Uncovering the Past on Place Names

In another brilliant family history and local history piece, Winquatt of Musings of the History Queen brings us “The mystery of Justin Chenoweth.”

In The Dalles, Oregon, Chenoweth’s name (spelled Chenowith by the locals) is plastered all over town. There’s the Chenowith area, meaning the west side of town. Chenowith Elementary School. Chenowith Middle School. Chenowith Rim Apartments. Chenowith Loop Road. Chenowith Creek. There isn’t a more recognized namesake in this town.

You don’t have to delve very deep into local history to run across the fact that Justin Chenowith/Chenoweth ran the mail between The Dalles and the Upper Cascades on the Columbia River in the early 1850′s.

As a historian in a town rich with history, I just hadn’t gotten around to researching Justin Chenowith/Chenoweth, beyond discovering the reason for the confusion about the spelling of his last name might have stemmed from the fact — a conclusion based on his signature — that you couldn’t tell WHICH way he spelled it.

So I was unprepared for the discovery of how little history on Chenoweth is in the normal local archives.

With the help of several other researchers, she uncovered almost nothing about Justin Chenoweth in The Dalles records. “For someone who has been feted with so much name recognition, we owe it to Justin Chenoweth, our community, and history’s children, to honor his contribution as a pioneer of the Mid-Columbia.”

She’s right.

What do we know of the names on the signs for places and buildings all around us let alone where our families lived throughout history. There is history everywhere, yet do we stop and really ask how these places came to be named and what these people did or how they contributed significantly to our communities to get name recognition on a sign.

The art and study of naming things is serious business. Onomastics is the study of the proper names and origins of names of everything. Toponymy or toponomastics is a branch of onomastics, which focuses on the study of place names.

George R. Stewart is one of the fathers of onomastics and founding member of the American Name Society. His book, Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (New York Review Books Classics) was a determined effort to identify the stories behind the names of places. Known mostly for his science fiction novels, he had a passion for naming things and the stories behind the names. His novel, Storm (1941), named a Pacific storm “Maria,” which inspired not only the song “They Call the Wind Maria” but the National Weather Service to use personal names for major storms such as hurricanes. Names on the Land was written in World War II in an effort to preserve the history of place names in the United States. Stewart told of the first Europeans that brought their names and naming techniques to the states. He describes the names left behind by the French, Russians, Swedes, Dutch, Spanish, and how Native American names were inherited into our place naming conventions.

Gods & Goblins: A Field Guide to Place Names of the Olympic National Park is a favorite book of mine, one I’ve had for years. I have the original and I see there is an updated edition…time to hit Amazon.com. Smitty Parratt tells wonderful and colorful stories about where all the names came from throughout the Olympic National Park, one of my favorite places in the world, and one of the last protected mountain wilderness areas left on the planet.

Weird Wisconsin: Your Travel Guide to Wisconsin’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets by Godfrey and Hendricks is a whacky look at local legends and secret tales of Wisconsin, including stories behind place names.

Streets of San Francisco: The Origins of Street and Place NamesI adore exploring San Francisco and my family’s history passing through it repeatedly as a major port city and destination. This book by Louis Loewenstein takes you back through San Francisco’s past and heritage exploring not only the stories behind the place names and streets, but the colorful past of this major unique peninsula city of hills.

The Book of English Place Names: How Our Towns and Villages Got Their Names was published in 2011 by Caroline Taggart and deciphers the stories behind many of the names in England, making the places come alive with history. She also wrote “The Book of London Place Names” for place names in the largest city in the UK.

Frederic G. Cassidy published many books on regional English, place names, and dialects, among other subjects. He published a variety of books in the 1960s – 70s on place names in Wisconsin including Dane County Place-Names and Brown County, Wisconsin place names. These are out of print and not readily available, but may be found in local Wisconsin libraries and museums.

Growing up in Washington State, home to several generations of my family, I was not surprised to find many books on the history and stories behind the place names in addition to the one on the Olympic Peninsula. They include Place Names of Washington, Washington State Place Names: From Alki to Yelm, another in the Weird series called Weird Washington: Your Travel Guide to Washington’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, Washington State Place Names, San Juan Island: Coastal place names and cartographic nomenclature, Place Names of Washington: A Guide for Travelers and Armchair Adventurers Who Named What….and Why, and Place Names of the Pacific Northwest: Origins, histories and anecdotes in bibliographic form about the coast of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. A colorful place with much history, it is no surprise there are that many and more books on the stories of places in Washington State.

I also found several books on place names in Oregon including Oregon Geographic Names for my research in Oregon.

Searching for information on place names in Wisconsin, I ran across mention of Wisconsin place names: A pronouncing gazetteer for radio announcers. By Harold A. Engel and published in 1948 by the University of Wisconsin on behalf of Radio Station WHA, the guide was designed to help radio announcers get their pronunciation right on local place names, a guide to us even now. I wonder how many other pronunciation guides are out there for other areas I research?

Here are some other books related to my own genealogy and family history research on place names, with links to Amazon.com for purchase or research reference.


Most Recent Articles by Lorelle VanFossen


About Lorelle VanFossen

Lorelle VanFossen hosts Family History Blog covering her ancestors and related family members. She is one of the top bloggers in the world, and host of the Lorelle on WordPress, providing WordPress and blogging tips for bloggers of all levels. A popular keynote speaker and trainer, she is also editor, producer, contributor, and official disruptive thinker for Bitwire Media which includes WordCast, Making My Life Network, Stories of Our Journeys, Life on the Road, WordCast Conversations, and the very popular WordCast Podcast.
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One Response to Uncovering the Past on Place Names

  1. hoian says:

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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