Seriously Broken

I was amazed to find so many broken place names. I didn’t know what led people to memorialize broken objects, just noted that they they did and it amused me. Broken Lakes, Broken Ridges, Broken Points, Broken Valleys and on and on. The list was so exhaustive that I had a terrible time limiting my selection to the largest of such populated places, a couple of themes and some oddballs.

Native Americans Broke Stuff

Priorities by Barry Lenard, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

That’s what I felt anyway after identifying several names related to the original inhabitants of the Americas. The largest location I found was Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a major suburb of about a hundred thousand residents on the eastern side of Tulsa (map). The image I selected didn’t have all that much to do with Broken Arrow per se except that it was taken there and it seemed to serve as a poignant commentary of one sort or another. It could have been taken anywhere, I suppose.

According to the City of Broken Arrow

When a group of Creek Indians established a settlement near what is now our city, they called it "Broken Arrow." Broken Arrow is the name of the place where many of those same Creeks had lived when they were in Alabama – before moving west on the Trail of Tears. While many Americans think of the term "broken arrow" as meaning an act of peace by Native Americans a few hundred years ago, the Creeks who got that name did so because they broke branches of trees to make their arrows, rather than cutting them.

Broken Bow, Nebraska
Broken Bow, Nebraska by BitHead, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A broken arrow in Oklahoma could be paired with a Broken Bow in Nebraska (map) although it was considerably smaller with about 3,500 residents. Broken Bow was the seat of local government in Custer County and one could be forgiven for thinking that the name referred to Custer’s demise at the Battle of Little Bighorn somehow. The explanation provided in the History of Custer County, Nebraska was rather more mundane.

Mr. Hewitt was a blacksmith and a hunter, and while out hunting one day he found, on an old Indian camping ground, a broken bow and arrow, which he carried home with him… some time afterwards he received notice that the third name [for the town] he had sent to Washington had been rejected, and going to the box after a piece of iron he picked up the broken bow, and the name "Broken Bow" came to his mind quickly.

I also discovered a similarly-sized Broken Bow in Oklahoma about a three hour drive from Broken Arrow. It was named for the Broken Bow in Nebraska, strangely enough.

Miners Broke Stuff

There was once a broken hill in a distant western corner of New South Wales, Australia, deep in the outback. Actually it was a string of hills "that appeared to have a break in them." Then a ranch hand discovered silver ore there in the late 19th Century and the broken hill became Broken Hill (map), a large mine and a settlement.

Miners extracted silver, zinc and lead from "a boomerang-shaped line of lode." It was a dirty, dangerous job and more than 700 people died on the site. A memorial served as "a stark reminder of the fact that more people have died working the mine’s in Broken Hill than Australian soldiers died in the Vietnam War."

Ironically, the broken hill that served as the town’s namesake no longer exists. It was mined completely away.

mine de cuivre - Zambie (around Kabwe)
mine de cuivre – Zambie (around Kabwe) by Amis de la Terre, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Another broken hill, this one in Zambia, resembled the broken hill in Australia. Foreign prospectors noticed the similarities and named it Broken Hill after the Australian location: "the mine became one of the biggest mines before the advent of copper mines on the Copperbelt." The town was later renamed Kabwe (map) in the post-colonial era, an indigenous word meaning "ore or smelting."

In 1921, a miner working at Broken Hill noticed a skull in the debris and he retrieved it. This came to be known appropriately enough as the Broken Hill skull. It belonged to a distant human ancestor known as Homo heidelbergensis that lived more than a half million years ago. The skull can be seen today at the Natural History Museum in London.

Some Other Broken Stuff

BR day lodge
BR day lodge by Jason Blair, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

New Zealand had a Broken River, and near there a Broken River Ski Field (map).

Broken Island, Falkland Islands

Finally, I noticed Broken Island in the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas if one prefers, although I don’t really want to get into the geo-politics of the situation). Google misspelled the name. Every other source I consulted agreed that it was Broken Island.

I included that last one because I didn’t have a 12MC push-pin on the Falklands in my Complete Index Map. Now I do. I’m still waiting for my first website visitor from the Falklands by the way. Its Internet country code top-level domain is .fk. We could have a lot of fun with that one.


Twelve Mile Circle mentioned Sault Ste. Marie the other day, the name of two cities on opposite banks of the St. Marys River, one in Canada and the other in the United States. The curious prefix "sault" jumped-out of course, and while I was aware that it should be pronounced something akin to "soo" I’d certainly never examined its etymology before. I just took it on faith that it was an odd word with an unusual pronunciation.

As the city on the US side of the border in Michigan explained,

While there is some debate on the exact meaning of "Sault," scholars of early French note that the word translates into jump, referring to the place where one needs to "jump", or put into the St. Mary’s River. This translation relates to the treacherous rapids and cascades that fall over 20 feet from the level of Lake Superior to the level of the lower lakes.

