When I moved to Oregon over 21 years ago I noticed some familiar city names. It’s not that I had been here before, but they were either names of cities where I have lived or ones that were familiar from states back east. It’s like one of Yogi Berra’s sayings. It’s “Deja Vu all over again.” If you take a trip back in history and ask the question how did a large segment of the Oregon population actually get here the answer is the Oregon Trail.
Until I came here I had no idea that the people who came here on the Oregon Trail walked the whole way. If they had a horse, or a mule the animal carried some of their possessions. If they were fortunate enough to have a wagon (they were fairly small but could be packed full of a lot of necessities and pulled by ox, mule, or horse) very young children or the more frail elderly could be carried. Those people were tough. You would be hard pressed to find very many people today who could survive that trip.
Before I get back to the city names I would like to explore just who the people were that decided to give up their comfortable living to take a the 4 month long 2,000 mile walk to Oregon. The journey began in Independence, Missouri and concluded at Fort Vancouver or Oregon City.
The trail was originally cut by fur trappers and traders from 1811-1840. Back then travel was only possible on horseback or on foot. The first wagon train to use the Oregon Trail was organized in 1836 after the trail had been improved and widened enough to accommodate wagons, but they stopped at Fort Hall, Idaho. because it took a while longer for the trail to reach Oregon and the Willamette River Valley.
It’s estimated that about 400,000 settlers, ranchers, miners, farmers, businessmen and their families used the trail and its many branches between 1846-1869. The eastern half of the trail split off into the California Trail, the Bozeman Trail, and the Mormon Trail. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in May of 1869 which made the trip safer, faster, and cheaper led to fewer and fewer travelers needing the full length of the Oregon trail to cross from the midwest the west coast.
It is my contention that people came from all over the eastern U.S. to migrate west for what they hoped would be a better life. They all brought some of their things with them, usually consisting of clothing, some money (usually in the form of gold or gold coins), tools, and some furniture if possible. They also brought their memories of home with them which would include the familiar names of towns and cities back home. Once they found a place to settle some of them became leaders in the new land and would have to decide what to call their new town. Some of those towns were named after the prominent people who founded them, but others were named after the places they had left behind. It is now time to go back to where I started and show you some of those names as I have found them.
I’ll start with a city very near Eugene, Albany, as many of you may know it is also the capitol of New York State. Then there is Elmira which is also a city in upstate New York. I lived there in 1972 when the remnants of Hurricane Agnes caused a 500 year flood (see my column The Many Things That Oregon Doesn’t Have). Then there is Scio which in New York State is located near the Pennsylvania border. Sparta, Troy, and Rome are three more names that go way back in ancient history and in modern times are located in Oregon and New York (I’ll bet you didn’t know that!).
Another ancient name shared by Oregon and New York is Hemlock and then there is the town of Seneca in the Finger Lakes area of New York state as well as in Oregon. A friendly sounding city of Amity also exists in Oregon and New York State. You might also remember that Amity was the name of the fictional island in the movie “Jaws.” Auburn, Aurora, Jacksonville (also in Florida), and Johnson City (also in Tennessee), and Niagara are more city names shared by both Oregon and New York State.
Now that we’ve seen so many city names that seem to have originated from settlers who came here from New York it’s time to look elsewhere. I’m sure you remember the controversy over whether or not our Springfield was the “Real Springfield” portrayed on the “Simpsons” TV show. In my quick search I found over a dozen states that have a city named Springfield and I’d be willing to bet just about every state has one.
I found Clarksville to be another prolific city name. At least 8 states have a Clarksville including Tennessee (which is the place the Monkees referred to in their 1966 hit song “Last Train To Clarksville”), Maryland, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, and Iowa. Two other states have a Brownsville including Texas and Tennessee. The Harrisburg in Pennsylvania is the state capitol. There is an Independence in Oregon and maybe not so coincidentally one in Missouri where the Oregon Trail started.
There are many cities and towns for which I could find only one other state where they reside. Here goes: Allegany and Lancaster are in Pennsylvania, Arlington in Virginia, Bridgeport (in Baker County) in Connecticut, Dallas in Texas, Damascus in Virginia, Detroit in Michigan (pretty obvious), Fairbanks (I did not know Oregon had one) in Alaska, Fargo in North Dakota, Fayetteville in Arkansas, Jacksonville in Florida, Lexington in Kentucky, Oakland in California, Peoria in Illinois, Phoenix in Arizona, Princeton in New Jersey, and Saginaw in Michigan.
What I have compiled here is not necessarily a complete list of cities and towns whose names may have been inspired by other cities where the founding citizens of Oregon originated. I just thought you might like to see one facet of how some of this great state’s many names came into being.
Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].