Checkerboarding has nothing to do with the game of checkers other than bearing a striking resemblance to its playing surface. Nor is it some awful new interrogation technique invented to pry information from suspects under duress.
It is this.
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I discovered the anomaly on Google Maps in Oregon awhile ago while discussing Latitude Longitude Sequences and dismissed it as a probable error. Not so fast, replied a couple of contributors in the article comments. Reader Craig observed that the checkerboard phenomenon has been superimposed upon the physical terrain and reader Page noted correctly that it originated as a result of 19th Century railroading.
Simply explained, the government was rich in land but poor in cash, hoping to construct a transcontinental railroad while devoting significant resources to fighting a Civil War already underway. That railroad would finally stretch across the nation in 1869 when the Union Pacific met the Central Pacific at Utah’s Promontory Summit (my visit). The government dangled a carrot in front of the railroads to keep the construction going. It offering several miles of land on either side of the tracks (the amount varied over time), replicating a process that had been used further east with some success. It wouldn’t be a single, solid ribbon of land overlaying the tracks, however. It was a patchwork of every-other block of one square mile.
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Notice the resulting pattern, akin to a checkerboard, and thus the name.
Why would a government create such an odd situation? It felt that railroads could sell the land to finance construction and underwrite future operations and maintenance. Undoubtedly the value of the land would rise over time because of its proximity to the emerging rail lines. Towns would form at transportation hubs. Farms would sprout around them. Everyone would be happy and prosper. The government wanted a piece of the windfall so it retained half of the squares, intending to sell its parcels as settlers moved west along the lines.
It didn’t turn out quite as expected. The land wasn’t all that great, settlers didn’t have much money and many of the parcels remained unsold. The government eventually doubled the land grants just to keep the railroads motivated. This resulted in huge 40-mile wide (64 km) checkerboard gashes criss-crossing the nation. The railroads sold much of their land over time, often to timber companies wherever routes snaked through the western mountains. The government also sold parcels when it could find a willing buyer, gave a bunch away to homesteaders for free, and allotted other portions to Indian reservations. Much of the rest of the government’s share remained public space eventually falling within the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.
Amazingly, these railroad incentives created more than a century and a half ago continue to be visible upon the terrain today. That’s what I’d stumbled across accidentally in the earlier article.
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Observe the boundaries within the checkerboard patterns in the Siuslaw National Forest in satellite view. Feel free to toggle back-and-forth between map and satellite and notice how they match.
I found an even better example:
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This instance occurs near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington. The square, characteristically one mile on each side, has been clear-cut logged. The lush green area surrounding it is National Forest. It’s that stark. Squares unsold by the government were protected. The others owned by railroads were either leased or sold to logging companies and were harvested.
SOURCE: Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
Native Americans got a pretty raw deal too. Imagine a reservation where every-other-parcel was owned by an outsider. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians were one leading example of a checkerboarded tribal nation:
All even-numbered sections and all unsurveyed portions of Township 4 South, Ranges 4 and 5 East, and Township 5 South, Range 4 East, San Bernardino Meridian, were added to the Reservation, except Sections 16 and 36 and any tract the title to which had passed out of the U. S. Government. The Government had previously given the odd-numbered sections to the railroad in the early 1870s as an incentive to build a cross-country rail line… On a combined basis, the Tribe and its members currently represent Palm Springs’ largest single landowner.
At least it may have work out for them, eventually. I looked at maps of Palm Springs and noticed that many of the golf courses and resorts there are located on Agua Caliente property. I imagine they’d rather have a contiguous reservation along with that, though.
Environmentalist don’t much like checkerboarding. It makes it very difficult to protect swaths of sensitive land since people who own private parcels are guaranteed access to them across the public spaces. Hunters don’t much like the situation either. It causes lots of confusion as they try to remain on BLM parcels and wrestle with whether it’s legal to jump from corner-to-corner, staying on BLM land while avoiding private land. Apparently corner hopping is not allowed, a situation that seems to favor those who own private parcels (with guaranteed access) over those who wish to use public land (and cannot corner hop).
An incentive program failed in the 19th Century and the nation continues to deal with the mess.
A tip of the keyboard to the Basement Geographer who is taking a (hopefully brief) break from writing. The Basement Geographer is one of my personal favorites and I never miss an article. Thank you for all of your great work over the years, Kyle.
Did anyone else notice the oddly-named park immediately to the east of Social Circle, Georgia when I posted The Chunk that Got Away in December? I did, and I made a record of it intending to return later. Hard Labor Creek had to have a story. Places like that weren’t named accidentally.
