Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States


George R. Stewart’s classic study of place-naming in the United States was written during World War II as a tribute to the varied heritage of the nation’s peoples. More than half a century later, Names on the Land remains the authoritative source on its subject, while Stewart’s intimate knowledge of America and love of anecdote make his book a unique and delightful window on American history and social life.

Names on the Land is a fascinating and fantastically detailed panorama ...

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George R. Stewart’s classic study of place-naming in the United States was written during World War II as a tribute to the varied heritage of the nation’s peoples. More than half a century later, Names on the Land remains the authoritative source on its subject, while Stewart’s intimate knowledge of America and love of anecdote make his book a unique and delightful window on American history and social life.

Names on the Land is a fascinating and fantastically detailed panorama of language in action. Stewart opens with the first European names in what would later be the United States—Ponce de León’s flowery Florída, Cortés’s semi-mythical isle of California, and the red Rio Colorado—before going on to explore New England, New Amsterdam, and New Sweden, the French and the Russian legacies, and the unlikely contributions of everybody from border ruffians to Boston Brahmins. These lively pages examine where and why Indian names were likely to be retained; nineteenth-century fads that gave rise to dozens of Troys and Athens and to suburban Parksides, Brookmonts, and Woodcrest Manors; and deep and enduring mysteries such as why “Arkansas” is Arkansaw, except of course when it isn’t.

Names on the Land will engage anyone who has ever wondered at the curious names scattered across the American map. Stewart’s answer is always a story—one of the countless stories that lie behind the rich and strange diversity of the USA.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"It chronicles the nomenclatural adventures of explorers, legislators, and common folk and amounts to a fizzy refresher on America's past and her character. It proceeds in a spruce voice that's a model for producing scholarship that doesn't feel leaden, and it further inspires meditations on tricks of rhetoric and laws of euphony...Perhaps most importantly, it is an aid to fighting tedium: You are about to have several hundred conversations touching on the matter of where your interlocutor is from, and Steward gives you a map for navigating this chatter with a bit of style." —Troy Patterson, Slate

"George R. Stewart, midcentury novelist and co-founder of the American Name Society, gave onomastics a good name with his classic Names on the Land (1945), a learned and rollicking act of patriotic toponymy. Its republication, with a graceful introduction by Matt Weiland, is a welcome reminder that the polyglot medley on our maps is, as Mr. Stewart says, 'a chief glory of our heritage'...few authors or books are more American—in every good sense of that word — than George R. Stewart and Names on the Land." —Wall Street Journal

"Stewart's impressive research demonstrates exactly what is in a name." —The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

"If the United States is the greatest poem, as Whitman once wrote, then surely the Rand-McNally Road Atlas is our national CliffsNotes. Google Maps are dandy, but there’s nothing like pulling the old coverless atlas off the shelf and pondering a green-dotted scenic route between two unvisited and evocatively named points. It’s too late to plan a summer road trip, but lately I’ve been supplementing my insomniac atlas-reading with George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States.” —Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Papercuts blog

"Names on the Land was first published in 1945 and has remained a classic in the field of onomastics—the study of proper names and their meanings." —Los Angeles Times

A "masterwork." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A classic work on American place names by George R. Stewart. I'm a place-name geek but didn't know about this gem until I read the book recently. First published in 1945 and newly reissued (NYRB Classics) it's a history of the United States told through its place names. Stewart exhaustively surveys our geographic labels, a chaotic but charming blend of anglicized American Indian words (Wisconsin), transplanted place names (Boston), poetic impulse (Martha's Vineyard), twisted foreign phrases (Broadway, from the Dutch Breede Wegh) and salesmanship (Frostproof, Fla)." —Columbus Dispatch

"You've likely heard me before on the lost-classic glories of New York Review Books, and this is a reprint of a typically idiosyncratic and cult-beloved World War II-era reference about just what the title says." —OMNIVORACIOUS at

"Unusual and excellent...put together in a fascinating manner...The style is also enchanting and leaves an impression that is not quickly forgotten...Here is a book, in short, that may be read frontwards or backwards or from the middle in either direction and be fully enjoyed." -American Speech

"As fascinating as the details are the fine accounts of periods and trends: the Royal names of colonial times, the names of heroes of the Revolution, abstract names and the Civil War...Indian names, French names, Spanish names, name-giving by Congress, name-giving by explorers and pioneers, by land-speculators, by railroaders, by rich men, poor men, beggar men, all acting according to the spirit of their times in this wonderful land of accelerated history." -American Literature.

