I got an inquiry recently from reader "Aaron O." I took immediate interest because he sparked my Wolf Island visit during the Riverboat Adventure the last time we corresponded. He was a county counter like many of us on 12MC including myself, and he’d encountered a curious coincidence during his collections.
Jasper County bordered Newton County in Texas. Fine, nothing special there. This year he concentrated on Mississippi though, and once again he noticed a Jasper County bordered on a Newton County. Consulting a map, he observed that Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana and Missouri each had a Jasper County and a Newton County that shared a common border. Building on Aaron’s efforts, I began my research and saw that two states, Illinois and Iowa, also had a Jasper County (with no corresponding Newton County) that located their local seat of government in a town named Newton. What was going on?
I’d never noticed the pattern before and I didn’t understand the connection although it happened too frequently to be left to chance. However, the nexus would have been obvious to someone living in the United States two centuries ago. Jasper and Newton referred to Sergeants William Jasper and John Newton, as I found through additional Internet sleuthing, historical figures from the American Revolutionary War.(¹) Jasper was genuinely valiant. Newton was a nobody, elevated in stature through creative fiction that included the alleged connection between the two men.
Fort Moultrie. A poor quality video I took a few years ago
It was still early during the American Revolution when Colonel William Moultrie hastily constructed and never quite completed an earthen fort reinforced with palmetto logs on Sullivan’s Island to protect the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina (map). British warships attacked his positions in June 1776. Palmetto, as it occurred, served as an excellent defensive material. The spongy wood and sandy soil absorbed the impact of incoming cannonballs and deflected them harmlessly with minimal effect on the fortification walls. Meanwhile American artillery returned fire, pounding and damaging the British fleet. British forces retreated after a full day of futile bombardment and wouldn’t return to Charleston for another four years.
On the official flag of South Carolina, "The palmetto tree symbolized Colonel Moultrie’s heroic defense of the palmetto-log fort on Sullivan’s Island against the attack of the British fleet…"
The Palmetto State by Wendy, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
William Jasper served under Col. Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island as part of the defensive forces preventing a British invasion. The Americans raised their flag, the "Moultrie Flag" — essentially the current South Carolina flag minus the palmetto tree — above a parapet and the battle commenced. A British shell shattered the flagstaff during the fight, knocking the Moultrie Flag to the ground. Jasper grabbed the flag, attached it to a makeshift flagstaff, climbed atop a parapet and held it in place. His actions became a rallying point for American defenders during the siege and his bravery became well-known afterwards.
Jasper Monument by Dizzy Girl, on Flickr
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Jasper tried a similar feat at the siege of Savannah, Georgia in 1779. Once more he found himself in a position to race to the top of a parapet and affix a flag. This time, however, he was shot and killed although not before he finish his task. This cemented his legacy, he became a revered hero with numerous posthumous honors, a statue was erected in Savannah, and all eight Jasper Counties in the United States were named for him.
John Newton and the William Jasper Connection
John Newton benefited from a largely-fictionalized revisionist history courtesy of Parson Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems wrote highly romanticized accounts of early American history at the beginning of 19th Century. Modern standards would probably characterize this genre as "historical fiction" although back then it was simply history and presented as such. He’d listened to or concocted fanciful tales and presented them as fact. Most famously, it included the allegorical account of George Washington and the cherry tree which he claimed he’d heard from an elderly woman who said she was a distant Washington cousin.(²)
Weems wrote immensely popular and influential "biographies" of Washington and other leading historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, and more importantly to this account, Francis Marion. General Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox" served originally under Moultrie at Sullivan’s Island, then at the Siege of Savannah and later as the leader of an unconventional force that bedeviled British troops throughout South Carolina. He is often credited with being instrumental to the development of modern guerrilla warfare.
What Weems did for Washington, he also did for Marion. Chapter VI of "The life of General Francis Marion, a celebrated partisan officer" presented an account of Jasper and Newton.
Sergeants Jasper and Newton Rescuing American Prisoners from the British
by John Blake White (1781 – 1859)
United States Senate Collection
In this story, William Jasper had a loyalist brother who served in the British army at the Ebenezer garrison (map), near Savannah. Jasper would secretly visit his brother undetected for days at a time then report his findings back to the Americans. He brought John Newton along on his final trip behind enemy lines. While at the British garrison, they spotted the arrival a group of American prisoners captured in Savannah who were destined for execution, included a young woman and her child. British troops later marched the group away from the garrison presumably to be hanged. Jasper and Newton waited at a nearby spring where they supposed the group would relax before completing their march. They caught the resting guards by surprise, overpowered them, and released the prisoners, which they then led back across the Savannah River to freedom.
The heroic story struck a chord with American audiences.
Go ahead and read the original story. It won’t take more than a few minutes and it will provide an good indication of Weems’ fanciful, over-the-top style. I dare you to read it without rolling your eyes.
