Where did our Place Names come from?
The first explorers and the early settlers came into our area with rivers and creeks, hills and valleys and other distinctive geographic features, all unnamed. Surveyors soon drew boundaries for counties and townships; towns with streets and connecting roads, all without identifying names.
It didn’t do for long to refer to “that creek” “this road” “that valley over there” and proper names happened. Proper names are good. Names like “School Creek” “DLD” “Farmers’ Valley” became the unofficial, and official designation for features. And it was a good thing.
|Plat maps are a good starting place for early place names. A rare entry on this 1886 map of Clay County|
is the location of the Davis Post Office out there in the middle of the great open space between Sutton,
Clay Center, Ong and Geneva.
Lewis and Clark had the two-thirds of the continent west of St. Louis as their canvas to draw maps and name stuff. Many of their names along the Missouri River and to the Pacific survive today.
Some time back we researched the origins of Sutton street names. There are governors: James, Butler, Saunders, an almost alphabetical list of trees and wooded terms plus some founders: Way, Maltby and French. Now we’ll expand that beyond the city limits. We’ll start with our county.
Clay County was named for Henry Clay, a super-powerful Kentucky politician and famed orator. He
represented his state in the House of Representatives and in the
Senate, was Secretary of State in the 1820’s and even made a run for the
presidency, three times.
|Henry Clay of Kentucky was the namesake of many |
Clay Counties. This portrait is from 1818 when he
was in his early '40's. Most of his pictures are of a
"more mature" fellow.
Clay was from the south and a slave owner but his work is complicated. He authored and supported compromises to develop the west while addressing the interests of the north and south and to preserve the Union. Abraham Lincoln once called Clay, “my ideal of a great man.”
That’s our county’s namesake, and the namesake of numerous other counties across the country.
Ours is the second Clay County in Nebraska. The first one was due east of us when the grid of 24 X 24 mile counties reached to Lincoln. The first Clay County was between Lancaster and Gage counties when all were of that 24 mile square model. Lincoln and Beatrice interests were able to split the first Clay County with the north eight townships joining Lancaster and the south half becoming the north part of Gage.
Henry Clay’s name shortly reappeared when the second, our Clay County was organized.
Our surrounding counties also adopted the names of men, mostly political leaders, more or less.
Hall County was named for an early Nebraska judge, Augustus Hall. Hamilton County is named after another national leader that didn’t become president (coming in second in a duel in your 40’s doesn’t help) though Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury and had a large role in founding the country.
Millard Fillmore was the 13th president and the last president not associated with either the Democratic or Republican parties (he was a Whig.) His presidency was distinctively undistinguished. I’ll take Clay.
Thayer County was once Jefferson County but was later named for John Milton Thayer, early (1854) Omaha settler/farmer, territorial era politician, organizer and colonel of the 1st Nebraska Infantry Regiment, Civil War General, two-term Nebraska governor and three-terms (almost) Nebraska senator – a busy guy.
Stephen F. Nuckolls was an area pioneer. Daniel Webster was Massachusetts congressman and senator and likely the only orator to top Henry Clay in U.S. politics. And John Adams was the second president though Adams County could have been named after the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, old John’s son (it wasn’t.)
I missed York County on that trip around Clay. York was not directly named for a person. It might have been named for York or Yorkshire, England or York, Pennsylvania. But to digress, to the east is Lancaster County similarly named either for Lancaster, England or Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Those English shires of Lancaster and York are intimately associated with not-so-successful King Henry VI of the Lancaster family and his “cousin” the Duke of York and their little family spat that played out as the “War of the Roses.” Here in Nebraska we have Seward County named for Lincoln’s Secretary of State to keep them apart.
|Sentiment and loyalties to the Union and Confederacy causes were still alive|
as Nebraska chose a new site for the state capitol and those played a role in
the selection of the Lancaster County site and the city's new name.
And speaking of Lincoln, how about Lincoln? Possibly the best place naming story of the state.
The Nebraska Territorial capitol was in Omaha, clearly out of place being on the east edge of the state and north of the Platte when south of the river was more populous.
Nebraska entered the union on March 1, 1867 and the proposal to move the capitol gained steam. The village of Lancaster had been founded in 1854 largely anticipating the economic boom from salt deposits in the area. The village seemed far enough west to be more central and that salt was a big attraction.
Factions north of the Platte still held out to keep the capital and made a proposal they didn’t think the South Platte faction would accept. There had been proposals to move the Kansas border up to the Platte River. Confederate sympathizers in Kansas and southern Nebraska had not yet come to grips with their loss two years earlier and President Lincoln’s assassination was not universally mourned.
So, an Omaha politician proposed a compromise. The South Platte faction could have the capitol but they would have to change the name of the village of Lancaster to Lincoln. The north of the Platte folks did not think their colleagues would do that. They did.
Nebraska’s name came from an Oto Indian word for the Platte River that meant “flat water.” The pronunciation and spelling were the best attempts of early settlers to match what their Indian neighbors were saying.
There are several counties, towns and other features that were named after Indian words from the area. We probably should have done more of that.
One of the sources of local place names is a 1960 publication by Lilian L. Fitzpatrick called “Nebraska Place-Names” from Bison Books Press of the University of Nebraska. It’s about as definitive of a source as we have – but you can find other notions about where our place names came from.
The Fitzpatrick book assigns Edgar’s name to the son of Ed Graham, a local settler. Edgar had been Eden. Judge J. E. Ong originally named that community Greenberry after Greenberry Fort, a large area landowner from Illinois who Ong worked with. The Ong name stuck instead.
Fields in southwest Clay County looked “fair” to the settlers so the community named White Elm, then Frankfort became Fairfield. Harvard fit the Burlington Railroad’s naming convention (Harvard University) and James Deweese was a Burlington official. Trumbull was another railroad official.
Glenvil(le) was first Georgetown and Dogtown (more dogs than people) but became Glenville. There were at least ten other Glenvilles and railroad shipping systems couldn’t handle such ambiguity. Lilian Fitzpatrick’s book states that the Glenville post office name was changed to Glenvil to be distinctive, but the incorporated town name was not changed. Is that still true? was it ever?
We’ve covered the Sutton-naming story several times, most recently in Sutton Life Magazine last December with the John Maltby story. We’ve managed to remember the connection between Sutton, Nebraska and Sutton, Massachusetts. Not so on the other end. When I spoke with people in Sutton, MA and at the First Congregational Church in Sutton, Massachusetts, the folks back east had lost this story. We’ve revived it.
|There's nothing wrong with recycling place|
names. Sutton, MA, site of this church, led to
our Sutton's name. Harvard, York, Geneva and
other towns also borrowed their names.
And there are townships, sixteen of them. Two township names, Scott and Lincoln, were replaced. Some townships took the names of local towns. Eldorado was one of the renamed townships starting out as Lincoln. The town of Eldorado began as Eldon but Valley County also had an “Eldon.” Both towns changed their names with Valley County’s becoming Elyria and our local village became “Eldorado” a Spanish word from “gilded” or gold as someone saw a gold tint in the soil.
The Blue River seems to have gotten that name from its color, believe it or not. A problem with that river’s name is that the Little Blue River is bigger than the Big Blue River and neither one of them is blue.
We addressed the naming of Leicester Township in our article about early Sutton High grad Minnie Rowe. Her father was Joseph Rowe and his Wollman step brothers emigrated from Leicester, England and tried farming in northwest Clay County. They’d been shoemakers in England and returned to that craft. But it appears they did manage to leave the name of their English home on the Nebraska landscape.
There are other naming practices elsewhere in the world. Europeans commonly name their houses. Why not? Frances Mayes famously purchased a house near Cortona, Italy called Bramasole which means “yearning for the sun.” The house is on the east side of the hill of Cortona where sunset is in early afternoon. Remember “Under the Tuscan Sun?”
The English mode of naming streets is to “name the street.” Not the full length through town, but often just from one intersection to the next where another name begins. Again, why not? We were visiting with an English couple on a trip and I asked why the English fear three-digit house numbers. The fellow looked confused until I reminded him that when house numbers approach 100, the street gets another name and numbering starts over at 1. He thought that was pretty funny; hadn’t thought of it that way before.
So, has everything been named?
Our daughter dated a fellow in college whose father, John Behrendt, was a scientist of multiple disciplines including transverse seismologist. He was on an expedition in 1957 to a remote part of Antarctica (aren’t they all?) when the group was identifying geographic features. Google it. The Behrendt Mountains are a twenty-mile long horseshoe shaped group of mountains. We don’t encounter many people today who have a mountain range named after them.
Anything else not named today? Not so remote?
Well, glad you asked.
There is a 1992 “Sutton Area Flood Mitigation Study” which examined the School Creek watershed and its history of flooding. A re-channeling project resulted.
The study identified ten “major” subwatersheds of School Creek including four within Sutton city limits. One of these tributaries, you know the one, drains part of the golf course, follows Highway 6 north and under it, travels along streets and through back yards, under the railroad tracks and feeds into School Creek behind the museum. It’s a creek of its own, it’s big enough to have been a flood problem, it ain’t going away and it’s unnamed, at least as far as we can tell.
It could be named. We could do that. You could do that. The fourth grade class at Sutton Schools could do that.
Hey, that’s idea. A new Apple Valley project. Watch this space.
|An unnamed little creek highights this pleasant scene remarkably near downtown Sutton and seems like it deserves|
a real name. Don't you think? Sounds like a little project, doesn't it?
This article was written for the April, 2015 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For more information about Sutton Life Magazine contact Jared Griess at email@example.com or at 402-984-4203.