Presidential Birthplaces

On July 3, 2014 · 4 Comments

I’m not sure why I began to think about the birthplaces of every President of the United States. Maybe this might interest people, I considered. I wasn’t fooling myself though — I did it for me. Theoretically I could pass through one of these areas someday in the future and I might want to stop if it were close enough to my intended track. So I created a map.

View Presidential Birthplaces in a larger map

I gathered all of the locations in a shared spreadsheet. Twelve Mile Circle readers should feel free to consult the spreadsheet for exact latitude/longitude coordinates and links to additional information about each site. This could be a handy little reference for anyone wishing to visit these birthplaces — and there are people who do that! I don’t know why I’m surprised. After all, it’s not that much different from my county counting.

Trends began to reveal themselves as I plotted each location. For instance, notice the concentration of sites in the eastern half of the United States, particularly the northeast. That would be expected to a degree because of population and settlement patterns. However I didn’t expect it to be quite that stark. Nixon and Obama(¹) stood far apart as obvious outliers, considerably removed from everyone else.

The Adams Family

John Adams' Birthplace
John Adams' Birthplace by James Walsh, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

The original father-son presidential duo, John Adams and John Quincy Adams should win an award for proximity. They were born in adjacent houses (map) in the north precinct of Braintree, now Quincy, Massachusetts. Both are open the public as part of the Adams National Historical Park. That would be an easy visit.

The National Park Service estimated the distance between birthplaces at 75 feet (23 metres).


James Monroe Birthplace, Monroe Hall, Westmoreland Co., Virginia

I noticed a couple of particularly tight birthplace clusters, one in Virginia and one in Ohio. These two states dominated presidential politics during different eras, creating opportunities for statistical anomalies. The Virginia cluster occurred on the Northern Neck with the births of some of the earliest presidents and "founding fathers," George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe.

Ohio dominated the presidency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with a string of Republican victories. As explained by the Columbus Dispatch,

Ohio’s dominance of the presidency around the time the 19th century became the 20th was no accident: Ohio was the third-largest state, behind New York and Pennsylvania, and it was the economic engine of America. Ohioans were the inventors and operators of the industrial age. With economic might came political power, including dominant influence in the political parties, especially the GOP, from whence seven of Ohio’s eight presidents came.

A particularly remarkable clustering centered near Cincinnati, with the birthplaces of Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Harrison and William Taft.

Close to the Border

Chester Alan Arthur State Historic Site - Vermont
Chester Alan Arthur State Historic Site – Vermont by Doug Kerr, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

The Chester Arthur birthplace in Fairfield, Vermont fell remarkably close to Canada, about 20 miles (32 kilometres) from the border (map). His father immigrated from Ireland to Canada, settling in Dunham, Lower Canada, which is now part of Québec. His mother was an American born in Vermont. The couple wed in Canada and their first child was born in Canada. Arthur was born in the United States. The family moved regularly as Chester’s father taught at various schools and later served as a minister of the Free Will Baptist church.

Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States said,

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President

Arthur’s political opponents conducted a smear campaign focused on the Constitution’s natural-born-citizen clause. His father’s immigration to Canada, his birth near the border, and his family’s frequent relocation were all used as "evidence" of non-citizenship in an attempt to disqualify Arthur from office.

Hospital Births

Bill Clinton Birthplace, Hope, Arkansas

Most presidential birthplaces earned landmark status. Many can be visited by the public. That might not be possible for future presidents. Increasingly, the more recent presidents traced their births to hospitals. Jimmy Carter came first, then Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush and most recently Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton provided a case in point in Hope Arkansas. The Julia Chester Hospital of his birth no longer existed. It was torn down. The Brazzel-Oakcrest Funeral Home occupies its former site. In commemoration the funeral home placed a flagpole and a marker to signify Clinton’s birthplace. Street View provided decent coverage although a view from inside of the funeral home actually offered a better image. In addition his childhood home became a museum. Likely, that’s what will happen in the future. The hospital might deserve a simple plaque while the president’s initial home will replace the typical "birthplace" museum of the past.

Odd Men Out

I won’t bother to discuss all of the presidential birth sites. Maybe I’ll provide more information if I ever visit them. I’ll wrap this up with two more examples.

Andrew Jackson’s birthplace remained an historical mystery. It was somewhere in the Waxhaws Region:

Andrew Jackson, Sr., died in late February, 1767. Betty traveled south to the Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church to bury her husband. On the return trip, she gave birth to Andrew Jackson, the future president of the United States. Although stories abound as to the events surrounding the birth, as of yet no definitive evidence has arisen to authenticate the exact location of Andrew Jackson’s birth on March 15, 1767.

