In a Word: Where State Capital Names Came From — Part I: Montgomery to Topeka

Uncover the stories behind state capital names, from Alabama to Kansas.

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Back in October 2019, I collected “The Surprising Story Behind Every State’s Name,” and while not every state name’s history was actually surprising (looking at you, Washington and New Mexico), there were definitely some unexpected journeys through both history and etymology there. Toponymy — the study of place names — can be a fascinating subject, so why stop with just the state names?

What follows is the first part of the background, both etymological and historical, on all of the 50 U.S. state capitals. Like the state names, some of these won’t be that surprising (sorry, Oklahoma City), but you’re certain to discover something here that you didn’t know when you woke up this morning.

When they become available, follow these links to Part II — Frankfort, Kentucky, to Raleigh, North Carolina — and Part III — Bismarck, North Dakota, to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

(From Montgomery, Alabama, to Topeka, Kansas, listed alphabetically by state)

Montgomery, Alabama

In 1817 and 1818, three small settlements sprang up on the banks of the Alabama River. Two of these communities merged in 1819 to form the town of Montgomery, named for Gen. Richard Montgomery, a hero of the Revolutionary War. It would become the capital when Alabama became a state at the end of 1819.

Montgomery (the city) sits at the northern edge of Montgomery County, which, oddly, is not named after the same man. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Montgomery County was named in 1816 after Major Lemuel Montgomery, who was killed in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

There are a few theories about the origin of the Montgomery surname. We know that it came from the commune of Germain-de-Montgommery in Normandy, France, and the mont part of the name undoubtedly comes the Old French word for “hill, mountain” But exactly where the -gomery came from is still uncertain. It’s most likely from the personal name Gumaric, a Germanic name formed from guma “man” and ric “power.” If this is true, the name Montgomery breaks down into “manpower hill.”

Juneau, Alaska

While searching for gold in 1879, Joseph Juneau and Richard Harris, two Canadian prospectors, met Chief Kowee of the Auke tribe. Kowee knew the area well, and he was able to help them find the first large deposits of gold, on what is now called Douglas Island. In 1880, the two founded a new town. Harris called it Harrisburg, after himself, but other settlers called it Rockwell, after Lt. Commander Charles Rockwell of the U.S. Navy, who was sent to the area in January 1881 to keep the peace.

In February of that same year, a group of miners came together to vote once and for all on the town’s name. Harrisburg lost badly (and besides, it was already the capital of Pennsylvania). Juneau City, after Joseph Juneau, received the most votes, but not terribly more than Rockwell — which, from The Saturday Evening Post’s point of view, was rather a shame. The City was very soon dropped from the name.

The word Juneau comes from French and means “young.”

Phoenix, Arizona

In 1867, a Civil War veteran (who served on both sides, it turns out) named Jack Swilling, while riding a U.S. express mail route from Prescott to Tucson, stopped to rest his horse in the Salt River Valley. This was near the ruins left by the Hohokam people, a civilization that had disappeared more than 450 years earlier. Beyond a beautiful landscape, what he saw there was good soil that lacked only water to become lush and fertile. Convinced it was a good place to settle, he established the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company and, by March of the following year, had brought water into the region from the Salt River.

The place was called variously Swilling’s Mill, Helling Mill, and Mill City. It’s Darrell Duppa, one of the burgeoning town’s early administrators, who is credited with coming up with the name Phoenix, after the mythological bird. Just like the mythological Phoenix rose from its own ashes, this new Phoenix, he said, would rise from the ashes of a former civilization.

Little Rock, Arkansas

There’s no great mystery behind the naming of Little Rock, Arkansas. It was named after a little rock.

To be more specific: In 1722, the French explorer Bernard de la Harpe was the first known European to spot a large rocky bluff on the north bank of the Arkansas River. He called it Le Rocher Français, “The French Rock,” and claimed it for France.