Too bad it wasn’t true. No similar account ever made it into written records on either side of the conflict at the time. Jasper was already revered for his bravery so it seemed unlikely that his peers wouldn’t have noticed him slipping behind enemy lines and returning with freed prisoners. Weems either heard an after-the-fact friend-of-a-friend tale like the Washington cherry tree story or he made it up on his own.
Nonetheless, the story linked Jasper to Newton inextricably in the American psyche during the first half of the 19th Century. Weems’ publications were so influential that fiction became fact. This coincided with a rapid expansion of the U.S. population and ongoing formation of county structures. Although Weems is largely forgotten today, his sway was great enough that it influenced several states to create both a Jasper County and a Newton County adjacent to each other.
(¹) Newton County, Mississippi claimed that it was named for Sir Isaac Newton. While I don’t have evidence, I suspect it was named originally for John Newton like all of the others and it was changed at a later date. This would be similar to King County, Washington named originally for William Rufus King and later changed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
(²) This tale is widely known to anyone raised in the United States. I doubt the same folklore applies elsewhere so I’ll briefly summarize. George Washington as a small child, according to Weems, received a hatchet as a gift and started chopping on various objects like any small child would want to do. This included his father’s prized cherry tree. When confronted he was alleged to respond, "I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." Weems used this as an object lesson to convey Washington’s moral fiber, that even when wrong he would confess his mistakes and deal with the consequences rather than deceive or hide the truth. My father, the king of bad puns used to tell a joke that I’ll presume was popular in the 1940’s, with the punchline "I cannot tell a lie. Popeye did it."
It couldn’t possibly be true, a place named for Dwayne Johnson a.k.a "The Rock", the professional wrestler and actor?
This guy had more than 7 million Twitter followers and he followed only one person, Muhammad Ali. That would indicate someone of immense popularity, and yet, could that be enough to get an entire town named for him?
The Rock, Georgia, USA
No, of course not. The Rock in Georgia was not named for Dwayne Johnson and I never figured that was a realistic possibility. I was simply amused by the weird juxtaposition of a professional wrestler and a populated place with the same name. Johnson didn’t have any association with the state or for the town as far as I could determine. Nonetheless I never considered that The Rock — the town — had anything to do with the Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant chain either. However it did, as improbable as that sounded.
The Rock in Georgia was named for The Rock Ranch, and:
The Rock Ranch is a beautiful 1,500 acre cattle ranch located about an hour south of Atlanta in Upson County. It’s a place where families, school groups and even businesses can come to enjoy what we call "agritourism." The Rock Ranch is owned by Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy and dedicated to "Growing Healthy Families"!
S. Truett Cathy and kin are no strangers to controversy. There’s no doubt that The Rock Ranch would have a strong opinion on those Healthy Families that it was dedicated to Growing, regardless of where one’s own personal feelings fell on that spectrum.
Bequia by Globalgrasshopr, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
My tangential thought process led me to consider other placenames beginning with the definite article. It had to be unusual, I considered, and then I realized it may not have been all that rare even if it wasn’t the norm. A simple visit to the US Department of State’s A-Z List of Country and Other Areas demonstrated that quickly at a national level.
- THE Bahamas
- THE Congo (Republic of, and Democratic Republic of)
- THE Gambia
- Saint Vincent and THE Grenadines
The rule of thumb seemed to center upon entities named for something like a river or a group of islands. Those increased the likelihood of having the definite article tacked onto them. The Grenadines portion of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines fascinated me, I guess because Saint Vincent and the Grenadines included only a portion of the Grenadines. The largest island of the Grenadines, Carriacou, was actually a dependency of Grenada. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines had to settle for the second largest island, Bequia. Perhaps the name should be changed to Saint Vincent and Some of the Grenadines? It seemed like false advertising.
While not explicitly stated in the US Department of State list in this form, one often encounters THE Netherlands and THE Philippines too. I suppose while I’m at it I could add THE United States and THE United Kingdom. There used to be THE Ukraine although that began to shift to Ukraine by iteself after becoming an independent state in 1991.
Nonetheless I think the only two nations where the definite article would always be capitalized would be The Bahamas and The Gambia (vs. the United States and the United Kingdom, where lowercase would be acceptable in many circumstances). It all gets so confusing.
In the United Kingdom
I looked for instances of THE attached to placenames in many areas and found no nation with a greater prevalence than the United Kingdom. There must be hundreds of them. Some where quite remarkable such as The Burf, The Folly, The Glack, The Mumbles, and The Shoe. The best of course were the several places named The Butts because 12MC couldn’t resist another opportunity for lowbrow humor. This would be an appropriate time to turn on the video of Da Butt for some inspiration.