It was an archaic word carried to the Great Lakes by early French explorers and applied in various spots wherever treacherous river rapids required portages. It then shifted in meaning slightly in Canadian French / Français Canadien to refer to the rapids themselves. Websters said, "(1) obsolete : leap, jump;… (2) a fall or rapid in a river " Those familiar with the word "somersault" will notice a similar history. The usage began to make more sense.

Could 12MC find other places where the archaic Sault existed as an artifact of those early French explorations? Yes, primarily in Canada and to a lesser degree in immediately adjacent areas of the United States.

Long Sault

Geese on the Long Sault Parkway by sarkasmo, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I discovered two noteworthy Long Sault placenames, one in Ontario and the other in Québec. This made sense to me because of multiple river obstacles that would have seemed quite lengthy and inconvenient to those portaging around them.

Long Sault Parkway, Ontario

Ontario’s Long Sault remained as such in name only. As explained on the St. Lawrence Parks page for the Long Sault Parkway,

… a group of eleven islands west of Cornwall, Ontario, was created by St. Lawrence Seaway flooding in 1958. The islands, formerly part of the Canadian mainland before the flooding of the Long Sault rapids, are a major tourist attraction…

Long Sault became a rather tame, tourist-friendly stretch, with roiling whitewater replaced by a leisurely flow. Nonetheless the parkway, plus an adjacent unincorporated urban community within South Stormont township, and a set of islands on the US side of the border all retained the Long Sault name afterwards.

The Long Sault rapids on Québec’s Ottawa River had an even more interesting history. The Battle of Long Sault took place there:

In the spring of 1660, [Adam Dollard des Ormeaux] and his men left Montreal, heading northwest up the Ottawa River… When the party arrived at an abandoned fort at Long-Sault that had been built by the Algonquins the previous autumn, they were joined by a war party of 40 Hurons and four Algonquins. Totally unexpectedly, another war party then appeared, this time not allied but enemy and much stronger. It consisted of about 200 Iroquois warriors, who were as surprised to stumble across the French as the French were to run into them.

It didn’t end well — the French defenders accidentally blew themselves up. Nonetheless, period accounts described it as a great French "victory."

Much later, in 1833, the Carillon Canal bypassed the rapids (map). The canal still exists and operates as the Carillon Canal National Historic Site. It includes a single, functional 20 metre lock that serves the recreational boating community primarily.


Sault-au-Récollet - Bihoreau
Sault-au-Récollet – Bihoreau by Marie, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license

Sault-au-Récollet is a neighbourhood in Montreal (map). Récollet referred to the Recollects, a French branch of the Friars (also known as Franciscans). The Recollects became very early explorers and missionaries in the region, and arrived with Samuel de Champlain. They even predated Jesuits explorers who would later overshadow them. This would lead one to believe that Sault-au-Récollet might be a very old name, and indeed that was the case. A website about the neighborhood explained the name and I’ll provide the original French followed by the crappy Google Translate version in English:

En 1625, le récollet Nicolas Viel, un missionnaire français, et son compagnon Ahuntsic, un jeune français vivant à l’Amérindienne, se noient dans les rapides. Ce lieu est désormais nommé Sault-au-Récollet… In 1625, the Recollects Nicolas Viel, a French missionary, and his companion Ahuntsic, a young French living Native American, drown in the rapids. This place is now called Sault au Recollects.


Grand Falls, NB
Grand Falls, NB by Ken McMillan, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

The grand falls on the Saint John River remained quite spectacular throughout the ages. They dropped some 23 metres in quick succession. This location gave rise to the city of Grand-Sault / Grand Falls in New Brunswick (map), right on the border with the United States just east of northern Maine.

The city’s "Did You Know" page contained an interesting trivial tidbit: "Grand Falls is one of two municipalities in Canada with its name in both official languages: Grand Falls/Grand-Sault."

What was the other? I knew it would drive me nuts so I had to drop everything and find the answer. Fortunately I stumbled across Public Works and Government Services Canada without expending too much effort.

15.04 Names of inhabited places. Only two municipalities in Canada have two official forms of their names, one in English and one in French: Grand Falls and Caissie Cape in New Brunswick, which are also known officially as Grand-Sault and Cap-des-Caissie. All other municipalities have only one authorized form: thus Montréal and Québec (the city) retain their accents in English.

Problem solved. Canadian 12MC readers now have something to cite during casual conversations.

Other Places

The Canadian Geographical Names Data Base included several other occurrences of Sault. They were all in Québec.

  • Sault Blanc (Falls)
  • Sault McKenzie (Falls)
  • Sault Noir (Falls)
  • Sault-Saint-Lin (Unincorporated area)
  • Sault-au-Cochon (Unincorporated area)
  • Sault-au-Mouton (Unincorporated area)
  • Sault-à-la-Puce (Unincorporated area)

First Nations / Native Americans

The sault connection extended to some of the original inhabitants of those places explored by the French.

