Saturday, October 9, 2010

Finding a New World to Rebuild the Old

Ermatinger House, Oregon City
This week I spent three days substitute teaching at King's Academy, a small private school in Oregon City where I used to teach full time. In history class, my task was to cover European colonialism in the New World. As I lectured on where the Spanish, the English, the French, and the Dutch settled, the place names with which they marked their new territory began to jump out at me. New England received its title because that's what the colonists wanted to build there, a new society modeled on the England they had left. The Pilgrims named their colony Plymouth because it was from Plymouth, England that the Mayflower had sailed.

England was not the only country to utilize Old World place names when branding the New. Both Spain and France titled their American domains New Spain and New France. Scotch settlers up north Latinized their homeland and called their territory Nova Scotia. The Dutch named their settlement on Manhattan Island New Amsterdam after Holland's capital back home.

This recycling of old names began all over again when the inhabitants of the Eastern seaboard began to go West for more elbow room. Portland, Oregon, the metropolis closest to my house, was called Portland after the hometown of one of the city's founders.

The story has it that Francis Pettygrove (a native of Portland, Maine) went into partnership with Asa Lovejoy (a native of Boston, Massachusetts) to develop the area by clearing trees and building roads. They threw up a few buildings along the river, and it was then time to christen the new town. Each man argued persuasively for the town to be named after his place of origin; each man gathered an equal amount of adherents to his point of view. Portland or Boston, what would it be?

The argument took place in the Ermatinger House (now a museum located two blocks from my apartment in Oregon City) and lasted far into the night. Finally, some tired soul--perhaps Francis Ermatinger, the house's owner--suggested that the only way out of this deadlock was to flip a coin. And so they did. Pettygrove won two out of three coin tosses, and the new town was dubbed Portland, destined to become larger and more prestigious than its namesake in Maine.

What is it in human nature that prompts explorers and settlers to name a new world in remembrance of the old? Is it a sign of respect for their own origins, a healthy connection with the past? Or is it a restrictive nostalgia that tries to ignore or overcome the differences of the new by homogenizing it with the old?

Did the colonists have a vision that their New Jerusalem would be merely an exact replica of the Old Jerusalem? Or did the colonists choose to use the old names so that they could expand, improve on, and glorify everything good that the old places had stood for?


  1. When I was visiting Boston this summer, the same town names were everywhere in New England. My cousin could say she was from Belmont, and it could reasonably mean at least three or four different towns in different states, that were all within a two hour drive of each other.

    I would also suggest that the names that did get used were probably from the more prestigious towns. As in who would name their town Boring? Oh, never mind, I guess someone did. ;) So therefore town names could also be a status issue. (or did you mention that and I didn't catch it?) Whew, I think this is the longest comment I've ever made...

  2. Interesting observation about the re-used names being the ones from more prestigious towns. Can you fill me in on the history of Boring, OR's name. Is it named after some other city elsewhere?


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