How All 50 State Capitals Got Their Names
Want to know which state capital's name means "a good place to dig wild potatoes?" Or which cities in the United States were almost called Pig's Eye, Pumpkinville, and Algebra? We've traced the strange and fascinating histories behind each state capital's naming process. Read on to find out how all 50 state capitals got their names.
Founded in 1819, Montgomery is named for General Richard Montgomery, a Revolutionary War officer killed in the attack on Quebec. Though Montgomery passed away nearly 45 years before Alabama’s capital was established, he was thrust back in the news in 1819 when his home state of New York successfully convinced Quebec to return his remains. It's unclear why a Southern settlement decided to name their city after a New York war hero, though the fact that several of the settlement's original founders hailed from New England may have played some role in the decision-making.
In a strange coincidence, Alabama’s capital is located in Montgomery County, but though city and county share a moniker, they're named for completely different people. While Montgomery city is named after Richard Montgomery, the county is named for Major Lemuel Montgomery, who died in 1814 while fighting the Creek Indians under Andrew Jackson. In a final twist, historians now believe the two Montgomerys may have been distantly related.
Still a rough-and-tumble mining town when it was named in 1881, Juneau is named for Joseph Juneau, a gold prospector who reportedly bribed his fellow miners with alcohol or money to vote to name the settlement for him. About a year after the vote was taken, Joe Juneau split town, leaving behind nothing but his name. Before the gold rush brought miners streaming into the region the area that would become Juneau was known as Dzantik’i Heeni, or Gold Creek, and was a popular Tlingit fishing spot in the summer months.
Built atop the Pueblo Grande ruins, Phoenix was named to evoke a sense of a great new city rising from the ashes of an old one. Inhabited between 700 A.D. and 1400 A.D. by an indigenous civilization now known as the Ho Ho Kam (“the people who have gone”), the Pueblo Grande ruins included the remnants of a sophisticated irrigation system stretching 135 miles. By the time the land around Phoenix was claimed by American settlers in the 19th century, the Ho Ho Kam were long gone, possibly expelled from their ancestral home by a particularly long drought.
The name “Phoenix” was suggested by “Lord” Darrel Duppa, an alcoholic Englishman known for his Shakespeare recitations, and for habitually squandering the $3000 check he received every three months from his wealthy family. The well-read Duppa proposed the romantic image of the the Phoenix of Egyptian mythology, likening the American settlement to the great bird rising to life after being swallowed by flames. Before dubbing it Phoenix, the early settlers had called the town Pumpkinville.
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS
Little Rock was named by French explorer Jean Baptist Bénard de La Harpe, who discovered two rocky outcroppings on the Arkansas River in 1722. The larger he called Le Rocher Francais (“The French Rock,” later called Big Rock) and the smaller he named La Petit Rocher (“The Little Rock”). The city was built near, and named after, the smaller of the outcroppings.
Sacramento, California was named after the Sacramento River, which was named for the Holy Sacrament, or Eucharist. Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga gave the river its name in 1808 while on an expedition to build a new Catholic mission in the area.
Denver was founded in 1858 by William H. Larimer, who chose the city's name to honor Kansas Governor James W. Denver. Larimer hoped to impress Governor Denver enough to get the city named county seat but, unbeknownst to Larimer, Governor Denver had already resigned by the time the town was named.
Originally called Newtowne, Hartford was settled in 1636 by friends Thomas Hooker and Reverend Samuel Stone. Born in Hertford, England in 1602, Stone was a Puritan minister who traveled to America in 1633 in search of religious freedom. Together, Stone and Hooker led a Puritan congregation from Boston to Newtowne, which they re-named Hartford after Stone’s birthplace.
Dover was founded in 1683 by William Penn, who named the city after a port town in England’s county of Kent. He gave the county in which Delaware’s capital resides the same name.
Tallahassee is an Apalachee word meaning “old fields” or “old town.” It was given its name by Octavia Walton, the teenage daughter of Florida’s territorial secretary George Walton, who believed it meant “beautiful land.” In fact, though Walton is credited with officially suggesting the name in the 1824, the Apalache had been calling the area Tallahassee since the 16th century. The city was chosen as Florida’s capital for its location midway between St. Augustine and Pensacola, two major population centers at the time. The young Octavia Walton, meanwhile, went on to become a prominent 19th century writer and socialite, known by the more exotic nom-de-plume Madame Le Vert.
