Ian says:

    Georgia’s full of them, although they pronounce them differently in the south! Vienna, Berlin, Athens, Dublin, Rome, Cairo. Not sure if there are any more, but a good quiz would be to see which state has the most foreign capitals.

  4. Kevin says:

    Don’t sleep on Maine- Moscow, Rome, Paris, Belgrade, Athens, Vienna off the top of my head. Frankfort and Carthage too but their not capitals. Richmond could get in on a technicality.

    They also have many country names as town names- Sweden, Wales, China, Poland, Denmark, Lebanon, Mexico, Norway, and Peru.
    It always struck me as lazy and unoriginal rather than paying homage to someone’s home city/country.

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