Names and their Places
Roaring over a dam and flashing white among ledges and rocks before winding beyond sight, the Farmington River twists among hills a block from home. Principal tributary of New England’s Connecticut River, the name “Farmington” suggests the pastoral aspirations of seventeenth century Europeans who settled downstream. Where I live, the Native American moniker “Wattunkshausepo”—fast flowing and winding river—seems more accurate and evocative. Unfortunately, the musical Indian name has long faded from memory. Nevertheless, knowing both names enlivens my understanding.
Whether adorning political entities or natural features, the names of places where we spend time become part of our identities. Synergies between life, etymology and topography form maps of meaning in our minds and culture. Doubt the power of names? The words “Vermont” and “New York” conjure very different images even though they are adjacent states sharing many natural, cultural and historical attributes. Perhaps Juliet’s Shakespearean rose “by any other name would smell as sweet,” but a name might bias our perception of the rose’s scent or whether we take a sniff at all.
Names change. New York was once New Amsterdam and Vermont was briefly known as New Connecticut. Though place names may seem as immutable and permanent as the locations and objects they describe, shifts in circumstances and culture can have tectonic impacts on them as much as an earthquake or other geological upheaval can transform the landscape itself. Thus, in destroying the Native American way of life, European settlement also wiped out an imaginative way of looking at the world expressed in place names.
Only a year ago, the United States government finally restored the Alaskan Native name, “Denali,” to the nation’s highest mountain. Called Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector honoring presidential candidate William McKinley who would win election that year, the name became official on federal maps in 1917 and remained so for 98 years. Denali, meaning “The Great One” or “The High One,” is not only more descriptive, but respects the Native people of the area and indicates a profound cultural shift within the government.
In the Wake of History
All the streets, schools and other places renamed in honor of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrate that a desire to memorialize beloved public figures can dot a landscape with changed names. Historical events often produce similar effects. Such was the case when Rohrbach’s or Lower Bridge over Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland became Burnside Bridge after General Ambrose Burnside’s Union troops captured the triple arched stone crossing in a hard fought 1862 Civil War battle.
Connecticut’s Mooween State Park, once named for its Red Cedar Lake shoreline, now bears the name of a Jewish boys camp located there between 1921 and 1960. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, with only crumbling foundations, a cracked basketball court, and broken fireplaces remaining from those days, a camper from the 1940s sought the name change lest Mooween be forgotten. I was a senior official in the park agency when he passionately told me that “Mooween” was derived from an Algonquin word meaning “brown bear,” and that Polaroid inventor Edwin Land was among several famous campers. Regardless of the provenance of the name and who attended camp, it seemed to me that “Mooween” would embed additional meaning and memory in the countryside without losing the moniker “Red Cedar,” which remained with the lake.
To Change or Not
Not all name changes are compelling. The suggestion that LaSalle Road in nearby West Hartford be changed to Om Street in honor of an annual yoga festival held on its pavement has roused little interest. Of course, where there’s money there is always interest. Such is frequently the case with naming rights for sports arenas, college campus buildings and other infrastructure. The New York Philharmonic recently removed philanthropist Avery Fisher’s name from its concert hall in Lincoln Center in favor of David Geffen after the entertainment business magnate donated $100 million.
Recent controversy over Yale’s Calhoun residential college reveals how painful and complicated renaming can be when it involves difficult history. John C. Calhoun was a virulent proponent of the heinous institution of slavery. In 1933, a magnificent gothic stone structure bearing his name was erected to memorialize this 1804 Yale alumnus, U.S. vice president, and senator from South Carolina. Beginning with a petition in 2015, members of the campus community and others asked for a change in the building’s name because it honors a man whose racist views were reprehensible, even by the standard of his time. Others believe that changing the name will erase a history whose memory is an instructive reminder of a shameful past. The issue has generated protests, much debate and conversation, and media attention. A dining services worker who broke one of the building’s stained glass windows depicting slaves was arrested, though charges were eventually dropped and he was rehired. Yale’s administration now seems open to the possibility of a name change. When I was there last, students had taken matters into their own hands. Duct tape covered Calhoun’s name at the entry gate. Written on the tape was the name of William Pickens, a 1904 Yale graduate, son of liberated slaves who had a career in academia, with the NAACP, and the U.S. Treasury Department.
Names and name changes tell stories. They invite discovery of the past and examination of the present. At times as fluid as our culture, they help us know who we are and where we have come from. To know a name’s origin is to wield the power that knowledge brings, to gain deeper understanding of a place.
Not easily rolling off an English speaking tongue, I rarely utter the Native American name for the Farmington River, but just knowing the word adds depth and meaning to my experience. While some names are long lasting, others are suddenly erased or slowly absorbed by time. They lie all around just below the visible surface, like rock strata forming the landscape’s very bedrock. What’s in a name, Juliet asked. More than we commonly imagine, I’d answer.
Denali photo courtesy of National Park Service