Named Like a Whole Other Country

On November 19, 2013 · 14 Comments

What if I said that I could drive from Atlanta to Detroit, or Cleveland to Santa Fe, or Miami to Memphis in an hour and a half? How about driving from Jacksonville to Buffalo in an hour? No, I didn’t say fly, I said drive. My apologies in advance to the international audience that may not have an intuitive understanding of distance in the United States. I’ll simply state that road times like these would have to be dismissed immediately as completely insane on their surface. A motorist would serve jail time for attempting any of these suggestions.

That’s if one tried to accomplish those feats between cities most recognizable for those names. However I was intentionally vague as I’m sure the astute 12MC audience already guessed. I’m referring to towns by those same names in Texas, or as they’re fond of saying, It’s Like a Whole Other Country.

Maybe in the Wrong State

I noticed the anomaly as I researched DeKalb. Texas had a DeKalb so I took a closer look. I spotted Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburg (a near match, missing only the final "h" at the end) all within close proximity of DeKalb. That prompted a wider search for additional Texas towns sharing names with other places in the United States more famous and recognizable. I found several.

This likely had to do with the immense size of Texas. Traditionally each post office within a single state had to be given a different name. That might not be a problem in smaller states or those more sparsely settled. However, Texas had 1,490 post offices including historic locations in the latest listing of the Geographic Names Information System. Imagine trying to find unique names for every one of those settlements, and in fact that became a recurring problem as townsites sprouted on the frontier in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.

I turned to one of my favorite sources, the Handbook of Texas Online from the Texas State Historical Society for explanations. Some towns drew inspiration from better-known namesakes while other chose completely independently. I culled historical origins from the Handbook and present them below.

Bessie Coleman, Waxahachie, Texas Historical Marker
Bessie Coleman, Waxahachie, Texas Historical Marker by fables98, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
"Bessie Coleman — Born in Atlanta, Texas"

All of these places exist in Texas:

  • Atlanta: An 1871 Texas and Pacific Railway town settled by a bunch of people from Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Boston: The man who opened the first store in the area was W. J. Boston.
  • Buffalo: Bison still roamed the range when the railroad arrived in 1872. I’ll pass on the bison aren’t buffalo conversation this time.
  • Cleveland, TX: In 1878 a local land owner, Charles Lander Cleveland, said the East and West Texas Railway had use his name if they wanted a chunk of his land.

Oaks Theater, 715 Walnut St, Columbus, Texas 0410101325
Oaks Theater, 715 Walnut St, Columbus, Texas 0410101325 by Patrick Feller, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

  • Columbus: Someone who once lived in Columbus, Ohio proposed the name (which in turn derived originally from Christopher Columbus of course).
  • Detroit: Town founders needed a name in 1887 and the local railway agent once lived in Detroit. Problem solved.
  • Jacksonville: named for two early settlers — William Jackson and Jackson Smith, one a doctor and the other a blacksmith. The weird first-name, last-name nexus must have made the town seem inevitable I guess.

Western Motel, Memphis, Texas
Western Motel, Memphis, Texas by Boston Public Library, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

  • Memphis: This one was worth quoting directly, "For a time the new town was without a name. Several suggestions were submitted to federal postal authorities but with negative results. Finally, as the story goes, Reverend Brice, while in Austin, happened to see a letter addressed by accident to Memphis, Texas, rather than Tennessee, with the notation ‘no such town in Texas.’ The name was submitted and accepted, and a post office was established…" (the name in turn derived originally from the Memphis in Egypt).
  • Miami: I’m not sure I buy the Handbook explanation. Allegedly a Native American word for "sweetheart?" Really? Even though there was an actual Miami tribe one state over in Oklahoma?