Initially a Creek trading post, Georgia’s capital was called Standing Peach Tree, Whitehall, Terminus, and Marthasville before being named Atlanta (after the Atlantic Ocean) in 1845. Each of the city’s previous names reflected its changing status as a settlement: As a trading post, it was Standing Peach Tree; as white settlers began to set up permanent residence in the region, it became known as Whitehall. Then, when the railroad reached the region in the 1830s, it became known as Terminus—the last stop on the Western and Atlantic Railroad line. In the 1840s, when it began to look as though the railroad might continue on past the town after all, residents decided to rename it yet again.
They chose the name Marthasville, after 16-year-old Martha Lumpkin, daughter of Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin. Then, just a few years later, town officials began to feel that Marthasville was too plebeian a name for a growing town, and started discussing more “elegant” monikers. It was ultimately Georgia Railroad engineer J. Edgar Thompson who came up with the name Atlanta, writing to city leaders, “The railroad from Charleston and Savannah has met the road just emerging from the wilds of the northwest. Eureka—Atlanta, the terminus of the Western Atlantic Railroad. Atlantic, masculine; Atlanta, feminine. A coined word, but if you think it will suit, adopt it.”
Slightly miffed at the name change, Wilson Lumpkin told anyone who would listen that the name "Atlanta" still honored his daughter Martha, whose middle name, he explained, was the similar-sounding "Atalanta." Martha, meanwhile, dismissed her father's claim, calling the similarity to her middle name no more than "a very peculiar coincidence."
While popular legend has it that Honolulu is Hawaiian for “fair haven,” that explanation actually conflates two separate moments in the city’s history. While the port was referred to as Fair Haven in English in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region’s original indigenous name, “Honolulu,” more accurately translates to “sheltered bay” or “protected bay.” Honolulu is the only state capital with an autochthonous name, and was founded by the indigenous people of Hawaii as long as 2000 years ago.
Boise takes its name from the tree-lined Boise River, which was likely named in the 19th century by French Canadian fur trappers, using the French word for “wooded.” Popular legend has it that, after traveling through dusty flatlands all summer, French explorer B.L.E. Bonneville was so excited to find the river, and especially the forested area that surrounded it, that he exclaimed, “Les bois, les bois! Moyes les bois!”
Originally called Springfield for the nearby Spring Creek, the city was briefly renamed Calhoun in the 1820s, for politician John C. Calhoun. But the name never caught on with the city’s residents, who continued to call the city Springfield, either out of distaste for the politician or simply out of habit. Eventually, giving in to local pressure, the city was officially re-named Springfield in 1833.
Indianapolis is a portmanteau, combining the name of the state with the Greek word polis, which means “city.” Though that may sound like a pretty benign choice of name, it was actually surprisingly controversial when it was chosen in 1821. The name Indianapolis, which was proposed by Judge Jeremiah Sullivan, beat out the names Tecumseh (the name of an Indian chief) and Suwarrow (a European name). Supporters of the other names were so appalled by Indianapolis as the name of the city, one newspaper even called the decision “one of the most ludicrous acts” and called Indianapolis “not as a name for man, woman or child; for empire, city, mountain, or morass; for bird, beast, fish nor creeping thing.”
DES MOINES, IOWA
The city of Des Moines is named for the nearby Des Moines River, but the etymological of origins of Des Moines River are contested: While many believe the river took its name from a nearby Indian tribe called the Moingonas, others think the name refers to a group of Trappist monks who once lived at the mouth of the river (moines is the French word for monks).
Linguist Michael McCafferty, who specializes in the Miami-Illinois language, meanwhile, claims to have come across a 330-year-old story that explains the name Des Moines just a little bit differently. According to that legend, Peoria Indians told French explorer Jacques Marquette that “Moingonas” was the name of a nearby tribe as a joke. The word “Moingonas,” according to McCafferty, comes from “mooyiinkweena,” which translates roughly to “the excrement-faces.”
