Sunday, August 22, 2010

Legacy nation

These ruminations on Andrew Jackson caused your favorite 3-pound pundit to wonder about the unintended irony of some American place names. Jackson is famous for his nullification smackdown. He's also infamous for the Trail of Tears. If the reader will bear with a nerdy level of introductory detail, your patience will be rewarded with permanent knowledge. This stuff will never, ever change. All data presented here was obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau and accessorized using Wikipedia.

There are 3,141 counties in America. "County" includes county-level government entities called parishes, boroughs (Alaska) or some cities (e.g. Baltimore City). The names of America's counties are in many cases unsurprising. The interesting thing about county names is that whomever chose them couldn't ignore implications for posterity. For example, the five most frequently occurring names are:

Washington - 31
Franklin - 26
Jefferson - 26
Jackson - 24
Lincoln - 24

Other presidential names appear outside of the top-5, for example, 12 counties are named "Polk". (I didn't check every county for the possibility of coincidental naming, but, for example, most counties named "Jackson" are named for Andrew Jackson).

County names include a fair representation of military figures. Some of the most popular are:

Wayne - 16
Grant - 15
Greene - 14
Perry - 10
Knox - 9
Pulaski - 7
Custer - 6
Decatur - 5

The same caution on unchecked possible coincidental naming applies here. I've left the injustice of Custer outnumbering Decatur unchallenged (please feel free to chime in). One the one hand, we've got a velvet-clad glory hound, on the other, we've got America's first post-revolution military hero, whose exploits would make a movie every bit as good as Master and Commander.

Many of the oldest counties, like other place-names on the eastern seaboard, evoke the homelands of our founding English cultures or they honor period royalty. For example:

Essex - 5
Kent - 5
York - 5
Middlesex - 4
Suffolk - 3
Bristol - 3

"King" appears in three other county names and "Prince" appears in five.

Names used for three or more counties account for 41% of all county names. There are 1,386 counties (44%) with unique names. Some counties were named by folks with perhaps less appreciation of their historic opportunity, or perhaps they were in a hurry, or thought commodities would forever rule, or maybe they just preferred small words, to wit:

Carbon - 4
Iron - 4
Mineral - 4
Cedar - 3
Bay - 2

"Coal" and "Petroleum" were each used only once. Oddly enough, Coal County is in Oklahoma and not West Virginia. Petroleum County isn't found in Pennsylvannia, Louisiana, or Texas, but rather in Montana.

"Liberty" appears as only four county names although "Columbia" appears eight times and we might construe similar meaning or intent. Pre-colonial or pre-territorial explorers were given short-shrift. Hernado de Soto inspired four county names, one of which is Hernando County, Florida. "La Salle" appears just twice. That puts their legacy on a similar plane as Jefferson Davis, since two counties are named "Jefferson Davis" and two others (in Texas and Georgia) are named "Jeff Davis". Are four counties named for Jefferson Davis worse than six named for Custer? You bet!

County names also provide an interesting counterpoint to belief that America is a "Christian country". Indeed, if the Founder's intent (despite constitutional absence of a state religion) was to create a "Christian country", you'd think those who followed would have honored such legacy with a spate of county names drawn from  Christian tradition. Oddly, only three counties are named "Christian", in Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri. There is no "Bible County" and no counties are named for Abraham, Moses or Jesus. There are, however, counties named "Deaf Smith", "Beaverhead", "Glasscock" and "Jim Hogg". The latter was a 19th century populist governor of Texas. He had his own unique take on names.

The most common county names derived from Christian tradition are:

St. Clair - 4
Christian - 3
St. Louis - 3
St. Charles - 2
St. Joseph - 2
Trinity - 2

There are 16 other counties named for saints, plus Assumption and Ascension Parishes, which totals 34 counties (1%) named from Christian tradition, most likely by Catholic missionaries. As I recall, the Founders were largely Protestants who looked askance on Catholicism.

How does representation of Christian tradition in county names compare to traditions of people who weren't English royalty, Presidents, military leaders, explorers, governors or treasonous secessionists? Such people were known by many names. They were widely regarded, at the time, as the antithesis of "Christian". We'll do a another top-5 list, this time in reverse order:

Chippewa - 3
Cheyenne - 3
Ottawa - 4
Delaware - 6
Cherokee - 8

Tribal names, place names and other words of native peoples were used to name approximately 312 American counties*. The most popular native name for a county is Cherokee. "Cherokee County" is found in Georgia, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma. It's safe to say that county names representing native American tradition outnumber those expressing Christian tradition by a 9:1 ratio.

Cherokee is also tied with 11 other names, including "Boone", as the 44th most popular county name overall. An ironic and permanent legacy for a displaced, vanquished people.

Remember Jim Hogg? He was born in Cherokee County, Texas. He named his daughter "Ima", although this picture shows she didn't look like the phonetic interpretation of Ima Hogg.

 Circa 1900

The legend that Jim had another daughter named "Ura" is, sadly, pure myth.

* The list of all county names was reviewed for native American names, marked & tallied. County names that may be translations of native words weren't included. A few erroneous inclusions may have occurred.

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