How the West was named

The story of America is written in the names that knit the land together.

Once, from eastern ocean to western shore, the land stretched away without names. Nameless headlands split the surf; nameless lakes reflected mountains; and nameless rivers flowed through nameless valleys into nameless bays.

Men came at last, tribe following tribe, speaking different languages and thinking different thoughts. According to their ways of speech and thought they gave names, and in their generations laid their bones by the streams they had named.

Names soon lay thickly on the land, and the Americans spoke them, great and little, easily and carelessly – Virginia, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Deadman Creek, Sugarloaf Hill, Detroit, Wall Street – scarce thinking how they had come to be.

Yet the names had grown out of life, and the lifeblood, of all those who had gone before.

*    *    *

On the evening of Saturday, April 2, 1513 Juan Ponce de Leon laid anchor along the coastline of an unidentified stretch of land. The Spanish explorer had set sail from Puerto Rico a week earlier with three ships “to win honor and increase estate”.  Don Juan had tracked the coast all afternoon, and still he saw the land stretching far off, a low plain broken by groves of trees, green with April.

It was the custom of those who discovered new lands to name rivers, capes, mountains or the land itself, and to Don Juan one particular name was twice suitable for this new land.

It was April, and the season was still that of Our Lord’s Resurrection, only six days after the Easter of Flowers. He also thought the land he gazed upon was at this season a flowered land. Thus, he named it Florida (Flowering Easter).

*    *     *

Names sprang up across the new land between two oceans. From them it might be known how here one man hoped and struggled, how there another dreamed, or died, or sought fortune – Battle Mountain, Hardscrabble, Troy Smackover, Death Valley, Troublesome Creek, Cape Fear. Even Nameless.

While the name might suggest otherwise, the early inhabitants of Nameless, Texas were thoroughly invested in finding a name for their community. Located in northwest Travis County, Nameless was settled in 1869. Residents grew cotton or produced cedar posts and rails to make a living. By 1880 the townsfolk were ready to make their town official and applied for a U.S. post office.

The postal department rejected the names they suggested not once, but six times. Finally, in an act of frustration, the residents replied in writing, “Let the post office be nameless and be damned!”

Their bluff was called: The post office called Nameless was established in 1880. Although it survived well into the 20th century, all that remains in Nameless today is a historical marker, a cemetery and an abandoned schoolhouse, although the community without a name remains on state maps.


Names on the land, by George R. Stewart (NYRB)

A Texas Town By Any Other Name:

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2 thoughts on “How the West was named

    1. Uncertain, but the most likely explanation of the origin of the name “California” was its application to the territory now known as the state of California by one or more Spanish explorers in the 16th century, a reference to a mythical land described in a popular novel of the time: Las Sergas de Esplandián. (The Adventures of Esplandián) by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The novel described the Island of California as being east of the Asian mainland, “very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.” The Island was ruled by Queen Calafia. When the Spanish started exploring the Pacific coast they applied this name on their maps to what is now called the Baja Peninsula they originally thought was an island. Once the name was on the maps it stuck.

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