"The result of careful research into an absorbing narrative...Interest of Americans in American geographical names as a subject for research is at least as old as our history as a republic." -Geographical Review

Encyclopedic in scope, "this book with its satisfactory index will be used as a dictionary. And the disappointment of occasionally not finding what one seeks will be assuaged by the illuminating charm of this remarkable key to our history, our language, our society."

-American Literature

"A book so interestingly and delightfully written is certain to have wide appeal...Like all really good books, regardless of subject, it has light to cast: something of which there seems to be never enough to go around." -Journal of American Folkore

The Barnes & Noble Review
If you've ever wondered how the places around you -- from the Bronx and the Bowery to Appalachia and Oregon -- got their names, then you'll delight in this smart and witty history of place-naming in the United States, a key to many of the roadside mysteries that cover the American landscape. First published in 1945 and revised a few times since, Stewart's classic study relies on a wealth of literary and archival sources, from contemporary accounts of the great European explorers to 19th-century court records. Stewart's often poetic celebration of American ingenuity and resilience reflects the historical contours of discovery and expansion. And it begins with the Spanish, Dutch, and English colonizers who brought with them a desire to put their mark on the new lands. They commemorated their royal sponsors, their native towns and cities, and their religious beliefs. If the Spanish in Florida and California honored saints and sailors, the Puritans in New England avoided any hint of papistry or royalty. New Yorkers will find in every name ending with ?kill? or ?rack? the ghosts of their Dutch ancestors. But the real surprise is how often the newcomers let the places name themselves, or so they thought, since their understanding of the native Indian languages was marginal at best. But a good-faith effort resulted in Arizona, Connecticut, Seattle, Des Moines, Niagara, and Potomac, to name a few. Each frontier allowed for new naming opportunities, though the average miner or trapper often lacked imagination and settled for mere description: thus the many ?flats? and ?forks? and ?hills? of the West. The folk etymologies, the orthographic mistakes, the flurries of ?good taste? revisionism: all these add to a uniquely American story. Readers of Stewart's charming narrative will never look at a map or roadside sign the same way again. --Thomas DePietro
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590172735
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 7/1/2008
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 482,317
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 7.86 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

George R. Stewart (1895—1980) was born in Pennsylvania and educated at Princeton. He received his Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia University in 1922, and joined the English faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1924. He was a toponymist, founding member of the American Name Society, and a prolific and highly successful writer of novels and of popular nonfiction, especially dealing with U.S. history and with the American West.

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Table of Contents

Introduction     ix
Foreword to the Revised and Enlarged Edition     xvii
Of what is attempted in this book     3
Of the naming that was before history     4
How the first Spaniards gave names     11
Of English, Spanish, and French in the same years     20
Of Charles Stuart and some others     35
How the Massachusetts General Court dealt with names     44
How the people began to give names     57
How names were symbols of empire     67
The History of New York     78
Of the French     82
How the Spaniards named another kingdom     95
When King Charles came to his own     97
How the names became more English and less English     108
How they took the names into the mountains     126
Of the years when they fought the French     135
Of a pause between wars     149
How the Leather-Jackets rode north     156
Of new names in the Land     162
America discovers Columbus     169
Of the last voyagers     174
Of ancient glory renewed     181
Of the new nation     188
Yankee flavor     205
How they took over theFrench names     209
Of Mr. Jefferson's western lands     214
Of the dry country and the farther mountains     219
Of a new generation     226
Of patterns for street-names     244
Flavor of the New South     250
Melodrama in the Forties     252
"Ye say they all have passed away..."     270
How the tradition of the States was broken     285
Of the cities of the Fifties     289
How they fought again     295
How Congress took over     301
Of the last flourishing     314
"Change the name of Arkansas-Never!"     335
Of rules and regulations     340
Flavor of California     346
Of modern methods     353
Cause celebre     364
Unfinished business     372
Heritage     381
Alaska     386
Hawaii     412
Current affairs-1944-1958     423
Author's Postscript     439
Notes and references     442
Index     483
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