A little farther downstream was a smaller rock, near a stretch where it was possible to ford the river. This he called La Petite Roche, French for “The Little Rock,” which is what English speakers called it. The area came to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the settlement grew, becoming the territorial capital in 1821 and remaining as state capital when Arkansas achieved statehood in 1836.

Sacramento, California

When John Sutter arrived in 1839 at the conjunction of the American and Sacramento Rivers, he’d hoped to build an agricultural community. But when gold was discovered near his mill in 1848, it set off a gold rush that brought hundreds of fortune-seekers to the area. Sacramento — named after the river, grew quickly, becoming the state capital in 1879.

The name Sacramento is Spanish for “sacrament,” from the Latin sacramentum “a solemn oath,” from sacrare “to consecrate.”

Denver, Colorado

Like many capitals out West, Denver’s history began in the mid-19th century with the discovery of gold. Georgia prospectors discovered some of the precious metal at the base of the Rocky Mountains in a northwestern area of the Kansas Territory in 1858. They didn’t find much gold, but it didn’t take a lot to attract fortune-seekers by the dozens.

They called the settlement that grew around the prospecting Auraria — from the Latin word aurum “gold” but also named for Auraria, Georgia, where many of the new settlers had come from.

Gold wasn’t the only way to make money on boomtowns — there could be even more money in real estate. One way some people struck it rich was the course that Gen. William H. Larimer took: When he arrived in the area not long after Auraria was founded, he laid claim to a stretch of land along the South Platte River, laid out city streets, and then sold lots to the people who came in search of riches. In hopes of currying favor, he named his settlement after the governor of the Kansas Territory, James Denver — not knowing at the time that Denver had already resigned.

The two settlements — Denver and Auraria — competed for a time, but in 1860 they merged and took the single name Denver. James Denver’s surname derives from the Old English Dena “Danes” + fær “journey, passage” and literally means “passage used by the Danes.”

Hartford, Connecticut

European settlers in the New World were known for a lot of things. Coming up with original names for their settlements was not one of them. Quite often, settlers just named their new home after their old one. Hartford is but one example.

One of America’s oldest cities, Hartford was founded in 1635. Several dozen English Puritans, led by Pastors Samuel Stone and Thomas Hooker, journeyed from Newtown (part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) to the upstart settlement along the Connecticut River in what was at the time an area largely controlled by the Dutch. They originally called the village Newtown as well — as I said, creativity was not a strong point — but in 1637, it was renamed Hartford in honor of Stone’s English hometown, Hertford (from the Old English Herutford).

There are no morphological secrets to the name Hartford: A hart is a male deer, and a ford is a shallow place in a river or stream that makes for easy crossing. Hartford is literally a place in the river where deer frequently cross.

Dover, Delaware

You’ve probably heard of the White Cliffs of Dover. Although they aren’t a reference to the capital of Delaware, they are a reference to the city in southeast England that the capital was named after. Laid out in 1683 as a court town for the recently formed Kent County, Dover was named by William Penn, who simply reused a city name from the other Kent County, in England. (For another uncreative name, see Hartford above.)

Dover comes from the Old English Dofras, which comes from the Latin Dubris, both of which mean “the waters,” after a stream that flowed through the area.

Tallahassee, Florida

Tallahassee and its name go back to the years before Europeans arrived in the New World. Though there is agreement that Tallahassee is a transcription of the native place name given to the area, there is a bit of controversy about exactly which tribe named it and what the word means.

Most websites will tell you that the name comes from the Muskogee word meaning “old town” or “abandoned fields,” from (i)talwa “town” + ahassi “old, rotten.” But according to one argument, hassi comes from vhasse, which would not have been used to describe a location. An alternate theory is that Tallahassee was originally a coastal town built specifically for the elite of the Itsate tribe, and its name comes from the Itsate word Tula-hiwalse “town of the highlanders.”

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta was founded in 1837 but was originally called Marthasville, in honor of the daughter of Georgia’s then-governor William Schley. The city was created at the termination of the Western and Atlantic railroad line, which is where the city’s permanent name came from. Atlanta is a feminine form of the Atlantic, from the name of the railroad line, which of course took its name from the ocean.

