toponymy n. the place names of a county or district as a subject of study
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
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
The inquiry into these origins goes beyond the realm of face-value historical curiosity. Donald H. Mills, a classics professor at
Farrell, William R. Classical Place Names in
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