- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

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 (https://bit.ly/1edvUwV ).


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.


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.

Gritzner points out that most town names in eastern South Dakota are closely linked to the railroad. Any place where the line went through was almost always named after someone in management or their close relatives and friends.

“In fact, they applied the names before anyone was there,” she said.

For example, Blunt was named for John E. Blunt, chief engineer of the North Western Railroad. Harrold got its name from Harrold R. McCullough, another official with the same company.

Alexander Mitchell, president of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad Company, came away as one of the big winners when it came to namesakes. Not only did he give Mitchell its identifier, but Aberdeen was designated for the Scottish city where he was born and Alexandria was named in his honor.

Citizens of Aberdeen will also recognize him as the namesake of the Alexander Mitchell Public Library.

Gritzner said, in her opinion, the less-populated West River, which wasn’t platted by the railroads, tends to have more organic and interesting names.

That’s where you find names such as Deadwood, so called because the gulch where it sits was full of fallen timber when settlers first arrived. Spearfish is named after the creek that runs through it, but accounts differ as to whether the Native American tribes actually went spear fishing there or whether an early settler said it would be a good place to spear some fish.

After a name was suggested, it was the U.S. Post Office Department that made a city designation official. If there were duplication or a name were found to be unsatisfactory, there would be a back and forth until an agreed upon name could be found, Gritzner said.

This is the case with Columbia, which was originally called Richmond after the city in Illinois when it was settled in 1879. However, there was already a Richmond in the Dakota Territory, so the post office gave a list of possible substitutes. The current town name was picked because of the popularity at the time of the patriotic song “Hail Columbia.”

The town of Arlington took a more convoluted road before arriving at its current name. It was founded in 1880 as Nordland, named by the Dakota Central Railroad for the high number of Norwegian settlers in the area. The Western Town Lot Company objected to the name because it gave the impression the town was a Norwegian settlement. So in 1884 the county commission selected the name Denver, which the city approved.

However, the Post Office Department rejected the name Denver and in 1885 substituted the named Arlington, after the city in Virginia. This led to a period of time when the city was named Arlington, but had the Nordland post office and Denver railroad station.

Then there were cities named almost by accident, such as the future state capital of Pierre. Its current name is derived from Fort Pierre, its sister city across the Missouri River. The oldest continuous white settlement in South Dakota, Fort Pierre is named for an actual fort established by the fur trader Pierre Chouteau Jr.

But Sneve claims Pierre originally was called “Mato,” the Lakota word for bear. However, when early settler John Hilger and his brother, Anson, consigned a load of goods to be sent there they put the destination as “Pierre - on the opposite side of the river from Fort Pierre.” The name apparently stuck.

In his 1914 memoirs, Hilger claimed the town was for some time called “East Pierre” because it was east of Fort Pierre and east of Whiskey Gulch.


While the names of most of South Dakota’s cities belonged to the railroads, the counties were in the hands of the legislators.

When statehood was being considered, there was a flurry of activity to have counties ready for the transition. Sneve wrote “when it came to thinking up names for the new political units, the legislature evidently adopted the you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours attitude, for the list of counties reads like a legislative roll call.”

It even inspired a contemporary couplet of “Many a legislator’s bid to fame / is a county born to bear his name.”

More than 70 counties were originally proposed and more than half were named for prominent politicians. That included 25 named for territorial legislators, regardless of whether they had actually been there.

Such is the case of Brown County, which was named for Alfred Brown, a Canadian native who moved to the Dakota Territory in 1874. While working in the Legislature in 1879, he earned the nickname “Consolidation Brown” for his leading role in combining and creating new counties. When his work was done there was one unnamed county left, and his colleagues urged him to name it after himself.

Four counties, including Edmunds, were named for territorial governors, and another four for territorial secretaries, as is the case for McCook County. Two congressional delegates, such as John Todd, and five judges, such as Dighton Corson, received similar honors.

A patriotic theme can also be found in the southeastern part of the state, areas settled during or just after the Civil War. One of the best examples is Union County, named for the American union of states.

Clay County was named for Henry Clay, a U.S. secretary of state, speaker of the House of Representatives and architect of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Douglas County gets its name from Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

There was even a bill passed by the territorial Legislature during its 1864-1865 session to change the names of Todd, Bon Homme and Charles Mix counties to Jackson, Jefferson and Franklin. While the changes were passed by the body, they did not reach the governor before the last day of the session and they were never made official.

Even those counties not named for politicians still have intriguing back stories. Haakon County was named after King Haakon VII of Norway, but an Irishman was the one who arranged it. Hugh J. McMahon, who ranched near Philip, suggested the name to influence Scandinavian settlers to vote for the county’s creation and select Philip as its seat.

Aurora County was named for the Roman goddess of the dawn. It’s said the name arose from a literary club founded by six wives of the early settlers, where they thought it was a good name because the free homestead land would bring the dawn of a new era.

Oddly enough, the city of Aurora’s name probably doesn’t have the same origin. Sneve said it’s more likely named after Aurora, Ill., the home town of Mrs. W.R. Stowe of Brookings.

Gritzner said modern South Dakotans shouldn’t be too hard on the legislators for naming so much after themselves.

“You have to consider the amount of naming that had to be done in a few years,” Gritzner said.


In sharp contrast to the almost haphazard way names were attached in the past, firm rules and a precise methodology exist today for appending monikers.

Gritzner, who is involved with the Council on Geographic Name Authorities, said modern toponyms - a geographer’s term for place names - must conform to certain formats, such as not containing hyphens or apostrophes.

Places must also have an English generic term appended to it such as river, lake, canyon or mountain. That includes features named in other languages, regardless if the foreign term already includes a generic descriptor.

Proposed names are also required to have some history or acceptance in a given area. But the biggest difference between naming in the 1800s and now is, with the exception of Antarctica, nothing can be named after someone who is currently living.

It’s a good thing there are official rules, Gritzner said, because there are still plenty of buttes, creeks, hills and the occasional new city to label.

“There are still lots of things to be named for future generations,” she said.


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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