Usually, town founders opt to name a place after something pleasant—two of the most common place names in America are Springfield and Fairview, and sites named for the founding fathers are also pretty common. However, some settlers and explorers called it like they saw it, naming places either for their gloomy topography or the disturbing events that took place there. Below are some of the place names most likely to get a shoutout in a Morrissey song.
1. Point No Point, Washington
Named in the 1840s by Commander Charles Wilkes, who led the famed U.S. Exploring Expedition (a.k.a. the U.S. Ex. Ex.), the first major voyage of exploration sponsored by the U.S. government. Wilkes either named the place after a Point No Point on the Hudson River, or because it looked like a much less impressive point up close than it did out at sea. The local Native Americans called the area Hahd-skus, or long nose.
2. Dismal, North Carolina
The story behind this toponym is unclear, but it may have something to do with the Great Dismal Swamp a few hours to the northeast. More than just William Gibson’s Twitter handle, the Great Dismal is an extensive marshland named by Colonel William Byrd of Virginia, who surveyed the region in 1728. Byrd called the swamp a “vast body of mire and nastiness … very unwholesome for the Bordering inhabitants.” Settlers avoided the area (rumor had it the swamp’s mists carried diseases, and predators such as panthers lurked in its depths), but colonies of escaped slaves, possibly as many as 50,000, made their homes in the swamp in the years before the Civil War.
3. Boring, Maryland
An incorporated community of only about 40 houses in Baltimore County, Boring is best known for its name (frankly, there’s not much else going on). The town can thank 19th-century postmaster David Boring for its moniker; before that, it was named Fairview, which in itself is pretty boring.
By contrast, Boring, Oregon, has a little bit more happening within its borders. The town boasts approximately 8000 residents and has an annual celebration with its sister city, Dull, Scotland.
4. Misery Bay, Michigan
Fed by the Misery River, the reasons behind both the river’s and bay’s names are unclear, although one version says that the settlers there were miserable because they had trouble receiving supplies. Another origin story says the place is named for the Misery Indians, a branch of the Chippewa or Ojibway tribe. Incidentally, Nine Men's Misery is a site in Rhode Island where a group of soldiers are said to have been tortured and killed by Native Americans during King Philip’s War in 1676. Cheery!
5. Tombstone, Arizona
In the 1870s, soldiers told prospector Edward Schieffelin that the only thing he would find in this part of southeast Arizona was his own tombstone (plus some Indians). They were wrong—Schieffelin discovered rich veins of silver in the area, which became one of the frontier's wealthiest and most lawless. (It was the later the site of the gunfight at the OK Corral.) Schieffelin named his first mining claim "The Tombstone."
6. Cape Disappointment, Washington
At the extreme southwest corner of Washington state, this cape may have been named after John Meares, an English fur trader who was, well, disappointed after he narrowly missed the entrance to the Columbia River. Poor guy.
7. Skull Island, Washington
There are several Skull Islands in the country, but only the one in Washington is located inside Massacre Bay. The place was named for the skulls and bones left after the 1858 massacre of local Native Americans by the Haidah tribe out of northwest British Columbia.
8. Little Hope, Texas
There’s a Little Hope in Texas and in Wisconsin, and the reasons behind both place names are obscure. The Texas town may have been named for an early local church called Little Hope, whose own name expresses the opinion settlers held about its survival.
9. Dead Horse Bay, New York
Named in the mid-19th century for the dozens of horse-rendering plants that surrounded the beach, where the carcasses of New York City carriage horses and other animals were manufactured into glue. Today chopped-up chunks of weathered horse bones still wash up on the beach, which is also covered in shards of glass bottles and china, cosmetics containers, and children’s toys, all dating back to when the area also served as a garbage dump.
10. Shades of Death Road, New Jersey
No one knows how this road in Warren County got its name, although accounts seem to agree it was once called "The Shades" until things around there got gruesome. The "Death" portion may have been tacked on as a tribute to a band of murderous outlaws who hid in the area, or after a malaria outbreak caused by local mosquitoes (although the first option is way more dramatic).
11. Leg-in-Boot Square, Vancouver, British Columbia
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This place was named for an actual severed leg in a boot that washed up in Vancouver’s False Creek in 1887. The police stuck the leg on a pole in front of their headquarters, hoping someone would claim it, but surprise: no one ever did.
12. Murder Island, Nova Scotia
Legend has it that French explorers discovered this island strewn with human bones, the remnants of a massacre of two Native American tribes who fought each other while looking for purported buried treasure. Another story has it that the island received its name in 1735 after the brig Baltimore was discovered spattered in blood and deserted except for a single woman, who babbled confusing stories of a convict revolt or other uprising, none of which were ever substantiated.
13. Funeral Range
It's not clear why Funeral Range, in the Nahanni National Park Reserve, in the Northwest Territories, Canada, got its name, but it’s far from the only sinister-sounding tag in the region—there's also Hell's Gate, Deadman Valley, Broken Skull River and Headless Creek (named after several prospectors who were found, with their heads nearby, in 1908). These bizarre names abound possibly because of a preponderance of Native American legends about strange happenings in the area.
14. Death Valley
This place received its ominous designation from a group of pioneers lost there in the winter of 1849-1850. (Only one of the “Lost ’49ers” actually died there, but they all assumed they would.) According to the National Park Service, the naming happened like this: "As the party climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said 'goodbye, Death Valley.'"
The name inspired other local labels: the valley also contains the Funeral Mountains (its highest point is Skeleton Peak), Coffin Canyon, and Devil's Golf Course, so named because “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” Not ones to be left behind, Nevada's nearby Specter Range, Skeleton Hills, and Skull Mountain are also thought to have been named to complement the Death Valley tags.