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How 13 More Great American Cities Got Their Names

A few weeks ago we took a look at how 17 great American cities got their names. Since we could never cram every city’s story into a single post, let’s take a look at a second round of city name origins today.

1. Albany
New York’s first capital first went by the name Beverwyck when it was a Dutch fur-trading outpost, but after English settlers took over the area, they renamed it Albany in honor of the Duke of Albany. Good move currying a bit of favor back in England; the Duke in question went on to become King James II.

2. Albuquerque
If you think the New Mexico city’s name is a mouthful, try having it as part of your personal title. Historians believe that the area’s early provincial governor named the town after Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, a Spanish military officer who also served as Viceroy of New Spain from 1653 until 1660 and later served as Viceroy of Sicily. One of the Viceroy’s aristocratic titles was the 8th Duke of Alburquerque (sic), a town in the province of Badajoz, Spain, so that name became affixed to the new Spanish settlement in what is now New Mexico.

3. Austin
Texas’ capital originally bore the name Waterloo, but after Texas won its independence from Mexico in the Texas Revolution, the newly independent republic needed a capital. Texans decided to turn the Waterloo area into their capital and rename it in honor of hero Stephen F. Austin, who is widely hailed as the Father of Texas.

4. Buffalo

The story of how Buffalo got its name is a pretty straightforward one. The original settlement that grew into the city was located on Buffalo Creek, hence the city’s name.

The story of how Buffalo Creek got its name is a bit trickier, though. Although bison once trudged through the area, they were all gone by the time settlers arrived, so that seems like a poor explanation. Some historians have theorized that the name is a corruption of the French beau fleuve (“beautiful river”), but others have noted that the French usually referred to the river as Rivière aux Chevaux, which makes that story seem like a stretch, too. Perhaps the most fantastic, unbelievable explanation involves a group of hungry hunters being sold buffalo meat near the river, only to later realize they’d been duped into buying horsemeat.

5. Charlotte
North Carolina’s largest city gets its name from German Princess Charlotte-Mecklenburg-Sterlitz, who is best remembered as Queen consort of British King George III. Early settlers named the city in her honor, which is why Charlotte still has the nickname “the Queen City.”

6. Fresno
If you’re looking at a city in California, it’s probably a safe bet that it takes its name from Spanish, and Fresno is no exception. The Spanish word fresno is used for the white ash trees that are plentiful in the area around the San Joaquin River.

7. Fort Worth
The 17th-largest U.S. city takes its name from General Williams Jenkins Worth, a soldier who played a crucial role in the American victory in the Mexican-American war. After Worth’s 1849 death from cholera, the War Department named the new fort after the late war hero, and the base eventually grew into a town.

8. Las Vegas
When Spanish settlers headed west through the area that later became the gambling capital of the world, they were surprised to find beautiful green pastures around what is now Sin City. Turns out there were natural wells that supported plant life in the area, and they also gave the city its name. Las Vegas is Spanish for “the meadows.”

9. Macon
Macon may be located in Georgia, but it takes its name from a great North Carolinian. Nathaniel Macon served in Congress from 1791 to 1815 and spent 1801 to 1807 as Speaker of the House. Since many of the city’s early settlers were transplants from North Carolina, they named their city after their old local hero.

Nathaniel Macon made out pretty well in the namesake business. There are towns or counties bearing his name in Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina.

10. Memphis
Memphis was originally a shipping hub on the Mississippi, so it borrowed its name from another famous river port: Egypt’s ancient capital of Memphis on the Nile.

11. Sacramento
California’s capital gets its name from Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga. While exploring the northern part of California around the turn of the 19th century, Moraga discovered what’s now the Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento River. The area’s beauty stunned Moraga so thoroughly that he declared, “Es como el sagrado sacramento!” (“This is like the holy Sacrament!”) Moraga decided to name the river and the valley Sacramento, and the city’s name soon followed.

12. Topeka
Kansas’ capital has a tasty name. The word “Topeka” comes from the local Kansa and Ioway peoples’ word for “to dig good potatoes.” The potatoes in question were prairie potatoes, a staple of Native American diets that is said to taste a bit like turnips. According to city founder Fry W. Giles, early white settlers picked the name for the city because it was “novel, of Indian origin, and euphonious of sound.”

13. Tucson
The name “Tucson” originates in the O’odham language of Arizona’s indigenous Tohono O’odham tribe. The O’odham term Cuk Ṣon means “at the base of the black hill” in reference to the nearby mountains.


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