How 17 Great American Cities Got Their Names

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You know that Washington, D.C., is named for George Washington, but how well do you know where other major cities got their names? Here's a look at how a few of our bigger American municipalities found their monikers.

1. Atlanta
The ATL was very nearly the MAR. In the early 1840s, what is now Atlanta called itself "Marthasville," a nod to former governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter Martha. The name changed to Atlanta in 1847, and although J. Edgar Thomson, chief engineer of the Georgia Railroad, gets credit for coining the "Atlanta" name, there is some debate over what inspired him. Some sources claim the aforementioned Martha Lumpkin's middle name was Atalanta. Others claim that Thomson took inspiration from Greek mythology's Atalanta. Still others claim that Thomson shortened the name from his original idea, "Atlantica-Pacifica."

2. Baltimore
Charm City gets its name from Cecilius Calvert, 2nd Lord Baltimore, the first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland from 1632 until 1675.

3. Boston
Like a lot of New England cities, colonists named Boston after the city they left back home. In this case, Boston, MA, is named after Boston, Lincolnshire, England. Unlike its New World namesake, Boston, England, is still fairly small; its population is just a hair under 60,000.

4. Chicago
Chicago may be the Windy City, but its name has a fragrant origin.

"Chicago" comes from the French pronunciation of shikaakwa the word for "wild garlic" in the Miami-Illinois language. Chicago was originally rife with the wild garlic we also know as ramps.

5. Cincinnati
Cincinnati was originally known as Losantiville, but that didn't sit well with territorial governor Arthur St. Clair. During a 1790 visit to Losantiville, St. Clair changed the name to Cincinnati to honor the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former Continental Army officers. (You guessed it; St. Clair was a member of the society.)

6. Cleveland

Cleveland takes its name from General Moses Cleaveland, a surveyor and investor for the Connecticut Land Company who led the first group to settle in the area in 1796. Cleaveland oversaw the planning of the early town, then headed back to Connecticut a few months later and never returned to the town that bears his name.

It's not exactly clear when the first "a" in his surname got dropped from the city's name, but one story explains that in 1830 the Cleveland Advertiser was pressed for space on its headline and simply axed the "a." The change caught on, and the town became known as Cleveland.

7. Denver
Colorado's capital is named after James W. Denver, a 19th-century Renaissance man who served in Congress, fought in the United States Army, and served as Governor of the Kansas Territory. He only visited his namesake city twice, in 1875 and 1882, and was reportedly unhappy that the residents didn't give him more of a hero's welcome.

8. Detroit
The Motor City gets its name from the French word détroit, or "strait," because of its position along the strait connecting Lake Erie to Lake Huron.

9. Los Angeles
The City of Angels' name has an appropriately religious background. Spanish settlers originally dubbed the settlement El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula, or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion." The official name was eventually shortened to El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, and it eventually became just "Los Angeles."

10. Miami
The hotbed of southern Florida is named after the Mayaimi, a Native American tribe that lived around Lake Okeechobee until the 17th or 18th century.

11. Minneapolis
This Minnesota city gets its name from two languages. In 1852 an early schoolteacher combined the Sioux word mni for "water" with the Greek word polis for "city" to get a name that paid tribute to the town's lakes.

12. New Orleans
French settlers originally called the Big Easy Nouvelle-Orléans in honor of Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, who was Regent of France at the time of the city's founding.

13. Orlando
Disney World's hometown is another city whose name has murky origins. One local legend claims that the city is named after the character in Shakespeare's As You Like It, but the more commonly accepted tale is that a man named Orlando Reeves owned a plantation and sugar mill a bit north of what became the city. Early settlers found where Reeves had carved his name in a tree and assumed that it was a grave marker to a soldier who died in the Seminole War and mistakenly named their settlement after him.

14. Phoenix
When the Arizona city was first taking off in the late 1860s, settlers realized that their little town needed a name. Founder Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran, wanted to name the town Stonewall in honor of Stonewall Jackson, but Darrell Duppa recognized that their site had been a Native American settlement centuries earlier. He suggested Phoenix because their new city would rise from the ruins of the former civilization.

15. Portland
There was a 50-50 shot that Portland, OR, was going to end up being called Boston, OR. In 1845 what is now known as Portland was just a small settlement called "the Clearing." Settlers Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove both wanted to name the settlement after their own hometowns. Lovejoy was from Boston, while Pettygrove was from Portland, ME. The pair settled their argument by flipping a penny. Pettygrove and Portland won the best-two-out-of-three contest, and the city became Portland. The so-called "Portland Penny" is still on display at the Oregon History Center.

16. San Antonio
The first Spanish missionaries and explorers came to what is now San Antonio on June 13, 1691, the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. They named their settlement in his honor.

17. Seattle
Seattle gets its name from an English corruption of the name of Si'ahl, a Duwamish chief who was a valuable ally to the area's early white settlers.
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Which cities should we hit in the inevitable follow-up? And how'd your town get its name?

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August 24, 2010 - 10:40am
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