Pittsburg Water Tower
Pittsburg Water Tower by J. Stephen Conn, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

  • Pittsburg: An early settler, William Harrison Pitts, came to the area in 1855. The source didn’t explain why founders chose Pittsburg rather than the more expected Pittsburgh with an h.
  • Reno: It was originally the name of a switching station placed along the Texas and Pacific Railway circa 1876. The town came later and adopted the name. I couldn’t find an explanation for the switching station named Reno, though.
  • Santa Fe: In recognition of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway that was built through the area in 1877

I found other themes and variations, like:

  • Colorado: Denver City; Breckenridge and Colorado City
  • My little corner of Northern Virginia: Arlington; Clarendon; Crystal City; Gainesville; Fredericksburg and Mount Vernon
  • International: Paris; London; Palestine; Victoria and Edinburg (again with the missing "h" What’s with Texas hating burghs?)

I wonder how many other coincidental variations can be drawn from the vast Texas town list?

On November 19, 2013 · 14 Comments

14 Responses to “Named Like a Whole Other Country”

  1. David Overton says:

    “Mi ami” could be translated from Spanish as “my friend” (at least according to Google Translate). Maybe somewhere along the line “Spanish for my friend” became “Native American for sweetheart”. Although maybe that’s too much of a stretch, and the town seems to have been settled well after Texas’s Spanish/Mexican period.

    Another internationl example is Odessa, Texas, named after Odessa in the Ukraine.

  2. Pfly says:

    There’s a Pittsburg, Missouri too—or is it Kansas, I forget, near the border anyway. I assume the Texas one, like the Missouri one, was originally spelled with or without and -h, until the USGS began a campaign of eliminating the final -h in Pittsburghs all over the country in the late 19th century. Thus, Pittsburgh, MO, became Pittsburg, MO, and I assume the same in Texas. Only Pittsburgh, PA fought the USGS and won, ending the USGS’s campaign to change place names in this way.

    • Aaron of Minneapolis says:

      That’s pretty much what I’ve read elsewhere. In 1891, the United States Board on Geographic Names decided that all “-burg”/”-burgh” place names should leave off the final H if they had one, probably for spelling consistency. However, a few places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Plattsburgh, New York successfully managed to keep theirs.

      (Still no luck on bringing apostrophes back to places like Taylor(‘)s Falls, Minnesota, though.)

  3. hipsterdoofus says:

    We have a “Miami” in Oklahoma, but they pronounce it “Miamuh” for some odd reason.

  4. Blinky the Wonder Wombat says:

    Rumor has it there is a city in Texas that shares a name with Houston, Delaware.

  5. Drake says:

    Michigan has a lot of those too. Atlanta, MI, up in the northern lower peninsula in elk country, St. Louis, MI, central lower pen. just south of Mt. Pleasant, Cleveland, MI, up by Traverse City, New Boston and a New Buffalo, and a Memphis. Other cities include have a Charlotte, but it’s pronounced Shar-lot, Beverly HIlls, Rochester, Jackson, Brooklyn, Columbus and probably a few more I’m forgetting. I couldn’t find a Pittsburgh, or Miami though. Michigan was largely settled from New York after the opening of the Erie Canal, so there are a lot of New York names around.

    Some things we have in common with Texas, Michigan has it’s own native rattlesnake, the massasauga, and a native cactus, the prickly pear.

  6. Jeff says:

    Don’t forget Italy, Texas and Dublin, Texas. The latter was well-known for bottling the only pure cane sugar Dr Pepper for a long time; it was only recently that they were forced to stop.

  7. George says:

    I recall an Encyclopedia Brown story that uses this as the peg for the mystery — a criminal leaves behind an itinerary of foreign cities and countries (Paris, Odessa, etc.), and one of them is Palestine. EB deduces that the criminal is going to Texas.

  8. monty says:

    Maine sees you and raises: Paris to Mexico in an hour.

  9. Fred says:

    I lived in Pasadena Texas for awhile. I was curious and went to the town hall. The records there stated it was named after the town of Pasadena California. Go figure.

  10. Chris says:

    There is a Liverpool and a Dayton.

  11. Patrick says:

    Oddly enough, Atlanta, GA is partially in DeKalb County.

    • Patrick says:

      While I think about it, Georgia seems to have a similar situation. In Georgia alone, there are Albany, Athens, Dublin, Rome, Vienna, and my hometown of Valdosta (named after an Italian province), among others I have forgotten.

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