Sunday, December 16, 2012

French names in American geography

When we think of America's origins, we normally think of England, for good reason.  In the Southwest, obviously, there is a lot of Spanish influence.  But we rarely think of the amount of French influence in the settlement of America, even though there is a lot of evidence in geographic names.

Three states -- Vermont, Maine, and Louisiana -- have French names.  Several others get their names from Indian tribes that were first contacted by French settlers, and two of them, Illinois and Arkansas, retain a portion of the French pronunciation as a reminder.

There is a surprising number of cities over a wide geographic area with French names.  We typically think of Louisiana first, especially New Orleans and Baton Rouge ("red stick"), but they are just the tip of the iceberg.  Mobile, Alabama was founded by the French and owned by them for over half a century.  Detroit ("strait") and St. Louis were also founded by the French.  A large number of other cities, chiefly in the upper Midwest, also bear French names:  Des Moines ("of the monks"); Eau Claire ("clear water") and Racine ("root"), Wisconsin; Pierre, South Dakota; Louisville, Kentucky; St. Paul and Duluth, Minnesota; Coeur d'Alene ("heart of the awl"), Idaho; Joliet, Illinois; and Terre Haute ("high land"), Indiana.  Not all of the cities were founded by French settlers.  Some get their names from geographic features that were first named by the French, which would make for another interesting list (the Platte River is one obvious example).  It is remarkable how much of America was named first not by English or Spanish, but by Frenchmen.

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