Topeka likely means “wild potato,” or possibly “a good place to dig wild potatoes,” in Shawnee. But Topeka’s founders didn’t know that when they named the town in 1854. They just thought Topeka was a unique name, and that it had a nice ring to it. The name was proposed by one of the city’s founders, Reverend S.Y. Lum, who claimed it was “a name not found in the list of post offices in the United States, nor in any lexicon of the English language. It was novel, of Indian origin and euphonious of sound." The name was immediately popular with the other city founders, who liked that it was easy to pronounce.
It’s unclear where Reverend S.Y. Lum heard the word “Topeka” in the first place, though it seems likely he read it at some point on one of the maps drawn by missionary Johnston Lykins, who documented the geography of the region.
Historians aren’t certain where Frankfort got its name, but most people believe the name memorializes an early settler named Stephen Frank, who was killed by Native Americans near a river crossing. The crossing came to be known as Frank’s Ford, later shortened to Frankfort. Frankfort is located in similarly named Franklin County, named for Benjamin Franklin.
BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA
Baton Rouge is French for “red pole” or “red stick.” The region was given its name by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who discovered that the Houma and Bayogoula tribes in the area would delineate the boundaries of their hunting grounds with poles stacked with fish and animal heads. Iberville first took note of the practice in 1699, and named the whole region after those boundary-marking sticks; then, when a fort was built in the area in 1721, it, too, was called Baton Rouge.
Augusta was once part of a larger settlement, called Hallowell, but split off to become its own town in 1797. Initially called Harrington, town officials requested that the name be changed to Augusta less than a year after the new town was founded. Apparently, Hallowell residents wouldn't stop teasing the people of Harrington, calling the town "Herringtown" after the pungent fish.
But while the rationale for Harrington's name change is clear, the origins of Augusta are unknown: Some believe the city was named after a previous settlement, destroyed by Native Americans in the 18th century. Others think Augusta was named after Pamela Augusta Dearborn, the daughter of Revolutionary War officer Henry Dearborn. Still others think Augusta refers to Caesar Augustus, who founded the Roman Empire.
Dubbed "Providence" by the Puritans, Annapolis was renamed in 1694 to honor Princess Anne, heir to the English throne, and later Queen of England. To this day, Queen Anne’s royal badge, with a crown hovering above entwined thistle and rose (symbols of Scotland and England), appears on the Annapolis flag.
Boston was given its name in 1630 by Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, who named it after his hometown, Boston in Lincolnshire. The name was popular with Bostonians from the start, since many of them were also from the Lincolnshire region of England.
In 1848, Lansing, Michigan was named after Lansing, New York, which was named for John Lansing Jr., a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention. A little under a year earlier, officials had named the city Michigan after Michigan state, but soon decided against the eponymous title, changing its name following the wishes of some of the town’s earliest settlers, who were originally from Lansing, New York.
ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA
St. Paul didn’t receive its elegant sounding moniker until 1849. Before that, it was called Pig’s Eye, after a local tavern owner named Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. Parrant was an unlikely inspiration for a town name: He had a bad reputation and was said to be a coarse, uncouth man whose bad eye lent his face a piggish expression. But according to legend, a customer at Parrant’s tavern gave “Pig’s Eye” as the return address on a letter he was sending, and from then on, the town was known as Pig’s Eye.
St. Paul might have been known as Pig’s Eye forever, if not for the arrival of a Catholic priest named Father Lucien Galtier, who established the chapel of St. Paul in the region in 1840. Nine years later, the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Minnesota, presumably weighing the pros and cons of naming the town after a licentious tavern owner or a Catholic saint, officially named the settlement St. Paul.
Jackson was named for Andrew Jackson in 1821. At the time, Andrew Jackson was a celebrated major general in the U.S. Army; just seven short years later, he’d be elected president.
JEFFERSON CITY, MISSOURI
City of Jefferson (colloquially called Jefferson City) was named for Thomas Jefferson, whose Louisiana Purchase secured the region that would become Missouri. A close runner up: Missouriopolis. One extremely enthusiastic local newspaper wrote, in defense of the name,
“Men of letters throughout Europe and Americas, hearing it pronounced, will know what is spoken of and where it is. Letters started from London, Paris or Boston, will arrive at their destination without mistakes, and without the circumlocution of a tedious address, without making a pilgrimage to forty places of like names, or having a treatise of geography written on their backs to keep on the right road.” But despite that passionate plea, officials decided Jefferson was a more fitting name.
