The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2004

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How Did They Ever Come Up With That Name?

The Romantic Origins of some of Our Local Community's Names


Donovan A. Shilling

Geneseo? Phelps? Arkport? Lackawanna? Ovid? Buffalo? Wow, did you ever sit down and carefully look at a road map of Western New York State? It's chock full of the names of tiny cross-roads hamlets, small and large villages, cities, and not quite cities, and several large metropolitan areas.

We were wondering where all those names came from and learned that most communities must have a Federal Post Office in order to gain representation on most maps. Thus, there are really a lot of tiny hamlets now too small to merit a post office and other places near large metropolitan areas that have been struck from the map because their post office had been centralized.

My curiosity was sparked by the origins of many of these names, especially those that we found to be odd, exotic or unusual. Here's what I've discovered so far.

There are at least four categories of names which identify most of Western New York's living centers. The first group derive their names from their Native American origins. A second set of communities were grandly identified with names adopted from classical Greek and Roman cities. A third grouping were awarded designations derived from their pioneer settlers or from national heroes. The final cluster of titles conferred in some neighborhoods are a greater puzzle. Many seem to have emanated from the just plain whimsy of one or more influential citizens.

At first, let's look at places with names from Indian origins. Many of these, can be classified as versions of the way the French explorers thought they heard the Iroquois, Erie or Neutral Indians pronounce the names of their villages, council meeting sites, trail crossings or physical landmarks such as the lakes, rivers and streams. For instance, there are those sites important in Seneca Indian Life. Moccasin shod feet once traveled over forest trails to such places as Canandaigua, Canisteo, Conesus and Irondequoit Bay to mention just a few.

Then there's another category of local names derived from Greek and Roman cities and their heros, or from biblical associations. At the time when many of Western New York's population centers were gaining legal status through incorporation, our country was still smarting from the recent unpleasantness with Great Britain. Some referred to it as the Second War of the Revolution. Others simply called it the War of 1812. At any rate, there seemed to be a hiatus in the use of English names for many newly-born hamlets. Instead, an extraordinary number of local places were christened with classical titles.

Let's take for example, those cities that grew up along the Erie Canal: Utica, Rome and Syracuse. The original cities with those names had become famous as prominent trading centers in the Ancient World. In the New World, like their namesakes, New York's cities also became major trading centers. Some were ports on the Grand Erie Canal. Greek and Roman place names are widespread. Western New York abounds with names from classic antiquity.

In Monroe and Wayne Counties, names of some hamlets date back to biblical times. They include Egypt, Macedon and Palmyra, all located in a row along Route 31 within fifteen miles of each other. Palmyra was the famed "city of palms" in ancient Syria renowned for its fortifications built by Solomon.

Macedon or Macedonia was an ancient country located in the Balkan peninsula. Chiefly a Greek settlement, it became the center of the powerful Macedonian Empire established by Alexander the Great in 336 B.C.

The citizens of tiny Egypt, New York, must have had great expectations when they adopted the name of the civilization that once flourished along the banks of the Nile River as far back as 3400 B.C.

Almost hidden in Seneca County between Seneca and Cayuga Lake's slim fingers are Ovid, Hector and Romulus. Ovid was a Roman poet living from 43 B.C. to 17 A.D. His most celebrated poems dealt with love and myth. The rural hamlet of Hector shares a hero's name celebrated in the Greek classic, the Iliad. Hector, famous for courage and devotion to his people, was the leader of the army of Troy during the Trojan Wars. It's a proud name for a wee, but independent population.

According to legend, Romulus and his brother Remus founded Rome in 753 B.C. Later Romulus was said to have disappeared in a thunderstorm. In summer, frequent inter-lake thunderstorms still remind the inhabitants of Romulus of the legendary origins of Rome's name.

If one doesn't mind their P's and Q's they might wind up in the Wyoming County community of Attica. Once noted for the fine horses that were bred there, today the village is known as the location of one of the state's major prisons. The name harkens back to ancient times. Attica was the name of the Greek state of which Athens was the capital.

Over in the apple country of Orleans County is Medina, a village with a truly classic name. The hamlet was first laid out by Joseph Ellicott on the banks of the Oak Orchard Creek. He named the location Barnegat, after his New Jersey birthplace. The settlement however was nicknamed Mecca after a quaint character living there known as "Old Mohammed." Some citizens, unhappy with his strenuous religious convictions, drove him out of town. Others, concerned with "Old Mohammed's" absence, inquired about his whereabouts. Joe Ellicott responded saying, "They say that when Mohammed was driven out of Mecca he fled to Medina for safety." The new name stuck and that, believe it or not, is the tale they tell about how Medina acquired its unusual name.

The brothers of the Six Nations spoke a language that must have sounded very strange to the first white explorers. We owe these tribes thanks for providing this region with its rich heritage of names, many of which we've borrowed.

