What's in a Name No.2: The Origins of Classical Place Names in Upstate New York

toponymy n. the place names of a county or district as a subject of study

Utica, Scipio, Syracuse, Manlius, Cicero. Many York Staters, especially those from Central New York, will recognize these as names of towns and cities, places they’ve known since childhood. But other than landmarks of the area, what are these names?

Many names of upstate cities, towns, and hamlets are named for deities, places, famous personalities of the ancient Greek, Roman, and biblical world. Some of these examples are obvious (e.g. Rome) and others might not get a second though as to their origins (thinking of a famed fourth century Roman general when you think of the old ‘goin’ shoppin’ at Camillus Mall!’ jingle? Me either.) For the second feature in the “What’s in a Name?” series, we’ll endeavor not to expose the origin and evolution of one name that shapes our state, but many. Where did these classical names come from? And why are there so very many of them?

The first classically named city in upstate New York was Troy, changed from Vanderheyden in 1789. Beginning a trend among a myriad of upstate communities, the residents wanted a name that was sophisticated and historic, yet easy to spell and pronounce. The earnest start of the spree of classical naming came with the surveying and carving up of The Military Tract, an upstate area jointly by the state (who promised 500 acres) and the fledgling national government (who promised 100 acres) to veterans of the Revolutionary war as payment for their services. The Military Tract, consisting of the counties of Onondaga, Cortland, Cayuga, Seneca, and parts of Oswego, Tomkins, Schuyler and Wayne (and by some accounts, Yates) finally consisted of about 28 townships, each with one hundred 600 acre lots.(1)

The names of these townships in The Military Tract were not adopted by the residents, nor were they the result of immigration, but given by the New York State Land Office. In fact, many residents were upset over the names, feeling perhaps that they did not reflect their geography or their first residents, as many settlements in those days did with names like Smith's Tavern or Wheaton's Corners. Towns names like Homer, Lysander, Fabius, Pompey, Aurelius, Camillus and Cicero refered to heros of a time long past, which had seemingly little to do with the pioneer existence in upstate New York.

However, classical names (especially those applied to those in the Military Tract) had much to do with the spirit of the new republic, and embodied staunchly republican values by equating themselves with such characters as Cinncinatus, who in a time of crisis left his plow to lead the Roman people as dictator (a temporary position appointed in times of grave threat) and rather than abuse his position as dictator, he defeated the enemy and returned to his plow and restored the republic. Or Solon, the Athenian lawmaker who wrote the city's democratic constitution, and rather than be under pressure to change it, left Athens for ten years to allow his constitution a chance to prove itself. Values such as these of self sufficiency and a sense of duty to the state were honored in the ideal of the early American republic, and with vast tracts of land in the west being settled, New York wished to be at the forefront.

In the early years, classics lover and New York State Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt was considered the name giver for The Military Tract, but by the late 1800s the State Land Office decided it was Robert Harpur, an educator and colonial legislator, Deputy Secretary of the State of New York, and Secretary of the State Land Board. The Military Tract touched off the fashion for classical naming that extended from 1790 to 1850

The complete volume on this subject is Classical Place Names in New York State by William R. Farrell (with illustrations by Bettina B. Chapman and Carolyn I. Coit.) Conceived over a forty year period and remarkably complete, the book provides the ancient referent for each classically named upstate city, town, and hamlet, organized thematically into chapters (Greek personalities, for instance.) Each entry is accompanied by a map of New York State showing the location, and oftentimes an illustration of the classical personality or deity for which it is named. Some entries, such as Deposit and Speculator, words which are English derivatives of Latin words, seem a bit of a stretch to include, but even stretch entries such as these are illuminating. Thematic maps round out this thoroughly researched volume on York State toponymy.

The inquiry into these origins goes beyond the realm of face-value historical curiosity. Donald H. Mills, a classics professor at Syracuse University expressed in the preface to Farrell’s book a sentiment which proves useful when thinking about the origins of our communities names, that they are reflective of “the people of New York and the symbols they chose to represent their vision of what their communities might become.” (p.xi) And what have our communities become? Have we acheived the dreams of republican values embodied by many upstate appellations? Perhaps it is the constant striving towards such goals that is the meaning of Excelsior, the New York State motto and Latin for "ever upward."

Farrell, William R. Classical Place Names in New York State. Pine Grove Press, Jamesville, NY. 2002.

Posted by Natalie


Joey Willowbranch said...

Power of Myth, an interview by Bill Moyers of Joseph Campbell has a neat little passage on sacred sites mentioning the topic of this entry.

Moyers: Do sacred sites still exist on this continent today?

Campbell: ...Our Pilgrim fathers, for example, named sites after biblical centers. And somebody in upper New York State had the Odyssey and Iliad in his mind--Ithaca, Utica, and one classical name after another.

Moyers: In a sense, people are anointing the land where they believe there is energy which empowers them. There is an organic relationship between the land and the structures people build upon it.

Natalie said...

That's a beautiful way of looking at it.
Thanks for sharing that quote

NYCO said...

My ancestors on my dad's side came to CNY around 1805 or so (the second wave of migrants from New England). In looking over the genealogical research my grandfather did, I noticed that baby names got really wild in CNY (and probably in all of America) right around that time. The names used to be strictly Biblical, but now they were the names of Greek heroes (Leander), exotic places (Sevilla) and famous people (i.e., Napoleon Bonaparte Buell). It speaks of a real trendiness that was going on at that time. And no doubt, the silly names of the Military Tract townships appealed to newcomers the same way that silly, fakey names like "the Shoppes at Crowne Pointe" and "Camillus Commons" do to new suburbanites today. It's all in the marketing.

Natalie said...

It's true that marketing had a lot to do with it...these emerging towns wanted to attract settlers other than the war veterans and their families. In the same way that going to a place where 'shop' is spelled 'shoppe' makes them feel quaint and engenders silly and fakey home town values, places with stoic, strong, classical names catered to the ideals of the new republic. I don't know that the two tactics are equatable; somehow names like "Fayetteville Towne Center" seem like we're being sold a bill of goods more than an ideal. But it's very interesting that you note it.
So did your ancestors get blessed with any of these unconventional names?

Jesse said...

These heroic, epic names make me, coming from a village named "Johnson City" (renamed from the even more picturesque "Lestershire") next to a city named "Binghamton", a tad bit jealous.

Does anyone think that there is any link to the emerging Manifest Destiny idea in the emulation of the greatest empire of the Western World? It seems like a bit of hubris to name some tiny, unsettled, spot on the map "Rome" or "Troy" or "Athens."

NYCO said...

Yeah, but Johnson City is a COOL name! It sounds like something out of a John Wayne western!

I'd like to visit there someday, but I don't have any six-shooters to fire off blamblamblam when I arrive.

Joseph Doodlebuggle said...

To name something is to own it, to rename something is to dominate something already possessed. Def. is hubric to name a land that is already inhabited with your own mythic places, it's the first move when annihilating -the naming, then comes the actual violence against the people and reformation of the land.