He may have been born in North Carolina. He may have been born in South Carolina. Both have claimed him.

Finally, pity poor Warren Harding. Many historians considered Harding the worst or amongst the worst of all U.S. presidents. Nobody built a Warren Harding Birthplace museum. He barely earned a marker.

Foreshadowing Alert

Watch @TheReal12MC Twitter account over the next few days and you might be able to figure out the topic of several upcoming articles

(¹) I’ve listed Obama’s birthplace as Kapi’olani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital, Honolulu, Hawaii. I don’t put much credence in Birther conspiracies. I don’t think Donald Trump reads 12MC so we’re probably fine.

Sydney Tentacles

On May 22, 2014 · 5 Comments

It’s been a long time since I visited Sydney, Australia, as evidenced by the lousy quality photograph I took of the city skyline from the Taronga Zoo. That happened during the pre-digital era, or at least my pre-ownership-of-anything-digital era. Digital cameras probably existed although my cheapness would have prevented me from purchasing something until much later.

Sydney from Taronga

Nonetheless — and I’m still trying to figure out how my mind wandered there — I considered that Sydney seemed to be an odd name for a city. I thought of Sydney (or Sidney) more as a given name. A quick sampling of baby-naming websites confirmed that I wasn’t imagining things. Afterwards I felt like I had to wash my keyboard and run a virus check. Talk about spammy! Those vile nooks and corners gave music lyrics websites a run for their money for lousy information, audacious pop-ups and link-bait switcheroos fueled by questionable SEO tactics. I returned quickly to the safer side of the Intertubes and never felt happier to consult sources that didn’t feel like I needed to wear rubber gloves as I typed.

Sydney, while often a given name for boys (traditionally, and generally spelled with an "i") or girls (more recently) and particularly in North America, likely came from a surname. The surname, "probably derived from an Anglo-Saxon locational name, …’[at the] wide island/watermeadow’… There is also a folk etymological derivation from the French place name Saint-Denis." The source went on to explain, "much of its use in the United States after the American Revolution being due to admiration for Algernon Sidney as a martyr to royal tyranny."

Never fear, these threads all connected.

Tangentially I just noticed the title of this 12MC article, "Sydney Tentacles" sounded an awful like "Squidward Tentacles." Can you tell I live in a home with two adolescent boys who like to watch SpongeBob a lot? Alright, I’ll pull it together now and get back on track.

Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) provided the nexus. Briefly, he served in the Long Parliament and as a commissioner during the trial of King Charles I, although he opposed the King’s execution. After the Restoration of the English monarchy, he continued to favor a republic form of government over royal rule, and was later implicated in the Rye House Plot that intended to assassinate Charles II and James, Duke of York (the future James II). He was found guilty of treason — which he denied strenuously — and was subsequently beheaded. Many saw him as a martyr including later generations of influential Colonial Americans who had their own issues with the monarchy.

Sydney, Australia was not named for Algernon Sidney directly. Rather the city was named for Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. Townshend selected Sydney as the name of his peerage when he became Baron Sydney (1783) and retained it when elevated to Viscount Sydney (1789). He did this in memory of his distant relative, Algernon Sidney.

Townshend served as Home Secretary for much of the 1780′s and devised the initial plan to send convicts to Botany Bay, leading to European settlement of Australia. Arthur Phillip, who captained the First Fleet of convicts and governed the initial colony, named Sydney Cove and established Sydney Town in 1788 for the person who appointed him: Thomas Townshend.

Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

Sydney, Australia wasn’t the first settlement named for Townshend. Sydney, Nova Scotia predated the Australia version by three years, having been founded in 1785. This location also tied-back to Townshend’s service as Home Secretary. He’d appointed Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres as governor of a colony to be established on Cape Breton Island. In return, DesBarres named the settlement Sydney. See how it worked?

Canada’s Sydney was dissolved in 1995 although the placename didn’t go away entirely. It became part of the amalgamated Cape Breton Regional Municipality. The Canadian Geographical Names Data Base listed Sydney as an "unincorporated area," and specifically a "populated place within a Regional Municipality."

Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia, USA

Hampden-Sydney College, Farmville, Virginia, USA

I found surprisingly few places named Sydney and one of them occurred in the United States, at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. It was established as a private liberal arts college for men in 1775. Hampden-Sydney continues to remain a men’s only institution, one of of only four such colleges in the US to that retains that distinction. The Sydney portion of the name did not derive from Townshend. Rather it harkened back to the earlier namesake, Algernon Sidney. This was a visible manifestation of the philosophy and martyrdom of Sidney and the influence it had upon Colonial Americans of privilege.

