What’s in a Name

By Lauret Savoy

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Give me a story, and I’ll give you one in return.

Anyone passing our yard might think the solitary child played with an imaginary friend. She’d twirl in place, arms outstretched, eyes closed. Each turn bringing a new word spoken with care. Sequoia. Shenandoah. Cheyenne. Susquehanna. Mojave. Yosemite. Wyoming. The words were names that rolled off her tongue. She’d stop, then spin the other way. Potomac. Chesapeake. Narragansett. Appomattox.

This essay is excerpted from Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape by Lauret Savoy, published by Counterpoint Press in 2016. It is reprinted by permission of the author.

Trace, by Lauret Savoy

Called a “sui generis creation, wherein John McPhee meets James Baldwin” by New York Magazine, Trace is a provocative meditation on place, race, and the unvoiced presence of the past. This mosaic of historical inquiry and personal journeys crosses the continent and time to explore how the nation’s still unfolding history marks a person, a people, and the land itself—from twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from national parks to burial grounds, from “Indian Territory” to the origin of names on the land, and from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S. capital. Winner of the 2016 American Book Award and the 2017 ASLE Creative Writing Award, Trace was also a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award and Phillis Wheatley Book Award, as well as shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and Orion Book Award.

Learn more about the book.

Once given breath, the names incanted spells, the turns crossing all distance between place and child. These weren’t turns of fancy but a melding of sound and Earth in her—in my—mind’s eye and ear, much as evening shadows overtook the house edge, then approached and included me. Soundings touched contours of mysterious stories that could be plumbed if asked. Give me a story. I’ll give you one in return.

“Names are magic. One word can pour such a flood through the soul.” Had I at the age of six understood Walt Whitman’s words, I would have counted him friend. Word-moments could blaze with an intensity that seemed to concentrate all life. I placed myself by the compass of places sung aloud. That I hadn’t yet set foot in most mattered little. There were other ways to travel to them.

Once the alphabet was no longer a stranger, books joined road maps as primers. Green Eggs and Ham shared a shelf with folded offerings from Flying A and Esso, Chevron and the Automobile Club of Southern California. My father’s cast-offs became templates for storied wanderings. The painted cover of one map opened the scene of a story that would always end the same bright way: The gas station attendant sports a smile and pressed white uniform as he greets a family in a station wagon. Clouds glow above a golden evening sun. The two-lane highway switch-backs toward a mountain crest on the western horizon. The story continues: The attendant welcomes me and my parents. He fills our tank, checks our tires, oil, and plugs. Then he cleans our windows and tells us about the road ahead. The smile never wanes. With thank-yous exchanged Daddy pulls back onto the highway. We’ll cross the pass on our way home to 1253 Redondo Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.

This is happy motoring.

The names scattered across that map’s paper landscape would have taken flight if not for the roads and highways stitching them down. Thick and thin, solid and dashed, red and blue, they linked El Monte to the San Gabriel Mountains, Death Valley to Owens Valley, Kings Canyon to Tulare, Big Sur to Monterey Bay. Geography triangulated to Redondo Boulevard. To read a map meant I could reach any place on it. “You were born on the highway,” my mother would joke. It seemed a simple statement of fact. Even Nat King Cole sang to me: wild and windblown, that’s how you’ve grown, who can cling to a ramblin’ rose.


Erwin Raisz’s large landforms map of the continental United States lies unrolled on the floor as these memories surface. Drawn by the precise hand of a master cartographer-artist, the map was last revised years before my birth. It shows no highways or other overlays of commercial road maps, save state boundaries, cities, and some towns. Raisz’s pen strokes outline his sense of the land’s texture. His lines are the paths of sinuous rivers, the edges of plateaus, the summits of mountain ranges. Most names place this geography.

Creased, taped, and re-taped, this map has joined me on every cross-country trip I’ve taken, overland or by air, since that day in college when Professor Judson handed out copies to his geomorphology class. Read me, it called then. It still does. So I do, and in locating where I sit this moment, where I was one, ten, and twenty years ago, memories orient me once again. From the Pacific coast over the Sierra Nevada, through the canyon and plateau country, over the Rocky Mountains and across the Great Plains to the Appalachians and Atlantic coast.