Helena, Montana takes its name from Saint Helena, Minnesota. Many of the miners who inhabited the town in the 1860s were from Minnesota, and so, when discussing possible names, began throwing around the names of their hometowns. The names Winona and Rochester were also discussed, as were Pumpkinville and Squashtown (the meeting took place on the day before Halloween), but, in the end, Helena won out.
Before it was officially named Helena, the settlement was at one time called Last Chance Gulch, and later, Crabtown, after one of its founders, John Crab.
Originally called Lancaster, the city was renamed Lincoln after Abraham Lincoln in 1867. The name Capital City was also considered, but discarded—presumably for being just a bit too on the nose.
CARSON CITY, NEVADA
Previously known as Eagle Ranch, Carson City was named after the nearby Carson River. The river, meanwhile, was named by explorer John C. Fremont after famed frontiersman Kit Carson, who, at one point, worked as Fremont’s scout through the Rocky Mountains.
CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Concord was named and founded in the spirit of conflict resolution, and refers to the desire for harmony between the feuding towns of Bow and Rumford. In the 18th century, when the two towns were founded, New Hampshire and Massachusetts were a little bit hazy on their official state boundaries, so when Bow and Rumford were founded on the border between the two states, conflicting land grants from the two states created some confusion about what land belonged to which town. Eventually, New Hampshire carved a bit of land out of the town of Bow, creating a brand new parish town called Concord to promote peace and harmony.
TRENTON, NEW JERSEY
Trenton was named for William Trent by William Trent. An early settler to New Jersey, Trent built a summer house in the area around 1719, and subsequently founded a settlement, naming it for himself. The name eventually evolved from “Trent-towne” to “Trenton.”
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO
Santa Fe was originally called “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis,” which means “The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.” Founded in 1610, it was likely given its name by provincial governor Pedro de Peralta to honor Catholicism and communicate the Spaniards’ desire to convert the indigenous peoples of the region. The name also implicitly referred to the city of Santa Fe in Spain.
ALBANY, NEW YORK
Originally ruled by the Dutch and called Beverwyck, Albany was taken over by the British in 1664, along with other Dutch lands in North America. King Charles II gifted a broad swath of territory to his brother James, the Duke of York and Albany. Once under British control, Beverwyck was renamed Albany in James’ honor. Before either the Dutch or British took over the region, the area was called Pempotowwuthut-Muhhcanneuw, meaning "the fireplace of the Mahikan nation," by the Mohicans.
RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA
Raleigh, North Carolina was named in commemoration of the capital of Sir Walter Raleigh’s planned colony, “Cittie of Raleigh,” which was founded in 1587 and mysteriously disappeared a few short years later. Today, the lost town is known as the Lost Colony at Roanoke.
BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA
Bismarck was named after Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck in an attempt to attract German investors to the Northern Pacific Railroad, for which Bismarck served as terminus. While the bid for investors was unsuccessful, Bismarck sent the railroad an autographed note of acknowledgement.
Alcohol has played some small role in several of the stories so far, and Columbus is no exception. Almost called Ohio City, Columbus was, of course, named after Christopher Columbus. The name was suggested by General Joseph Foos, a state legislator and local tavern owner who, according to legend, got his fellow legislators drunk at his tavern in order to sway their vote toward Columbus. The Ohio General Assembly officially named the town Columbus on February 20, 1812.
OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
The word Oklahoma combines the Choctaw words ukla (person) and huma (red). Oklahoma City, meanwhile, started out as little more than a railway stop, established in 1887 and called Oklahoma Station. In 1889, when white settlers began moving in, people started calling the settlement Oklahoma City. The city officially adopted the name Oklahoma City in 1923.
The origins of Salem’s name are the subject of some debate. Some historians believe its name is biblical in origin, borrowing the last five letters from the word Jerusalem, and serving as an Anglicized version of the Hebrew word shalom, meaning “peace.” Others believe it was named by missionary David Leslie, who named the city after his hometown, Salem, Massachusetts. Either way, Salem was officially named in 1850. Other names that were considered and discarded included: Chemeketa (a Kalapuya word of unknown meaning), Valena, Multnomah, Willametta, Valleyopolis, and Algebra.
