U.S. Place Names Show Our Diversity

  • Students will learn about the origins of U.S. place names.
  1. Present background on place names. Here is some information.
    The United States is a country that hasbeen settled by people from all over the world.Some of the groups of people settled in particular parts of the country. It was only naturalthat they gave their settlements names of places that reminded them of the countriesfrom which they came. Sometimes, they placed "New" at the beginning of the name, as,for example, New Prague, which reflects a Czechoslovakian origin. Sometimes, New wasnot included, as in Berlin, New Jersey.

    Some places have been given certain names because they resemble other places in the world. Cairo, Illinois, at the conjunction ofthe Mississippi River and the Ohio River, caused settlers to make an association withCairo, Egypt, which is located on another great river, the Nile. In this case the use ofCairo doesn't mean that the people who settled there were Egyptians.

    Another rich source of names of placescomes from religious groups that settled in an area. Thus, we have such place names asBethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lebanon, New Jersey. Neither of these two places weresettled by people from the Middle East. The people who did settle in those places wantedtheir towns to be associated with the Bible and places mentioned in the Bible, both old andnew testaments.

    Some places in the United States have names that have no connection with the settlers' country of origin except in language. For example, a town in New Mexico called TresPiedras (Spanish for "Three Rocks") was so named because the settlement was near sucha topographical feature.

    Many places have been named after famous people. Lincoln, Nebraska, andRoosevelt, New Jersey, were named after two presidents. Dozens of other places bearsuch names.

    Native American names and language are probably the largest single source of modern American place names. There isn't any state, except Hawaii, that does not have cities, mountains, and other places that haveadopted Indian names, including Pontiac, Michigan; Shawnee, Ohio; and Cherokee,North Carolina.

    Some place names are very popular and have been applied in many different places.The United States Road Atlas, published by the American Map Corporation, lists 13Lebanons, 17 Lincolns, and 9 Bethels.

    On a drive through the state of NewYork, one notices dozens of names of foreign cities–for example, Syracuse (Italy),Yorkshire (England), Salamanca (Spain),Damascus (Syria), and Ithaca (Greece).

  2. Have your students study road mapindexes of their own state for names that most likely have an ethnic, foreign city or country, religious, famous person, or Indian origin.
  3. Photocopy and distribute U.S. Place Names Word Search. Have your students find place names on the map that are also somewhere in the word search puzzle at the top of the page. When they find a place that is named in both the map and the puzzle, they are to draw a neat circle around the word in the puzzle. Note that there are more places labeled on the map than there are places to be identified inthe puzzle.
Excerpt from Ready-to-Use Geography Activities for the American Continents.
Students will learn about the origins of place names in the United States and examine how the names show our diversity.
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