And a Final Mystery: There is a Sydney in Florida (map). I had no idea if it related to Thomas Townshend, to Algernon Sidney or to anything else for that matter.

Townshend, Vermont, USA

Townshend, Vermont
Townshend, Vermont by Doug Kerr, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

I speculated that if founders named their settlements for Townshend’s peerage then maybe they named other places for his surname. I decided to look for Townshend. I discovered various geographic features bearing that name although most were too minor to trace. They might have been named for Thomas Townshend or they might not.

The Town of Townshend in Vermont offered a tantalizing possibility (map). However, the town history noted,

The Town of Townshend was chartered in 1753 as one of the New Hampshire Land Grants. It was named for Charles Townshend of England who was most notable for his fondness for taxing the colonies.

That was a miss. However, how many Eighteenth Century English politicians named Townshend could there be? Actually quite a lot, and they all seemed to be interrelated. Such was the case with Thomas and Charles. They were first cousins. Thomas was the son of Thomas; son of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend. Charles was the son of Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend; son of Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend.

One cousin, Thomas, set in motion the modern history of Australia. The other cousin, Charles, served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was responsible for the Townshend Acts. These acts included a hated tax on tea that sparked the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolutionary War.


Taking a Bath

On May 20, 2014 · 1 Comments

I continued to ponder how I might complete my county-counting adventures for the 133 counties and independent cities within the Commonwealth Virginia, with a dozen still remaining on my list. It might be feasible after a long weekend of concentrated efforts, I considered. Maybe someday. How lucky to be from somewhere like Delaware with only three counties to count. Completing my home state requires considerably more effort. That’s how I found myself pondering Virginia’s Bath County, one of the dirty dozen not yet captured by 12MC.

The name certainly highlighted the bathing angle that underpinned its economy. Geothermally warmed waters percolated to the surface from springs throughout Bath County containing various minerals considered beneficial and curative to its devotees. That explained towns named Healing Springs, Hot Springs, Millboro Springs, Warm Springs and West Warm Springs all within a few minutes of each other. That was a pretty impressive cluster for a county of fewer than five thousand residents.

(A) Healing Springs, (B) Hot Springs, (C) Warm Springs, (D) West Warm Springs, (E) Millboro Springs

That made me wonder about the actual springs themselves. A quick check of GNIS produced Big Spring, Blowing Springs, Bubbling Spring, Fowler Spring, Grose Spring, Muddy Run Spring, Sand Springs, and Warm Springs Baths.

Mountains and valleys defined Bath County. The Appalachians cut northeast to southwest, with two distinct valleys of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers (which join later to form the James River). The springs bubbled to the surface in lower elevations carved by these rivers and their tributaries. It’s a rugged and remote corner of the Commonwealth even today, with nearly 90% of Bath covered by forest and most of that included within the public lands of the George Washington National Forest.

The name derived from a shrewd Eighteenth Century business decision, a clear homage to the City of Bath in England. The English incarnation dated back to Roman times. It grew in popularity as a resort destination in the Stuart era and even more so in the Georgian era.

The Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset, England

The Commonwealth of Virginia formed a new county in 1790. What should they call it? The springs were long known to Native Americans and then to Colonial mountaineers and early settlers. Visitors trekked to this remote outpost in increasing numbers simply to relax in the soothing waters. A hotel had already been built as early as 1766 by Andrew Lewis and Thomas Bullitt to cater to them. Bath in England was also at the height of its Georgian glory at the time. Naturally the spring-fed mountains and valleys came to be known as Bath County, a name seemingly selected to leverage the popularity of the English resort in the hopes of attracting more tourism.

The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia - IMG_0599_DxO copy
The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia by Bruce Tuten, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Numerous spas continue to bring tourist dollars to Bath County more than two centuries later. The Homestead dominates Bath, a renowned resort built on the site of the original 1766 hotel, now part of the Omni Hotels & Resorts consortium. The property also includes the Jefferson Pools, "the cream of the crop of Virginia hot springs and have drawn visitors from across the country for centuries. The pools are named for Thomas Jefferson, who sojourned here in 1818 to spend three weeks relaxing…" I think maybe there is a law that every property in Central or Western Virginia has to have an obligatory connection to Thomas Jefferson in order to be taken seriously, and The Homestead has a solid one.

I could use a little pampering on my next county counting adventure.

Somewhat Related

I also noted Bubbling Spring Recreation Area as I checked GNIS. More specifically, I saw it included on the Nimrod Hall map. That map, in turn, got its name from an actual Nimrod Hall, a "summer resort and art colony" founded in 1783.

What did that have to do with anything? It represented one more site to add to 12MC’s Nimrod list!

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