Harrisburg began as a ferry stop and trading post, run by John Harris Sr., and colloquially known as Harris Ferry. Briefly renamed Louisbourg after Louis XVI of France, the town's founder (and son of John Harris Sr.) John Harris Jr. insisted the town be renamed after his father, the first white settler in the region—and so, Harrisburg was founded.
PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
Providence was founded by Protestant pastor Roger Williams in 1636, and the name means “divine care.” Williams was a campaigner for religious liberty and had been expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his radical religious and political beliefs (he argued for the division between Church and State). Williams and his followers purchased the settlement from the Narragansett Indians, and Williams named it in gratitude to “God’s merciful providence unto me in my distresse.” He later said, “I desired it might be a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
Columbia is the feminized version of Columbus, and was named to honor explorer Christopher Columbus. Columbia became South Carolina’s capital in 1786, and, apparently, there was significant disagreement over what to call the new city. The other contender in the debate? Washington. One 1932 historian observed, “There seems no reason for the name ‘Columbia,’ except that it was at that time popular.”
PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA
Originally called Matto, from the Dakota name ma-to-nakpa, meaning “Bear’s Ear,” Pierre was renamed in honor of 19th century settler and fur trader Pierre Chouteau in 1880. Brothers Anson and John D. Hilger pushed to rename the city for Chouteau, who helped create a booming fur trade in the region, and built a trading post called Fort Pierre Chouteau not far from present-day Pierre.
Nashville, Tennessee is named after Revolutionary War General Francis Nash. Originally called Nashborough, it was deemed too English-sounding in the wake of the Revolutionary War, and was renamed Nashville in honor of the French in 1784.
Austin was established as the state capital by the Republic of Texas in 1839, and named after Stephen F. Austin, who was considered the “founder of Anglo-American Texas.”
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
Founded by Mormon settlers led by Brigham Young in 1847, Salt Lake City was originally called “City of the Great Salt Lake,” after the nearby Great Salt Lake. The word “Great” was officially dropped from the city’s name in 1868. The city’s eponymous lake, meanwhile, was named by explorer John C. Fremont—the same explorer who named Carson River, after which Nevada’s capital is named.
The name of Vermont’s capital city was bestowed by Colonel Jacob Davis in 1781. Disdainful of the then-popular trend of naming a new settlement after the towns in the state in which one previously resided, Davis chose to name his new town after the French city of Montpelier. Davis wasn’t just bucking a trend, however: He was also concerned about the confusion that would arise if too many towns ended up sharing the same name.
Richmond, Virginia was given its name by William Byrd II who, upon looking out at the James River from atop Church Hill, thought the region looked a bit like Richmond-upon-Thames in Surrey County, England.
Olympia, Washington was named after the nearby Olympic Mountains, themselves named for Mount Olympus of Greek legend. The mountains were named in 1788 by explorer John Meares, who exclaimed, “If that be not the home where dwell the Gods, it is beautiful enough to be, and I therefore call it Mount Olympus.”
CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA
Charleston was named by town founder George Clendenin for his father, Charles Clendenin. Originally spelled “Charlestown,” Charleston was previously called “Clendenin’s Settlement,” or simply “the town at the mouth of the Elk.”
James Duane Doty, a territorial judge and land speculator, named Madison after the recently deceased President James Madison in 1836. Doty, who co-owned 1000 acres of land where downtown Madison now stands, lobbied aggressively to have Madison declared state capital, even going as far as trying to bribe legislators with high quality buffalo robes. Doty also named the streets in his new town after the other 38 signers of the U.S. Constitution.
Cheyenne was named in tribute to the local indigenous people, the Cheyennes. According to Colonel A.B. Coleman, who claimed to have helped choose the name, it was chosen “in hopes of conciliating the interesting Savages.” Unbeknownst to Coleman and the other town officials, the word Cheyenne was not what the tribe called themselves, and was likely the French spelling of a Sioux word meaning “people who speak a foreign language.” The western boom town was named during a full day of drunken festivities in July of 1867, during which everything from “The Embryo City of Cheyenne” to the “health of the mule train” were toasted.