I received an interesting query from loyal reader "Katy" via the 12MC Google+(1) account the other day. She was looking for examples of towns that were named after people that included the namesakes’ first and last names.(2) Several possibilities came to mind and one name in particular, Jefferson Davis, kept recurring.
Jefferson Davis — which I’ll mention primarily for the international audience less familiar with United States history — was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865). His name still invokes a wide spectrum of reactions based upon specific points of view about the Civil War, the Confederacy, Reconstruction and the evolution of the New South. I won’t wade into that topic except to note that different parts of my family fell onto both sides of that conflict so I’m abundantly aware of the range of considerations. I’ll take the cowardly exit and focus solely on the use of Jefferson Davis as a geographic identifier.
The largest territorial expressions of Jeff or Jefferson Davis occur at the U.S. county level: Jeff Davis Counties in Texas and Georgia; Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana; and Jefferson Davis County in Mississippi. Additionally there is a Jeff Davis Township that is a part of Little River County, Arkansas. Their formations tend to cluster chronologically at either side of the flip between the 19th and 20th Centuries; far enough removed from the Civil War to not seem treasonous while close enough to be a part of the emotional fabric of people directly involved.
View Jeff Davis in a larger map
Jeff Davis County, Texas
Texas was part of the Confederacy, however it seemed odd to find a county named for Davis so far out along the western edge of this immense state. It actually hearkens back to an earlier history, though.
The direct association between Jefferson Davis and the Civil War is so strong that his earlier life often goes unnoticed. Davis graduated from the prestigious U.S. military academy at West Point, fought as a Colonel in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Congress, and completed a term as Secretary of War during the Franklin Pierce administration (1853-1857). The county in Texas drew indirectly from Davis’ term as Secretary of War.
Fort Davis was established in west Texas in 1854 to protect travelers along the San Antonio-El Paso Road who were being attacked by Native American tribes including the Mescalero Apache (defending their homeland). The fort was named for the Secretary at the time, Jeff Davis. That was nothing unusual. Nobody could predict how his role would change.
Confederate forces captured Fort Davis without firing a shot in 1861 in what would certainly be an important symbolic victory albeit the Union Army wasn’t much of a threat in this remote corner. The Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association noted that the real threat were actually the Mescalero Apache who were described as "unimpressed" by the change of leadership at the fort. Confederate forces abandoned the fort a year later after ongoing harassment and ambushes led by the Apache.
McDonald Observatory; Jeff Davis Co., TX — View Larger Map
Jeff Davis County is notable for a couple of other reasons:
- It shares a border with Mexico at a single point; a nearly impossible capture for county counters who adhere to every border variation.
- It’s home to the Davis Mountains which the handbook of Texas called the "highest mountain range located entirely within the state of Texas," and also named for Jeff Davis. McDonald Observatory was built in the dark skies of the Mount Locke summit at 6,791 feet (2,070 metres) and is accessible by the "highest state maintained road in Texas."
Jeff Davis County was established in 1887. One could argue whether the name truly referenced the antebellum Jeff Davis or reflected lingering Confederacy nostalgia, however, it’s undeniable that a prior connection existed.
Jeff Davis County, Georgia
I wish every state had its own version of the Handbook of Texas. It would make research a lot easier. My problem with Texas was culling and summarizing (a nice problem to have); with Jeff Davis, Georgia I had a deficit of information. What little I found confirmed that the county was named for the former Confederate president in 1905.
View Larger Map
Jeff Davis Co. was an outgrowth of Appling and Coffee Counties. It was necessitated by the growth of the town of Hazlehurst which became the seat of government for the new county. Hazlehurst started as a rail town during the Reconstruction era and grew from there. The town’s history page noted: "Georgia’s 142nd county would have been named Cromartie County if not for a custom to name counties only after deceased citizens." John Cromartie was Appling County’s state legislative representative, and very much alive at the time, while Davis had passed away in 1889.
Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana
Birthplace of Louisiana Oil Industry – View Larger Map
Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana came into creation within the same basic time period, 1912. It was one of five parishes carved from what was known as "Imperial" Calcasieu Parish, a behemoth of more than 3,600 square miles. I couldn’t find much more information about the circumstances of its naming, although I will note that I’m fascinated by a couple of completely unrelated bits of trivia:
- This is part of Acadiana – Cajun Country – so it’s interesting to see a departure from French to a Confederacy theme.
- Jennings, a town in Jefferson Davis Parish, is credited as the birthplace of Louisiana’s oil and gas industry based upon the first oil well placed on the Mamou Prairie near Evangeline in 1901. "To date, over 220,000 wells have been drilled in Louisiana." Here’s a slightly less known fact: that first well, the Heywood #1 Jules Clement well, was actually over the border in neighboring Acadia Parish (map). Just sayin’.
Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi
Jefferson Davis represented Mississippi both as a member of the House of Representatives and as a United States Senator. It’s not unexpected that Mississippi created a Jefferson Davis County in 1906. The African American population of said county was 57.38% in the 2000 Census, though. I’m a little puzzled that the name hasn’t been changed.
View Larger Map
Beyond the borders of Jefferson Davis County and farther south along Mississippi’s Gulf coast in Biloxi stands Beauvoir, the home where Jefferson Davis spent his final years. It is also the site of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. Both properties were damaged extensively in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and the library is scheduled for its grand re-opening in June 2013 after extensive renovation.
I don’t have the ability to discuss all 115 geographic features named either Jeff Davis or Jefferson Davis in the US Geological Survey database, although they include mountains, valleys, streams, reservoirs, buildings and schools. A surprising number of them are located outside of the traditional Southern states, too.
(1)12MC is pretty active on Google+ and Twitter; consider joining up if you enjoy Twelve Mile Circle. Those outlets allow me to share items that don’t make it onto the pages here. Links are available at the top of the page and in the column to the right.
(2)Katy offered Maxbass, ND and Carol Stream, IL. I’m still exploring possibilities and will likely feature this in a future article. Feel free to add other examples in the comments and you may find yourself mentioned on 12MC!