Names on the paper landscape call, too. Map details blur until I dab my eyes.


Once the continent wore no names, having no need for them. The languages of water, ice, and wind prevailed. Yet one can say Oklahoma or Yellowstone or badlands without thinking—so embedded are they in American vocabulary. It may be a commonplace to consider place-names or toponyms as givens, distinguishing one piece of terrain from another. To think this, though, is to see a reflecting surface and not what lies beneath.

My search for origins began years ago with George Rippey Stewart, a man who by his own admission was “born with a love of names.” A professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley for decades in the last century, Stewart scaled walls between literary genres and academic fields. His writings include a history of the Donner Party and novels like the best-selling Storm, which featured a Pacific cyclone he called Maria.

Of his nearly 30 books, Stewart’s own favorite was Names on the Land, a “historical account of place-naming in the United States” that appeared at the end of the Second World War. “Thus the names lay thickly over the land,” Stewart wrote in the opening pages, “and the Americans spoke them, great and little, easily and carelessly—Virginia, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Deadman Creek, Sugarloaf Hill, Detroit, Wall Street—not thinking how they had come to be. Yet the names had grown out of the life, and the life-blood, of all those who had gone before.” Names on the Land tells stories of patterns and motives. It moved many writers of American places. Wallace Stegner, for one, acknowledged his debt to Stewart for clarifying “our history, or tradition, the story of our five-hundred-year love/hate struggle with the North American continent,” which “is there in the names we have put on the land.” Stegner thought Stewart’s books “teach us who we are, and how we got to be who we are.” Many agree. The New York Review of Books reissued Names on the Land in its classics series in 2008. The introduction to this edition calls it a “masterpiece of American writing and American history” produced by an “informed imagination that animates the past and instills . . . the spark and majesty of life.”

The narrative sweep and folkloric detail moved me, too. So did disappointment—for not “all those who had gone before,” or who came later, had voice in this extraordinary volume. The toponyms that most concerned Stewart either originated with voyagers and colonists from Europe and their heirs, or filtered through them from Indigenous tongues, sometimes so much the worse for wear that “the names became more European than Indian.” And “when tribes and languages had vanished,” he noted, “some of those old names, reshaped, lived still in the speech of those who followed.”

Traveling at a reasonable clip across the page, I tripped and fell here. When tribes and languages had vanished. Vanish is a deceptive word. It slips easily off the tongue, the soft sh a finger to lips quieting a history far from simple, neat, or finished. The earliest encountered tribal peoples along North America’s Atlantic Seaboard whose communities were disrupted longest—like the Wampanoag or Powhatan—didn’t simply vanish. Fragmented, dispossessed of land, dislocated, perhaps ravaged by disease and violence, tribal peoples endured. Members reorganized or joined other groups. They migrated or they stayed in smaller communities. They continued to speak.

Names on the Land carries a sympathetic tone regarding Native peoples, but it is the stories of “those who followed” from Europe that form its core. What troubles me is how some readers embrace these namings as America’s history, “our” heritage, without asking if there might be other narratives, too. Stewart considers “the naming that was before history” in his first chapter, but not so much the importance of place-making in defining Indigenous traditions and identities in a storied land over time. And what of names and practices left by those from Africa and Asia who’d come to this continent? Perhaps readers assume they left no mark.


I was born in the homeland of the Ohlone, which Spain claimed as part of Alta California. My parents and I lived at first in a city by a bay named for Saint Francis of Assisi. We then moved south to another city, grown around a river now confined within a concrete channel. That settlement was called El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula. One of the mountains in the range west of it came to be known as “Niggerhead.” Then we crossed the continent to what had been part of the Piscataway chiefdom and claimed by Great Britain. We settled in a capital city named to honor the first president of the new American republic. Few of the official names of these places, east or west, arose from the land itself.

I now live in New England, a half hour’s drive from New Hampshire. On road trips south, I pass through New York and New Jersey. There are other “new” places. New Londons and New Bostons. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Names appear again and again. Cambridge, Bristol, Portsmouth, Newport, Plymouth, more—each having found at least two homes in the British colonies.

