Many places have undergone name changes at some point in their past, often because the land came under new rule or because the settlement outgrew its old designation. But some towns and cities had more unique reasons to transform their titles. Scandal, shame, or a desire to honor their history can spur a community to present a fresh identity to the world. Here are five places whose name changes aren’t your average rebranding.
1. Berlin, Ontario, Canada, became Kitchener
A lot of German immigrants settled in Southern Ontario in the 19th century, and the city of Berlin was named as an homage to their motherland. This was fine—until the 20th century, when said motherland started bombing Canada’s allies during World War I. That, combined with the large population of pacifist Mennonites in Berlin, spelled trouble for the city. All the pacifists meant a large number of local men weren’t signing up for the war effort, which caused people from other towns to look at the heavily German-populated Berlin with suspicion.
Soon, there was a referendum (not supported by the majority) to change the city’s name. Citizens were given a variety of new names to vote on, but there was no space on the ballot to keep Berlin “Berlin.” Anyone who supported the status quo was, according to the National Archives of Canada, “immediately perceived, by those who wanted change, as being unpatriotic and sympathizers with the enemy.”
Violence, riots, and intimidation followed. Only 892 people out of a pool of about 5000 eligible voters voted on the referendum. A meager 346 votes were enough to change Berlin to Kitchener, named after Britain’s Minister of War.
2. Pile-Of-Bones, Saskatchewan, Canada, became Regina
Today, Regina is a city more than 220,000 people strong. But in the 1880s, it was a barren grassland frequented mainly by buffalo and the Cree Indians who hunted them. Its original name, oskana kâ-asastêki, means “where the bones are piled.” The macabre moniker references the enormous piles of bones the Cree would construct in the hopes that living buffalo would return to visit their dead ancestors. Later settlers shortened the name to “Pile O’ Bones.” In 1882, the wife of Canada’s governor general, Princess Louise, suggested they change the name to honor her own mother, Queen Victoria. Regina is Latin for “Queen,” and all female monarchs sign their name using it. Thus the Saskatchewan settlement was elevated out of the boneyard to royal heights.
3. Wineville, California, became Mira Loma
Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie made a movie called Changeling, about a mother who is sure the kidnapped son returned to her is not actually her boy. The film was based on true events, and those events are why the town of Wineville, California, became Mira Loma (it’s since been incorporated into Jurupa Valley). The real-life kidnapped boy, Walter Collins, was likely murdered in Wineville along with at least three other boys by Gordon Stewart Northcott. The case became known as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, as the partial remains of Northcott’s victims were recovered around the criminal’s chicken coop. Northcott was hanged in 1930, and the town sought to escape its appalling notoriety by changing its name in 1931.
4. Staines, Surrey, England, became Staines-Upon-Thames
Americans have come to loathe or love Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat or Bruno. In his native Britain, he was first known as the character Ali G, an obnoxious wanna-be white boy rapper. Part of Ali G’s background is that he grew up in the mean ghettos of Staines—which is actually a lovely middle-class town in Surrey. His fame was such in the UK that the people of Staines didn’t appreciate being associated with his image. The borough council opted to change the town’s name to the more elegant Staines-upon-Thames, partly to distance themselves from Ali G’s obnoxious antics, and partly to advertise their proximity to the River Thames to encourage tourism. Though Ali G may have put the town on the map, as Alex Tribick of the Spelthorne Business Forum said, he also “put the stain in Staines.”
5. Gay Head, Massachusetts, became Aquinnah
On the western edge of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there is an outcropping of craggy, brightly tinted rock. The white settlers who arrived there in the 1600s described them as the “gaily colored cliffs.” The association stuck to the settlement that grew nearby, and thus, the town of Gay Head was born. In 1997, the people of Gay Head voted to change their town’s name to Aquinnah, to honor some of the residents’ ties to the Wamponoag tribe, who were the original holders of the land. As Carl Widdis, the tribesman who started the petition in 1991, said, “I guess it's simple. An Indian place should have an Indian name."