Tracing back to Greek Atlantikos, the Atlantic Ocean was the “Sea of Atlas,” where, it was said, the titan Atlas was forced, as a punishment, to hold up the sky.

Honolulu, Hawaii

Captain James Cook plays a big role in Hawaii’s relationship with European civilization, but not so much when it comes to Honolulu. When he landed at the Hawaiian islands in 1778, he completely missed the island of Oahu, sailing right past it one night.

Sixteen years later, William Brown, another English sailor, would return to the islands, but he landed at Oahu. He dubbed the Honolulu area “Fair Haven,” mirroring the Hawaiian sentiment inherent in the original name: hono means “port,” and lulu means “calm.”

King Kamehameha I moved his court to Oahu after he conquered the island in 1804, and Kamehameha III named Honolulu the kingdom’s capital in 1845.

Boise, Idaho

For 19th-century French-Canadian trappers, crossing the Snake River Plain was a tough slog across a desolate area. Until, that is, they reached a river that was lined with trees, the first substantial amount of wood (and, they hoped, woodland creatures to exploit) they had likely seen in a while.

The French word for “wood” is bois, from which stems the French-Canadian boisé “wooded.” (This explains why Boise is a two-syllable word today.) This “wooded river,” then, became the Boise River. A gold rush in 1862 brought more settlers to the Boise River basin, leading to the construction of Fort Boise in 1863, around which grew what would become the capital of Idaho in 1864.

Springfield, Illinois

Settlement in modern-day Springfield began in 1820, but the area was originally called Calhoun, after John C. Calhoun, President Monroe’s Secretary of War who would later become vice president for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. The name was changed to Springfield in 1832, because Spring Creek flowed nearby — and the settlement was in an adjacent field.

Spring and field are of Old English stock: spring is from the verb springan on the notion of water springing from the ground, and field was originally feld.

Extra trivia: Springfield, Illinois, has nothing to do with the famous Springfield rifle, which in 1813 was named for the U.S. government armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Indianapolis, Indiana

The name of Indiana’s state capital doesn’t show a lot of creativity, but it does reveal a bit of linguistic variety. While the state’s name uses a Latin ­-a suffix to make a name that means “land of the Indians,” for the capital, legislators went with the Greek -polis “city.”

The capital of Territorial Indiana had been Vincennes, on the southwestern edge of Indiana, but in 1813 was moved to Corydon, in the extreme southern area of the state. When Indiana achieved statehood in 1816, legislators wanted a more centrally located capital, and a new site was chosen right in the middle of the state. Indianapolis officially became the capital in 1825.

Des Moines, Iowa

Iowa’s capital city began as Fort Des Moines, which took its name from the French-Canadian-named Rivière des Moines, one of the two rivers that converged near the site. (If the name of the other river had been used, the capital of Iowa might today be Raccoon City.) Rivière des Moines means “river of the monks,” but exactly why it got that name is up for debate.

The “monks” might be literal. At the end of the 18th century, a group of Trappist monks, fleeing the French Revolution, found a home at the mouth of the river, and explorers might have named it after them.

However, the name itself might be a folk etymology of a native word for the area — meaning the unfamiliar word that French trappers heard a native tribe call the area sounded enough like “des moines” that they simply started to call it that. A 1673 text refers to the place as Moinguena, which historians believe comes from the name that the Peoria tribe gave to the people living there, mooyiinkweena — from mooy “excrement” + iinkee “face.” Apparently the Peoria tribe didn’t think much of their neighbors.

Topeka, Kansas

The name Topeka comes from a Kansa-Osage word that means — and you’ve got to love this — “a good place to dig potatoes.” According to records, the name was proposed by a local minister on the first day of 1855, and the city’s founders liked its novelty — there weren’t any other U.S. Post Offices called Topeka. It was adopted unanimously the next day.

Come back next week to learn more about the histories of the capitals from Frankfort, Kentucky, to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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