U.S. Place Names Show Our Diversity

Grade Levels: 6 - 8

  • 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 has been settled by people from all over the world. Some of the groups of people settled in particular parts of the country. It was only natural that they gave their settlements names of places that reminded them of the countries from 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 was not 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 of the Mississippi River and the Ohio River, caused settlers to make an association with Cairo, Egypt, which is located on another great river, the Nile. In this case the use of Cairo doesn't mean that the people who settled there were Egyptians.

    Another rich source of names of places comes from religious groups that settled in an area. Thus, we have such place names as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Lebanon, New Jersey. Neither of these two places were settled by people from the Middle East. The people who did settle in those places wanted their towns to be associated with the Bible and places mentioned in the Bible, both old and new 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 Tres Piedras (Spanish for "Three Rocks") was so named because the settlement was near such a topographical feature.

    Many places have been named after famous people. Lincoln, Nebraska, and Roosevelt, New Jersey, were named after two presidents. Dozens of other places bear such 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 have adopted 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 13 Lebanons, 17 Lincolns, and 9 Bethels.

    On a drive through the state of New York, 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 map indexes 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 in the puzzle.
Excerpt from Ready-to-Use Geography Activities for the American Continents.

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