United States Place Names and the History Behind Them: The Cities Edition

United States Place Names and the History Behind Them: The Cities Edition

Nov 15, 2023

What inspired me to write about place names?

I've always known there are a lot of Lafayettes out there, but I didn't really know much about the man those U.S. cities were named for until I moved to Colonial Williamsburg (CW).

The other day, Mark Schneider, our CW actor and historian who portrays the Marquis de Lafayette, was talking to some guests of CW. They were from North Carolina and he mentioned Fayetteville was named for the Marquis.

Then during a presentation by CW's Kurt Smith, who portrays Thomas Jefferson, some visitors mentioned they were from Jefferson City, Missouri.

It got me thinking: what are the most popular/used city names in the United States. So I did a bit of research and am sharing some information that might help you on Jeopardy someday or just be a fun read while you're drinking your morning coffee.

Either way, here it is: the "city name" post! Because let's be honest, peeking behind the curtain of place names is a great way to learn more of what American history is really about!

RELATED: My post about the Marquis de Lafayette

Mark Schneider portraying the Marquis de Lafayette in Colonial Williamsburg

Mark Schneider portraying Lafayette in CW at the Indian encampment exhibit.

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The top 4 city place names in the United States as of publishing this post.

You can Google it and most sources will say these are the 4. That said, I'm citing the United States Post - you can click here and go down through the list of "facts" until you find the city names info.

Number 1 with 28 cities: Franklin
Tied for 2nd at 27 each: Clinton, Madison, and Washington, making this list our top four.

Cities named Franklin are most likely named for Benjamin Franklin.

Cities named Madison and Washington, as far as I've looked are all named for Presidents James Madison and George Washington.

New to me: DeWitt Clinton and, quite possibly, his uncle George.

PS we shouldn't forget to recognize there are cities named DeWitt after Mr. Clinton. They're found in Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and New York, upping Mr. DeWitt Clinton's game.

Who were DeWitt and George Clinton?

DeWitt Clinton.

  • Served in multiple political roles including Mayor of New York City and U.S. Senator.
  • While in the NY Senate, introduced the bill that started the ball rolling for the Erie Canal to connect the Hudson River and the Great Lakes.
  • Ran against incumbent President James Madison in 1812 (was a member of the same Democratic-Republican party Madison created with Thomas Jefferson).

Learn more about DeWitt Clinton here.

George Clinton, the 18th century one, not the the famous musician born way later in American history.

  • Served in both the Seven Years War and the American Revolution, where he was a brigadier general.
  • Member of Continental Congress and the New York Burgesses.
  • Governor of New York twice.
  • Vice-President under both Presidents Jefferson and Madison.

Learn more about George Clinton here.

Let's not forget the history before we became the United States of America.

Before America became the United States of America and before any settlers landed on these shores, the lands were known by other names to native tribes and nations.

Many cities around the country honor those who were here earlier. Cities like:

  • Mohegan Connecticut named for the Mohegan people.
  • Shawnee Colorado named for the Shawnee people.
  • Saunemin Illinois named after a Kickapoo chief
  • Topeka Kansas from Kansa dóppikʔe, "a good place to dig wild potatoes" or is it named for "smoky hill?"

Do you have any unique stories of a city's place name? A personal favorite? Share it in the comments!

And if you're wondering how many cities are named after the Marquis de Lafayette, I may have to ask Mr. Schneider because I'm struggling to find what I'm confident is a reliable source online!

As I usually do, closing it out with words from history - this being a letter from George Washington to General Clinton.

Click here to read directly from favorite site sharing primary sources for this period.

From George Washington to Brigadier General George Clinton, 9 August 1776

To Brigadier General George Clinton

Head Quarters N. York 9th Augt 1776

Dear Sir.

Yours of the 2d Instant is duly Received enclosed you have a Resolution of the provincial Convention which came to hand last Evening, by which you will please to Regulate your Conduct, I must beg you to Inform Me as soon as possible what number your Brigade now consists of—and what number it will contain when a fourth part of the Militia are drafted agreeable to Order of provincial Congress.1

By Intelligence Received, and movements observed of the Enemy, we have the greatest Reason to believe a general Attack will be made in the Course of a very few Days, our numbers are much short of the Enemy. I hope no time will be lost in Marching the Reinforcements expected to our Assistance from different Quarters, with all possible Dispatch. I am Sir Your Most Hume Servt

Go: Washington

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There is a huge practical disclaimer to the content on this blog, which is my way of sharing my excitement and basically journaling online.

1) I am not a historian nor an expert. I will let you know I’m relaying the information as I understand and interpret it. The employees of Colonial Williamsburg base their presentations, work, and responses on historical documents and mainly primary sources.

2) I will update for accuracy as history is constant learning. If you have a question about accuracy, please ask me! I will get the answer from the best source I can find.

3) Photo credit to me, Daphne Reznik, for all photos in this post, unless otherwise credited! All photos are personal photos taken in public access locations or with specific permission.