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It’s seemed to be a typical case upon closer scrutiny, a name shrouded in legend and lost to history. The Hard Labor Creek State Park focused primarily on its golf course and sidestepped the odd name. An obligatory Wikipedia page stated without any attribution whatsoever, "The creek’s name comes either from slaves who once tilled the summer fields, or from Native Americans who found the area around the stream difficult to ford." Right. The usual antebellum or Native American explanation. I picked the antebellum explanation because of those actually providing the bulk of hard labor in this area during the period. I based that assumption on preconceived notions and nonexistent evidence which should make it perfectly legitimate for the Intertubes. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to fill an entire article.
Wikipedia went on to explain that "Camp Daniel Morgan [ed., which is part of Hard Labor Creek State Park], was the filming location of three well-known ‘camp’ movies, Little Darlings (1980), Poison Ivy (1985), and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)." OK then, that’s an interesting little pedigree for a very small segment of the audience.
I still liked the name so I turned to my go-to source for these types of anomalies, the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). There I discovered several other Hard Labor geographic features — concentrated primarily in the American south which lent confirmation bias to my earlier reckless speculation — plus one location in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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Actually that last one was Hard Labour, with an "ou" British-style. It didn’t appear to be a populated place anymore, rather more of a wooded hillside. There was something poetic about Hard Labour sandwiched between Anger Ridge and Upper Love. The person naming these places must have had relationship issues.
From there it was easy to follow GNIS to all other Hard places identified within the United States, with implied tales of woe and misery etched upon the landscape, with occasional burst of optimism.
- Hard Bargain Cemetery, Landing, Gas Field, Mine
- Hard Cash Cutoff, Lake, Mine, Spring, and a populated place
- Hard Climb Mine
- Hard Fortune Creek
- Hard Head Mine
- Hard Luck Creek, Tank, Ranch, Mine, Hammock, Well, Crossing, Draw, and a populated place
- Hard scrabble / Hardscrabble Cemetery, Ridge, Hollow, School, Creek, Falls, Farms
- Hard Scratch Hill, and a populated place
- Hard Times Landing, Bend, Plantation, Spring, Mine, Reservoir
- Hard to Beat Mine, Canyon
- Hard to Find Ditch, Mine
- Hard Up Cemetery, Gulch, Point
- Hard Working Lumps
The final spot jumped from the screen. Hard Working Lumps?!? It correlated geographically to a set of small, shifting sandbars at the southern edge of the Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina (map). The USGS called Hard Working Lumps an "island" although I think that may have been overly generous. I did note that a topographic map placed Hard Working Lumps directly next to Bunch of Hair, leading me to wonder whether the mariner naming these features may have been out-to-sea a little too long.
Mines often have the most colorful names and that seemed to hold true for these instances too. Prospectors in the Old West almost never struck it rich, failing repeatedly while enduring personal hardships, and often returned home penniless. The mines reflected their fatalism, perhaps due to past experience or because of superstitious attempts to avoid jinxing their claims. A cluster of Hard Luck Mines dotted the mountains near Helena, Montana, although pragmatism also lurked nearby with Hard Cash Mine. I also enjoyed the Hard to Find Mine northeast of Reno, Nevada although it’s not necessarily accurate anymore with exact lat/long coordinates and satellite imagery.
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An entire mountainside seemed to have been removed for the Hard Time Mine near Battle Mountain, Nevada. It may have lived up to its name, having been located so close to a town dubbed the armpit of America in 2001.
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Cemeteries seemed to be unlikely candidates although several appeared on the list. Could one imagine Hard Bargain Cemetery in Greene Co., Alabama? Death is probably the hardest bargain of them all so the name reflected truth, however, it seemed to be an odd designation. Nobody really wants to be reminded of that eventuality. Even so, it was still preferable to Hard Up Cemetery in Baker Co., GA which was so hard-up that surrounding vegetation overtook it (map).
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Merriam-Wester defines hardscrabble as "being or relating to a place of barren or barely arable soil; getting a meager living from poor soil; or marked by poverty." Life on the Great Plains was tough. Several Hardscrabble or Hard Scrabble Schools existed historically from the settlement period including a now-empty lot in Kansas depicted above. No Hardscrabble Schools exist today although a Hard Elementary School can be found outside of Birmingham, Alabama. In that instance it was named for Charles F. Hard, "the second mayor of Bessemer." Schools have largely transcended beyond hardscrabble.
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Hard-to-get-to Ridge in Garfield Co., Washington was probably accurate when named. Things change. National Forest road NF-4027 terminates within a half-mile of the ridge. I drilled down within the image and noticed a couple of trailers parked there. Maybe they should change the name to Not-so-hard-to-get-to Ridge?