Canandaigua, once the lakeside site of a Seneca village burned during Sullivan's Raid, grew large enough to become a charted city in 1913. To the Senecas it was Ga-nyiu-dach (lake), and O-dagwah (it turns out). Outsiders have been struggling with the pronunciation of Ontario County's government seat ever since.

Geneseo, another village gem in Genesee Country, dates back to the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797. The village's Iroquois name translates as "pleasant or beautiful valley." On a 1768 map the Genesee River is labeled "Casconchiagon" or Little Seneca River. However, it may also have been derived from "Ge-nish-a-au" (a clear and shining place), which the early white settlers translated into "Genesee."

Now for one lulu of a name. How about "Ganiagatarontagouat"? That's the way the Marquis de Denonville, the French invader of the Seneca's lands, spelled Irondequoit Bay. We couldn't help noticing the French spelling of the name, although we've Anglicized its ending and now pronounce Irondequoit with a hard "t." The Seneca's pronounced it "O-nyiu,da-on-da-gwat," meaning a bay or cove. Literally the term means a "turning out or going aside of the lake." Some extensive research has revealed that Irondequoit has been spelled, or maybe misspelled, fifty-one different ways.

Just south of Buffalo on Lake Erie is the brawny settlement forged by steel workers whose blast furnaces and foundries once dominated the area. Its name, Lackawanna, was derived from the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Company, a branch of the industry from Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. In 1900 it was considered the world's largest individual steel mill. At least one mill still turns out bar and rolled steel in this Erie County city.

"Lackawanna," we've discovered, translates into "forks in the stream."

Honoring local pioneers or national heroes with community names is a long-estalbished tradition. For instance, some readers may be familiar with Western New York's two largest real estate dealers—the ones that negotiated the Phelps and Gorham Purchase in 1788. If not, it was a land deal with the Iroquois and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all the land, two and a half million acres, between Seneca Lake westward to the Genesee River. Both land agents, Oliver Phelps and his partner, Nathaniel Gorham, are remembered with namesake villages, Phelps and Gorham, in Ontario County.

A pleasant little hamlet snuggles in the hills of Allegany County. Citizens there chose to honor the memory of our thirteenth president by conferring the name "Fillmore" upon their village. Millard Fillmore was born in Locke, New York, became an attorney, joined the Whig Party and became President of the United States in 1850. For most of his life he made his home in Buffalo.

Now for some unusual community names. The explanations of how they came to be are often as odd as their names. We've always marveled at the not quite so modest former president of the International Salt Company. When it came time to name that thriving, salt-producing settlement in Livingston County, what better label to use than Mr. Foster's name spelled backwards. You know, Retsof! That was the location that received so much press coverage last summer due to the unfortunate collapse and flooding of part of its salt mine. The salt deposit in that area, by the way, is considered to be one of the largest in the entire world.

Down Steuben County way, there's a former port on the Canisteo River. Its enterprising settlers devised a unique method of commerce. Using the region's abundant lumber they constructed great shallow-bottomed boats they called arks. After loading the arks with produce, a crew would pole down the Canisteo River, joining the Chemung River. From there they'd reach the Susquehana River and float with the current clear down to Chesapeake Bay. Freight was sold to Baltimore merchants and the entire vessel dismantled for the sale of its lumber. The weary crew, of course, returned on foot to their homes in a village that became Arkport.

Yates County displays a wonderful example of the cooperative community spirit. When neither its Pennsylvania pioneers nor its Yankee arrivals could agree on a name for their new settlement, they compromised. Hence the village became known as Penn Yan.

Olean, in the southern part of Cattaraugus County, was first settled in 1804 following the discovery of oil in nearby Pennsylvania. The city became a major center for the storage and distribution of crude oil to eastern refineries. The Erie Railroad delivered hundreds of oil-filled tank cars to Rochester's Vacuum Oil Company for processing into lubricants needed to help launch the nation's automotive industry. Olean, of course, derives its name from its association with oil.

Batavia—sound like an Indian name? Well, it's Dutch. The location of the city of Batavia, county seat for Genesee County, is on Tonawanda Creek (Ton-e-wan-ta, meaning Big Bend). Once an Indian settlement, the current community was founded in 1801 by the Holland Land Company. There Joseph Ellicott helped establish a land office at the creek site.

The land agents voted not to call their hamlet "De-o-on-go-wa," (great hearing place), but instead, elected to name it for the early republic of Batavia (now Holland). By the way, "Batavia" means "better land."

How about the origin of Buffalo's name? We all know that there were no bison in that part of the world when that Erie County settlement was established. So where did that four-legged "Buffalo" come from? According to one source it was the work of those French explorers again. They termed the waterway between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario (the Niagara River) as a "beautiful river" or a "beau fleuve." To the English this sounded like the animal they knew as the buffalo, hence the name of Buffalo Creek and the nearby settlement sharing the same title.

Next time you go for an automobile trip or look at a state map, try to determine the origins of those villages with the romantic names. Perhaps, you'll be greatly surprised.

2004, Donovan A. Shilling
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