American Place Names

In William Least Heat Moon’s American classic, Blue Highways, Least Heat Moon explains that one of the goals of his 11,000 mile American journey was to visit towns with unusual names.  Since another of his goals was to follow the old U.S. Highways, I guessed he knew the work of  George R. Stewart.  So when I met him, I said, “You’ve been influenced by George R. Stewart.”  He looked up from the desk where he was signing books and said, “Yes.  Profoundly.  How did you know?”  “Because I’m a scholar of GRS’s works, and Blue Highways is clearly influenced by U. S. 40, Names On The Land, and American Place Names.”

American Place Names is one of the last books – all about names – that Stewart wrote before his death in 1980.  He had a fascination with names, of place particularly, and with what names tell us about the people who do the naming.  Names on the Land is his masterwork, a history of American place naming – which Stewart considered untranslatable since it included so many unique American references.  (But that’s not stopping Scholar Junlin Pan, who, following a request from one of the most distinguished publishing houses in China, is well along in her translation – with a little help from someone who knows American history and can give some sense of meanings of American place names.)

Researching  Names on the Land, Stewart had built a huge file of the history of how places were named, far more than could be used in the book.  So now, near the end of his work, he decided to publish those mini-histories of the names.  Released in 1970 by Oxford University Press, American Place Names was described as “an instant classic.”

The book contains the meaning and brief history of approximately 12,000 names of places from coast to coast and border to border, in its  500 plus pages.  Names like Arroyo Grande – Big Gulch or Big Creek or Big Ditch, named tautologically – Arroyo Grande Creek means Big Creek Creek – or for some prominent local feature.  Pismo, as in Pismo Beach, means tar in Chumash, since the area is filled with tar seeps (and now oil fields and a refinery).  Bug Scuffle warns the visitor that he or she should expect to spend time fighting off bedbugs or other members of the insect world.  Likely was named because the locals believed it was unlikely that any other town with a post office would have that name.  Nameless, a humorous name for a small feature or town;  Accident because somebody surveyed some land by accident; Los Angeles, an Anglo contraction of the Spanish name “Nuestra Senora de los Angeles de Porciuncula; Angels Camp, for founder George Angel.  And so on, and so on.

The book is a wonderful read….the type of book to keep by the bed so you can browse through it before sleep and thus perchance dream of all those exotic places on American roads and trails that you hope to see someday.  I also suggest to friends that they keep a copy in their car, so that when they’re on a long trip, they can find the meaning of interesting names of the places they pass through-  Devil’s Churn, say, or Ekalaka, or Deer Lodge, or Ten Sleep, or Monticello, or Yosemite.

William Least Heat Moon visited or acknowledged several places with unusual names on his great odyssey – Dime Box, Texas; Nameless, Tennessee; Igo and Ono, California.  His chapter on Nameless is one of the great pieces of American writing, which everyone should read.

If you’re going to visit these places, you’d better hurry.  The  bowdlerizers are hard at work,  removing some of the most interesting and important names from the map. Nellie’s Nipple may go; Shit House Mountain has probably gone.   In some instances, the names are offensive; but they reflect a part or our history, and the censors should not be allowed to erase that from the map.  But they’re in high dudgeon now, and have the ear – or some appendage – of the establishment, so much of our language is at the risk, including our place names.  Visit while you can.  And in preparation, read Stewart’s book.

The book is available used; check with your local bookseller to order a copy.

 

A Decade of Western History

After his foray to Gettysburg, Stewart returned to the country he loved, and knew best – Donner Pass, the Central Sierra Nevada, and the Bay Area.  During the 1960s he would write one short book and one long book about the Westward Movement:  Donner Pass And Those Who Crossed It; and The California Trail.

Donner Pass, like his short book about Thomes, was a special limited-run book.  Printed by Bill Lane of Sunset Magazine for the California Historical Society, it was a kind of a Stewart potpourri about Donner Pass.  There were chapters about the first wagon train to get over the Pass – the Stevens Party – and the Donner Party.  Those chapters were a re-write of what he’d already put into his children’s book about Moses Schallenberger and his ground-breaking book Ordeal By Hunger.  There were chapters about the building and operating history of the transcontinental railroad, a new subject for GRS.  He included a short history of highways over the Pass.  At the end, there were brief essays about place names, geology, and local plants and animals.  The place name essay was classic GRS.  The natural history essays were atypical for him – he usually wove that information into his longer works – but they were much in keeping with the time.  1960 brought the beginning of the Environmental Movement, with its focus on protecting other species; and  California travelers on Highways like US 40 were beginning to carry guidebooks that described the natural and human history of what they were passing through.

That’s really what Donner Pass seems to be – a guidebook for the auto traveler.  It’s short enough so that the “navigator” in a vehicle can read the sections aloud for the driver and other passengers; and in the best environmental sense it is designed to increase awareness of history and the natural world.  The hardbound edition might not be carried along in a car, but the paper-back edition, with its eye-catching use of color on the cover, surely would be.

You can buy either version at a very reasonable price, and they’re still good guides if you drive old U.S. 40 over Donner Pass.  The old highway, when it’s open in spring, summer, and fall, is a pleasant alternative to I 80.

cover

For decades, Stewart had been fascinated by the westward movement to California.  His research for Ordeal By Hunger took him to many of the sites connected with the Donner Party’s trip from Michigan to California.  In the west, at least, he drove or even hiked many rough, isolated miles of the Trail. (One of those explorations, in the late 30’s, first brought him to the place he would immortalize in Sheep Rock.)  The Anna Evenson Stewart Family Photo Collection includes a color photo of Stewart and a colleague, miles from nowhere on an old section of wagon road, with Stewart leaning on his luxurious Citroen sedan – which he probably bought since a driver could easily adjust the ground clearance on the car.

Stewart also did literary research and interviews.  The Bancroft has one of the finest – if not the finest – collection of diaries and journals from those who made the overland trip before the railroads.  Stewart made good use of that resource.  He even had the chance to interview some of the elderly who had made the trip – notably, the legendary Ina Coolbrith.  Coolbrith was the first Poet Laureate of California, guided Jack London through the books of the Oakland Library, and otherwise helped create a literature of California.  The story of her entry into California, in the arms of Wagon Train Scout James Beckwourth, is one of the enduring and endearing stories of the Westward Movement.  Stewart interviewed her just before her death.

When all was said and done, George Stewart put his decades of research into a book.  The California Trail:  An Epic With Many Heroes  In its several hundred well-illustrated pages, Stewart presents a detailed but interesting history of that great American story, from the first crossings by foot, through the last year with good statistics, 1857. The California Trail is still considered the best book on the emigrant movement into California by overland wagon train.

He worked on his book at the same time his old friend and fellow author Wallace Stegner was writing a book about the Mormon Trail for the same series.  In a wonderful letter, Stegner, who was teaching at Stanford, suggested that since the two men were writing books about the trails on two sides of the Platte River (The Mormon Trail was on one side, the California Trail on the other) they should get together and discuss the books (presumably over drinks and  barbequed burgers).

The book has been reprinted, and is still widely-available.  I’d recommend you look for a first edition – sometimes cheaper than the paperback reprint.  The cover illustrated is for the paperback.

cal trail cover