John Wilkes Booth‘s last stand was by no means the only infamous last stand. It got me thinking about a wide range of other events from the last couple of hundred years that might fall within the same general guidelines. Last stands happened in many places in many times. I selected a few from the multitude of instances available and fixated on them. Custer’s Last Stand, well, that would practically be synonymous with the definition of a last stand. In fact that was the first thing that popped into my mind as I expanded past Booth. Undoubtedly that notion would be the same for much of the Twelve Mile Circle audience. I couldn’t simply skip it — that would be a glaring omission — so George Armstrong Custer needed a closer examination.
The spot where Custer died, the place of his last stand, was considerably better known than his birthplace. I figured I’d have a difficult time finding it because I didn’t think anyone would really care except for maybe me and a handful of other people fascinated by such things. I guessed wrong. People apparently did care. In fact I even found a Custer Memorial Association in New Rumley, Ohio, at Custer’s 1839 birthplace. They operated a small museum "open the last Sunday of each month from 1:00 to 4:00pm." They also maintained a roadside park open year round on the site of the original Custer homestead, of which little remained except for the foundation of the house where he was born (map).
However Custer spent much of his childhood in Monroe, Michigan, with the family of his half-sister.
The people of Monroe erected a monument to Custer after his death (map). He probably got a monument everywhere he ever set foot, or so it seemed, although some hadn’t fared well. Even the citizens of Monroe, a place where he spent much of his childhood, relocated the monument a bunch of times including sticking it out in the woods where vegetation overgrew it, before moving the statue to a more prominent part of town. Officially it was known as the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument, alternately Sighting the Enemy.
Famously, Custer finished last in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However it was 1861, the Civil War was just underway, and the military needed officers in a hurry so they pressed him into service anyway. He performed remarkably well once in a combat role.
Throughout the war Custer continued to distinguishing himself as fearless, aggressive, and ostentatious. His personalized uniform style, complete with a red neckerchief could be somewhat alienating, but he was successful in gaining the respect of his men with his willingness to lead attacks from the front rather than the back.
Custer quickly moved up the ranks, becoming brigadier general then brevet major general of the U.S. Army and finally major general of the U.S. Volunteers in quick succession. He was only 23 years old when he first became a general, the youngest in the army. Custer also served the entire lengthy of the conflict, from Bull Run to Appomattox. At Gettysburg, he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that was instrumental in stopping a Confederate cavalry attack on the Union army’s right flank. He got a nice monument for that too. Actually, the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade earned the monument although Custer’s image appeared in a circular bas-relief sculpture just about half way up (map).
I mentioned all of that service because people tended to overlook his distinguished career and skip right to the ending.
Twelve Mile Circle is not a history website so I’ll only discuss the Last Stand briefly. There were plenty of other places on the Intertubes, or even entire books, where one could get a better account. Custer died on the battlefield near Montana’s Little Bighorn River in 1876 (map). The United States Army had a rule-of-thumb, naming battles for the nearest body of water during that period (e.g., the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Antietam) so the engagement came to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The situation leading up to it brewed for a long time. The government had been forcing Plains Indians onto reservations for awhile by that point. Various elements of the Lakota and Cheyenne resisted fiercely, sparking a whole chain of events known as the Sioux Wars. The final outrage in the eyes of native inhabitants had been a sudden incursion of settlers into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. The Sioux considered this a sacred area that had been promised to them in a treaty. That quickly collapsed after word leaked out about gold found in the area. Many bands, fed up with broken promises, left the reservations in an effort to fight for their ancestral lands.
The government began a protracted, coordinated campaign to crush resistance. Custer hadn’t gone out there alone, he simple commanded one force amongst several crossing the plains from late 1875 and into the first half of 1876 trying to tame the rebellion. However Custer made a huge blunder. His aggressive personality that served him well during the Civil War compelled him to rush headlong into battle without understanding the true situation at Little Bighorn.
He thought he was attacking a small encampment. Instead he led 700 men from the 7th Cavalry Regiment headlong into a force three times its size. Sitting Bull’s forces quickly turned the tables and utterly destroyed Custer and his men in less than an hour. Casualties also included Custer’s two brother, Thomas and Boston. Later historical accounts by members of the tribes expressed complete bewilderment that Custer would attack them when they were so strong.