The Saulteaux First Nation of Cochin, Saskatchewan, once lived in an area north of Sault Ste. Marie. They are an Algonquian group also known as the Plains Ojibwa. There is another First Nation called Saulteau First Nations in Chetwynd, British Columbia. One source noted that they "originated from Manitoba and was formed by the amalgamation of Beaver, Cree, and Saulteau residents." I could not identify them to a specific "sault" though.

On the other side of the border resides the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Michigan, often shortened to the Sault Tribe.

Riverboat Adventure, Part 2 (Original Inhabitants)

Long before Europeans and their descendants tagged the Lower Mississippi River valley with a cornucopia of artificial lines, forming states, and counties, and meridians and so forth, the area already had a remarkable human history. Native Americans left behind laboriously-constructed earthen mounds for a variety of residential, ceremonial and funereal purposes all along the river and across the surrounding terrain.

Wickliffe Mounds

We stopped first at Wickliffe Mounds near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, on the Kentucky side of the border (map). The Middle Mississippian cultural group that selected this site didn’t choose it accidentally. They clustered on high ground well above the floodplain at the meeting of two mighty rivers, occupying their bluff from around 1100 to 1350 as determined by artifacts they left behind.

Wickliffe was a small village, with a few homes clustered around a central plaza and augmented with a burial mound and a ceremonial site. As noted by Kentucky State Parks,

Peaceful farmers, they grew corn and squash, hunted in the neighboring forests and fished the river; they made pottery from shell-tempered clay with elaborate designs and decorations; they participated in a vast trade network up and down the rivers; they had stone, shell and bone tools; they had a complex chiefdom level society; they lived in permanent style houses made of wattle and daub; and they built flat topped platform style mounds.

An amateur archeologist purchased the site in the 1930’s and turned it into a degrading roadside display called "Ancient Buried City." The unearthed remains of the original inhabitants were disinterred from their burial mounds as an attraction for gawking tourists. It wasn’t until the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 that ancient skeletal remains were removed from public view. The property passed to Murray State University which conducted proper archaeological reviews, and then later became a property of the State of Kentucky. All bodies of the original Mound Builders were reburied in a restored mound under the supervision of the Chickasaw Nation although that had to wait until 2011.

Every exploitative vestige of Ancient Buried City was removed. One could always visit the smoke shop and souvenir stand across the street, I suppose, if one were somehow nostalgic for those days.

Winterville Mounds

Winterville Mounds, Mississippi, USA

We’d hoped to visit Winterville Mounds outside of Greenville, Mississippi (map). It was the day the skies cracked opened and rained so hard that we holed-up in our hotel room for a full afternoon, which actually turned out to be a good idea because we were completely exhausted. I couldn’t find a decent photograph of the mounds with a Creative Commons license so we’re stuck with the Street View link. Double fail.

Winterville was a Lower Mississippian site settled around the same basic time as Wickliffe. As the State of Mississippi explained,

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Indians who used the Winterville Mounds may have had a civilization similar to that of the Natchez Indians, a Mississippi tribe documented by French explorers and settlers in the early 1700s. The Natchez Indians’ society was divided into upper and lower ranks, with a person’s social rank determined by heredity through the female line. The chief and other tribal officials inherited their positions as members of the royal family. The elaborate leadership network made mound building by a civilian labor force possible.

I’d like to come back for another attempt should I ever find myself in the area again. The descriptions sounded pretty impressive.

Poverty Point

Poverty Point was a considerably more colossal site, located in what is now northeastern Louisiana (map). This was also a much older site, constructed during the Archaic Period and peaking about 3,000 years ago. Poverty Point was one of the largest sets of mounds in North America, covering nearly a thousand acres. The National Park Service estimated that its construction was "the product of five million hours of labor."

It was so massive that no single photograph from ground level could do it justice. The photo I took and posted above was a portion of mound called the Bird Mound. However I didn’t have the camera angle to show the six concentric crescents aligned in front of this earthen monolith that formed a central plaza facing Bayou Marçon. It’s all best appreciated from the air. The structure showed up decently in Google Maps’ Terrain View, however, the embed function has been disabled in the "new and improved" maps. Instead I’ll post a photo I took in the Visitors Center.

The Bird Mound was the small square at the middle-back of the crescent.

There were scores of mounds left behind by these pre-Columbian Native Americans in what came to be known as the Central and Southern United States. It’s a little understood piece of history with a level of sophistication not always appreciated. Mounds that weren’t desecrated for souvenirs or destroyed by farmer’s plows were true survivors, telling a story of a highly advanced culture that existed before Europeans set sail for the Americas.

The Riverboat Adventure articles: