What’s in a name? Answer lies in pioneers’ minds

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A rose by another other name would still smell as sweet, and South Dakota would still retain its frontier character even if the plains weren’t stacked with towns named Eureka, Volga and Iroquois or counties called Bon Homme, Brule and Butte.

But the nomenclature used for the state’s rivers, towns and counties are a window into the thinking of the early pioneers. They reveal rapidly expanding railroads, legislators both patriotic and political and hopeful settlers who first came together on the lonesome prairie, the Capital Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1edvUwV ).

RIVERS

Janet Gritzner, a cultural geographer who works with geographic information systems at South Dakota State University, said there is a good reason naming places is so important. Identifying features and locations is a way for people to orient themselves, even if they don’t have a map.

“If you are crossing a river, you would want to know its name so you know where it is, even without a map,” she said.

Of course, even arriving at one name for a river is not especially easy.

Lewis and Clark mention what is known today as the Vermillion River several times in their journals, but refer to it as the “Whitestone” in 1804 and the “Redstone” in 1806. Sources conflict if the original Native American name of “Wa se spa” means White Paint or Red Paint. The current Sioux names of “knic-knic” or “killa Kalick” mean red timber or red wood for the willows along its banks. The name Vermillion probably comes from French trappers who came through the area, perhaps as a translation of the Native American name.

The James River is the English translation of “Riviere aux Jacque,” the name French fur trader Jean Trudeau gave it in 1794. It’s mentioned by Lewis and Clark in their journals and called both the “Jacque” and “Sacque” in early accounts. The early territorial legislature tried to dub it the “Dakota River,” but the name never took.

TOWNS

In her 1973 book “South Dakota Geographic Names” author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve breaks down the naming patterns for the more than 500 incorporated towns and unorganized communities that existed in the state.

The majority, 158, were named for prominent pioneer families such as Lemmon, Langford and Bovee. The next highest category was towns named for geographic features such as Sioux Falls, Dell Rapids and White Lake, of which there were 98.

There were 68 towns named for railroad officials or their friends and family, such as Armour. Another 48 carry foreign names such as Bristol or Tolstoy. Communities such as Akaska, Oacoma and Oglala are among the 44 communities that bear Native American names.

Towns in the eastern U.S. such as Amherst, Watertown or Bath have 36 namesakes on the South Dakota plains. An equal number of towns were named after important political or military figures, such as Norbeck and Custer.

Only two communities, Jefferson and Monroe, have the distinction of being named for presidents.

There were also dozens of communities named after animals, such as Beaver; mining, such as Tinton; ideals, such as Faith, or farming, such as Haydraw.

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