How 17 Great American Cities Got Their Names

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.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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