Many British placenames that sounded odd to the rest of us were rooted in things that made complete sense in their original context. English Heritage provided a logical explanation for The Butts:
An archery butts is an area of land given over to archery practise in which one or more artificially constructed mounds of earth and stone were used as a target area. The name originally applied to the dead marks or targets themselves but the earthen platforms on which the targets were placed also became known as butts… Archery butts can be recognised as field monuments through their earthwork mounds but documentary sources allow the best identification of archery butts, usually through place-names eg. Butt Hills… Archery butts are associated with the use and practise of the longbow which was in part responsible for England’s military power throughout the medieval period.
Thus, many of The Butts derived from archery fields although some did not: "The Middle English word ‘butt’ referred to an abutting strip of land, and is often associated with medieval field systems." In Britain, The Butts could have been associated with archery or with an odd leftover land remnant.
The Gazetteer of British Place listed two specific location of The Butts, one in Glamorgan, South Wales (map) and the other in Hampshire, England (map), although other sources listed more.
I noticed something interesting next to The Butts in Hampshire, Jane Austen’s House Museum. Jane Austen (1775–1817) resided here during the latter part of her life, where she wrote the novels Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. She may have also revised drafts of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey here as well. Thus it could be said that the famous author gazed upon The Butts regularly.
I’ve certainly noticed Florida’s northeastern bump above Jacksonville, and then the Georgia dip just to the west, both of which contrast with their generally straight remaining border. Sure, we’ve all seen it before and taken note of it. The meandering border through that segment followed the St. Marys River that rose from the depths of the Okefenokee Swamp and flowed to the sea.
Florida-Georgia Border, St. Marys River
I didn’t know about all of the other St. Marys Rivers in North America. Most strikingly they had very little in common with each other besides their shared name including a lack of an apostrophe, as consciously removed by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and the Geographical Names Board of Canada.
These differences may be appreciated best photographically.
Florida / Georgia
Inhabitant of the Salt Marsh by Jon Dawson, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license
Some sources claimed that the name of the river along the Florida-Georgia border derived from Spanish control of the territory, and their nearby mission, Santa María de Guadalupe. Others associated the river with an Irish St. Mary. Evidence seemed lacking for either assertion. More fascinating was its Native American name, Thlathlothlaguphka, or "Rotten Fish." I wasn’t completely comfortable with that particular etymology either, in fact I’m pretty sure it was bogus, however it amused me so we’ll go with it.
Ontario, Canada / Michigan, USA
Katmai Bay breaks ice in St. Marys River by Coast Guard News, on Flickr
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Far to the north and in a much colder climate (map), the St. Marys River allowed water to flow from Lake Superior into Lake Huron, forming a natural border between Canada and the United States. French explorers first traveled up to its rapids, thus explaining the shared names of two cross-boarder cities, Sault Ste. Marie, after the river’s French name rivière Sainte-Marie.
Some of the earliest explorers included Jesuit missionaries such as Isaac Jogues who arrived at the rapids in 1641. Explorations by men seeking to spread their faith as much as open new lands left an impression on the geographic names that were bestowed during those early years. St. Isaac Jogues was later killed by Mohawks Indians in New York and was canonized in 1930, one of the eight North American Martyrs.
Maryland Dove by Alyson Hurt, on Flickr
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Right around the same time that Isaac Jogues explored the Great Lakes, another group focused on the mid-Atlantic coastline. Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, arranged for two ships — the Ark and the Dove — and about three hundred settlers to depart from England for Maryland. The colonists arrived in 1634 and established St. Mary’s at the mouth of a river they gave the same name (map). The Maryland colony was established as a tolerant home for Roman Catholics and the initial settlement was named for Mary the Blessed Virgin.
A replica ship, the Maryland Dove, serves as a floating museum on the St. Marys River adjacent to St. Marys City.
Thus the derivation of the first three St. Marys discussed were related to three separate European nations: Spain (maybe), France and England.
Indiana / Ohio
The "Old" Wells Street Bridge by Samuraijohnny, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
I couldn’t find anything about the early history of the St. Marys River in Ohio and Indiana. The St. Marys and the St. Joseph joined in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to form the Maumee (map). I had better luck with Maumee. It appeared to be an anglicized name for a group of Native Americans known as the Myaamiaki. Readers are probably more familiar with another word that derived from the same tribe of Algonquian peoples, Miami.
I discovered additional St. Mary(s) Rivers including one in Virginia, one in Nova Scotia and one in British Columbia. The US Geographic Names Information System also listed a variety of St. Marys branches, runs, creeks and even a ditch.
My favorite might have been St. Mary’s Sugar Brook (map), in St. Mary’s-The Capes, Newfoundland and Labrador (yes, with an apostrophe). That was quite a name. It sounded poetic. It drained from a nearby hill, St. Mary’s Sugarloaf, allegedly the "428th highest mountain in Newfoundland and Labrador" at 242 metres / 793 feet.