There was a town in Maryland I spotted named California. I’d known about it for awhile. It always seemed odd to have a town in one state named for another, especially one located an entire continent away. I figured there was a connection and further speculated that it had its roots in the California Gold Rush that captured the imagination of the nation in 1849 and thereafter.
First I needed to examine the etymology of California to understand if the name might have arisen independently. However, nobody was completely sure what influenced the original California name. Most sources tended to speculate that it derived from a romantic novel published in Spain in the early Sixteenth Century, "Las Sergas de Esplandián." The book described a fictional island found east of Asia. Early Spanish explorers, mistaking Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for an island, noticed a similarity and applied California both to the peninsula and to lands farther north. The theory seemed plausible although plenty of other ideas existed too.
The name spread throughout parts of the New World. However, I was interested specifically in places named because of the Gold Rush influence. Therefore I declined to examine places named California in Central and South America. Those would have likely traced back to the Spanish colonial era. I stuck to English-speaking areas.
I didn’t resolve the mystery in Maryland completely. Indeed, the California (map) in St. Mary’s County was named for the west coast state of the same name. However I never discovered what year that happened. I also learned that this once sleepy hamlet had been growing rapidly in recent years due to its proximity to adjacent Naval Air Station Patuxent River while also becoming popular with commuters to Washington, DC. It experienced an explosive 25% population growth in the previous decade, now approaching twelve thousand residents. That recent surge probably made it the largest U.S. California outside of the state of California.
This same general area made an appearance in Twelve Mile Circle about three years ago in Three Notches for an entirely different reason.
The California in Pennsylvania (map) sparked similar déjà vu. I knew I’d encountered the place previously. Sure enough, the university located in town — California University of Pennsylvania — appeared in a 12MC article called Résumé Bait and Switch a couple of years ago. I’d even speculated on the potential Gold Rush nature of its name. The conjecture was well founded since the borough of California confirmed it:
California Borough is a community of approximately 5200 people that covers nearly 13 square miles of land. California was founded in 1849 and incorporated as a Borough in 1853. It is named after the state of California because the town’s founding coincided with the California Gold Rush of 1849. Naming the town after the state was meant to symbolize our town’s future growth and prosperity.
The third largest non-California California seemed to be a town so named in Missouri (map). It also had the distinction of being the seat of local government for Moniteau County. This California was named for its west coast cousin although I’d have to call it a near-miss on the Gold Rush connection. It actually predated the Gold Rush by a couple of years.
California, county seat of Moniteau county, …was first called Boonsborough but by act January 25, 1847, changed to California. The new country on the Pacific Coast was just then attracting attention and the overland railroad was being agitated and during this agitation the name was given for the state of California
The name change may have had something to do with a Post Office issue; the original name already having been applied to another Missouri town.
Most of the other towns of California were nothing more than flyspecks. There was one former town however, now a neighborhood within Cincinnati, that seemed to have some significance (map). The village claimed a Gold Rush derivation, albeit indirectly.
In the year of the Gold Rush, three friends… shook off the desire to become gold miners and decided instead to make money in an "easier" way. Their idea was to lay off a town that would become one of the greatest industrial cities along the Ohio River… Unfortunately, their dreams were never fully realized and California was to remain a small rivertown until it was later annexed by Cincinnati in 1909.
California eventually packed a lot of activities within its tiny neighborhood boundaries including a golf course, a nature preserve and an amusement park. It was also the city of Cincinnati’s southernmost point.
I did discover a couple of California place names in English-speaking countries outside of the United States with potential Gold Rush connections. The larger was California Gulley (map), a suburb near Bendigo in Victoria, Australia. Bindigo was noted for its goldfield.
People came from across the world to seek their fortune in Bendigo in the mid to late 1800’s. Alluvial gold was discovered along the banks of the Bendigo Creek in 1851 and resulted in a major gold rush… In Christmas 1851 there were 800 people on the field and by the following June, 20,000 diggers had arrived in the alluvial field. Alluvial gold production was dominant in the first ten years of the field to 1860 and is estimated to account for up to four million ounces or almost one fifth of the total gold won from the Bendigo goldfield.