In the Chesapeake Bay area that became my paternal ancestors’ home, names paid homage to monarchs whose patronage voyagers either enjoyed or sought. Virginia for a virgin queen Elizabeth. Jamestown and James, settlement and river, remembering a king. Terra Mariae (Maryland) acknowledging another queen, Henrietta Maria, wife to Charles, son of James. Then there are the Syracuses, Troys, Athenses, Romes, Alexandrias, and Philadelphias scattered across American maps to recall an older Old World. Other names spread westward, too, with Anglo-American settlers after the Revolution. They left the land, as H. L. Mencken put it, “bespattered with Washingtons, Lafayettes, Jeffersons and Jacksons.” Columbuses, Columbias, Madisons, and, later, Lincolns joined them.

Colonial tugs of war left remnants in name-clusters born of other languages. I hear Dutch echoes on every trip by New York City: Haarlem or Haerlem, Jonkheer’s (Yonkers), de Bouwerij (the Bowery). Streets named Breede Wegh (Broadway) and De Waal (Wall). Nassau, Flushing, Staten, the Bronx. To the north, Poughkeepsie and Peekskill; across the Hudson River, Hopoakan and Hackensack. Breukelen’s “broken land” a nod to Long Island’s glacial debris.

I also hear lasting marks of Spain: California, Florida, Nueva México. Santa Fe, San Francisco, Trinidad, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles. Oasis meadows of Las Vegas. Sierra Nevada, the snowy range. Rio Grande del Norte, great river of the north. Colorado, mud-red river. Cañon, mesa, arroyo, playa—terms for dryland features that English didn’t know.


“For name, though it seem but a superficial and outward matter,” wrote Francis Bacon, “yet it carrieth much impression and enchantment.” Names encode meaning and memory. I can understand the impulse to place the linguistic familiar about oneself. In stapling down small created certainties, an overlain geography of home could then orient and transform a vast unknown into a knowable new chance. Naming and mapping would work as twin projects in the courses of empire, as semantic (re)defining fit a design that made sense to the ambitions of those men from Europe who made landfall after landfall.

Their linguistic claiming overprinted and appropriated older names, other views already there. Colonial maps and place-names reorganized space on a slate made blank—by drawing borders, by coding what (and whom) lay inside or out, by erasing. Columbus couldn’t hear Taíno speech, or at least he rationalized that they had no language by which to embrace the Holy Faith. He shipped captives back to Spain “in order that they might learn to speak.” The admiral then named and named and named, for God and Spain, islands, waterways, and coasts known by other terms.

The project of illuminating terra incognita’s darkness made certain ways of inhabiting and relating to this place called “America” natural. It made particular points of view normal. In their place-making these newcomers not only set out to possess territory on the ground. They also lay claim to territory of the mind and memory, to the future and the past.

The people who were already there—Taíno, Powhatan, Wampanoag, and countless others—who now were discovered but still not seen, could and did look back.

Here lies a paradox. To become oriented, to find their way and fill their maps, venturers from Europe needed Native peoples’ knowledge of the land. Maps and names would then obscure that knowledge from its context, as Indigenous people themselves were removed from the land.

A pot spilled. Perceptions and names spread inland from the Atlantic Seaboard, up from Mexico and the Caribbean, covering older names and ideas. Names come into view but sink from sight. Names metamorphose.

I look for those rooted in Native America. I look, too, for visions originating with newcomers from continents other than Europe. What I seek, of course, are linguistic seeds of my own presence.




Lauret SavoyLauret Savoy is a writer, a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College, a photographer, and pilot. An African American woman of multiracial heritage, she weaves together stories we tell of the American land’s origins and the stories we tell of ourselves in this land. Winner of Mount Holyoke’s Distinguished Teaching Award, she just received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to work on her next book project.
Read Jourdan Keith’s interview with Lauret Savoy appearing in Terrain.org, and read Lauret Savoy’s Terrain.org column, “A Stone’s Throw.”

Read Lauret Savoy’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.

Header image–a portion of Erwin Raisz’s 1941 “Landforms of the Northwestern States” showing the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, and part of southern Vancouver Island–originally published in Landforms of the Northwestern States, prepared at the Institute of Geographical Exploration, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. by Erwin Raisz in 1941. Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection, list number 7943.008 and Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Lauret Savoy by John Martins.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.