Let’s toast our pessimistic ancestors.
We’ve waded through surnames that paired with nations and those that matched U.S. states. Now it’s time for the third and final installment of this investigation, the list of surnames that matched capital cities of U.S. states. A quick summary of the rules — information is pulled from Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000 and provided in a shared Google spreadsheet — and we’re just about ready to go. Matches between surnames and state capital names were the least likely to indicate any kind of correlation beyond a common etymological root. It wasn’t legitimate to conclude that people with the surname Phoenix traced their ancestral homeland to Phoenix, Arizona, as an example.
I did make one accommodation. Many of the capital cities were obviously based upon the surnames of settlers, historical figures or other notables with various suffixes tagged onto them such as -burg, -ville, -ton, -polis or city. I felt it was fair to discard those extraneous characters.
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Fortunately I didn’t have to invoke that rule for the most frequent occurrence, an honor bestowed upon Jackson. It’s both the capital city of Mississippi and the 18th most common surname in the United States with 666,125 instances. Jackson was an exact match. I say this with all due respect to my close family in Mississippi (and there are a bunch of them): doesn’t it feel good to come out on top of a list for once, and it’s not for a negative reason?
Jackson, as a surname, can be interpreted literally to mean "Son of Jack" with Jack additionally serving as the diminutive form of John. One would expect lots of Jacksons and Johnsons and indeed that is the case. Andrew Jackson, an important figure in the history of the nascent United States, became a namesake for the Mississippi capital even before he became President. Jackson was just ending his role as the first U.S. military governor of Florida when Mississippi named its capital for him in 1822.
The final major battle of the War of 1812 had propelled Jackson into national visibility and adoration. He led the U.S. victory over British forces at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and became an instant hero. Jackson carried his military exploits into the First Seminole War, setting a stage for Spain to cede Florida to the United States and positioning him for his election to President in 1829.
Jackson, the city, is also the site of the Jackson Dome which has become one of the more popular articles on 12MC for reasons that completely escape me. A handful of visitors drop by there every day.
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Son of Harry’s Town
We have another son to consider with the surname Harris, the root of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One has to sound it out a bit to uncover "Harry’s Son." It’s easier to hear it in the less-mangled version, Harrison. People got lazy, slurred the last couple of letters and it morphed into Harris, a version used by more than half a million people (593,542) in the United States. That was enough to make it the 24th most popular surname in 2000.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania isn’t named for anyone famous, just some guy who settled in the area in the Eighteenth Century. As noted in the Harrisburg City Archives,
John Harris emigrated first to Philadelphia from Yorkshire, England, and later to Lancaster County. As a pioneer, he wished to venture farther west to build a productive life in a new land. Through his Philadelphia contacts, Harris received a land grant of 800 acres, on what is now the site of downtown Harrisburg and part of Shipoke.
His son John Harris Jr. platted a town here in 1785, named it for the family and incorporated the village in 1791. It became Pennsylvania’s capital in 1812.
Washington came next on the list, assuming one considers Washington to be the "capital" of the District of Columbia. The first issue is simple. The District is not a state. The second is more complicated. Washington is coterminous with the District (separate city charters for Washington and Georgetown were combined into a single governing unit by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871). It’s hard to claim that the District has a distinct capital for its municipal government since it’s so completely enmeshed within its role as the capital of the United States. Maybe I could argue that the capital of the District is the Wilson Building? I’m going to set this aside. One should feel free to refer to the surname in the context of the State of Washington in the previous article if the topic warrants further elaboration.
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Once a National Capital
Two other capital city surnames round-out the popular top tier with greater than a hundred thousand appearances each.
The surname Austin is an Anglicization of Augustine, with Latin roots implying "greatness." That’s the reason why Roman emperors were often titled Augustus. Austin, Texas was named for Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas." It served as the national capital of the Republic of Texas from 1839-1846 before it became the state capital of Texas with its admission to the United States. There were 113,160 people with the Austin surname in the 2000 Census.
The surname Montgomery is a bit shrouded in history and traces back with Norman roots to the 11th Century at least. Montgomery, Alabama was named in 1819 for Richard Montgomery, a general during the American Revolution. Paradoxically, the surrounding county was also named Montgomery, although for a different Montgomery, Lemuel P. Montgomery who died in the 1814 Creek War. There were 112,144 people with the
Austin surname in the 2000 Census.
I think that little bit of geo-trivia is a good place to stop my surname-geography comparison.