It didn’t seem surprising that an area on the outskirts of Bendigo came to be known as California Gully given the timing of the Bendigo Gold Rush, just a couple of years after the similar rush in the United States.
There was also a California in England, an area within Derby (map) in Derbyshire. The etymology was unclear although speculation existed that it may have had ties somehow to the California Gold Rush.
My search showed that many California place names did seem draw their influence from the state of California in the United States. Connections to the Gold Rush often existed, although not ubiquitously.
The expression "Flat as a Pancake" obviously means that something would be considered extremely flat. There are several U.S. states, led by Florida, that are indeed even flatter than a pancake. That’s not what this article is about. Rather I found a location that may or may not have been flatter than a pancake although it should be flatter if its name did it justice. The Geographic Names Information System identified it as Pancake Flats.
I expected to find virtually nothing about this highly obscure spot northwest of Altoona, Pennsylvania that wasn’t even significant enough to be identified on online maps (for example). Yet, people have been there. Lots of them. It was one of the signature features, albeit a relatively flat feature set amongst much rougher terrain, along the Greensprings Trail at Wopsononock (Wopsy) Mountain. The Bureau of Land Management described it as a "2.2 mile loop. Mainly level, low difficulty."
That was the only Pancake Flats listed although there were 48 other entries for various other Pancakes in the United States.
Pancake, West Virginia
I found very little information about populated places called Pancake. Locations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas did manage to stand out from the crowd a bit.
Pancake, West Virginia (map) consisted of little more than an abandoned whistle stop along the South Branch Valley Railroad named for the Pancake family. However, nearly everyone bearing the Pancake surname listed in Wikipedia came from West Virginia. The surname clearly signified something significant along the South Branch of the Potomac River.
Pancake, Pennsylvania (map) was a bit more notable. It gained its name in the early 1800’s. I found a Pancake History that included an excerpt from the Saturday, April 2, 1955 edition of The Washington Reporter, of Washington, Pennsylvania.
An air of mystery hovers around the name of George Pancake, one of the early settlers at the little village of that name just east of Washington. Where he came from, when and what became of him are questions that will probably never be answered. He was here for 12 years, and then drifted on west to Ohio… In spite of all efforts to change, the name of Pancake has clung to this village through more than 135 years. First it was Williamsburg, then Martinsburg, and finally Laboratory after Dr. Byron Clark secured a post office for his patent medicine mail order business. But, everyone called it Pancake, and Pancake it still is because it struck the popular fancy as the name of America’s most popular breakfast dish.
Pancake, Texas (map) didn’t exactly qualify as a booming metropolis either. It was large enough nonetheless, to gain an entry in Texas Online from the Texas State Historical Association.
Pancake is at the intersection of Farm roads 2955 and 217, thirteen miles northwest of Gatesville in northern Coryell County. A post office opened there in 1884 with John R. Pancake as postmaster… The population of Pancake was reported as twenty-five from the 1930s through the 1960s. No further estimates were available until 2000 when the population was eleven.
Interestingly, anytime I uncovered the origins of a town called Pancake it tied back to someone named Pancake. I attempted to find out where the name came from with mixed results. Ancestry.com said it was German: "Translation of German Pfannkuch(e), North German Pannkoke, Pankauke, or Dutch Pannekoek(e), metonymic occupational names for someone who made and sold pancakes." One of those family crest websites — and yes apparently there was a Pancake family crest — said it was Cornish.
On the other hand, geographic features named pancake seemed to derive from their appearance, said to resemble either a single pancake (i.e., very flat and round) or a stack of pancakes. Pancake Flats was a good example of that principal and I found a couple of others that seemed to qualify likewise.
There was an entire set of mountains stretching 90 miles (140 kilometres) in the central part of Nevada called the Pancake Range. That was probably the largest geographic pancake feature anywhere. U.S. Route 50, a stretch once dubbed the loneliest road in America, crossed directly over the range. It traveled across Pancake Summit (map) at an elevation of 6,521 feet (1,988 metres).
There were pancakes in Canada too! I found a nice one in Ontario called Pancake Bay (map). There was even a Provincial Park located on the bay with "3 km of beautiful sand beach and Caribbean blue water."