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It’s more than just a name

The hidden history behind local place names

September 11, 2014
Westfield Republican

By Jay T. Stratton

Let's call our attention to the sources of our local place names and the categories we can see in them. First of all there are a few Native American place names like Erie, Niagara, Gowanda, Cattaraugus, Cassadaga, Chautauqua and Kiantone. Names like these are from the Seneca language.

There is also a distinct French influence in our area because we were once a part of New France. Notice how we say the "ch" in "Chautauqua" as if it were a "sh." This is a convention of French spelling, not English, and another way to separate the tourists from the locals.

Portage Street in Westfield is from a French word, referring to the carrying of canoes the six miles up over the hill to Chautauqua Lake. The old French version of Portage Street constructed in the mid-1700s is more like our Gale Street of today. Check out the historical marker at the corner of Gale and Portage. Celoron is named for the French explorer who came here in 1749. French Creek is more evidence of this French influence.

So why did they go to all that trouble of carrying a canoe up the hill? Once you get to the top, both the French and the Indians knew that it is downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

A number of local places are named for natural features. There are Forestville, Lily Dale and Silver Creek. Cherry Creek did once have a huge wild black cherry tree growing next to a creek. Portland did once have a port on Lake Erie. Westfield was once the western fields of Portland, which had been settled earlier. Only later did Westfield grow larger in size.

As a new country, the United States felt a need to cover up the theft of the land from the Indians by giving out new names in English. Acceptable names were in short supply. That "new" thing was getting pretty tired by now, after New York, New Hampshire, New Orleans, New Jersey, etc.

So often our place names are simply the names of places elsewhere. In this vein, Rome, Corfu, Sardinia, Dunkirk, Mexico, Liverpool, Ithaca and many others became places in New York. Sweden, NY never had any known Swedish settlers; it's "just a name."

An early settler called "Panama Joe" had visited Panama in Central America. He was not Panamanian, but somehow his nickname ended up giving us Panama, NY.

Barcelona, NY is this kind of a name as well. In the early years of the portage, Barcelonans optimistically hoped to become as great a port city as Barcelona, Spain. That didn't pan out. It was French Street in Erie that put an end to Barcelona's dreams.

French Street led to French Creek and this was a better portage than ours, easier and more advantageous. Barcelona, NY stayed small but I kind of like it that way.

Lots of towns are named for famous people. Isn't Jamestown named for a king? Or is it named for a town that happened to be named for a king? Van Buren was a president. We memorialize four signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Clymer, Elbridge Gerry, Roger Sherman and Richard Stockton, as well as one military hero, Gen. Eleazer W. Ripley. (Ripley was earlier called Quincy but that is now just the name of the cemetery.)

Fredonia was once proposed as a name for the U.S.A., but I guess the founding fathers found the United States of Free-donia a bit much and went for U.S.A.

More places are named for not-so-famous people, usually early settlers and sometimes children. These are places like Falconer, Findley Lake, Forsyth, Mayville, Sinclairville and Bemus Point. Forsyth used to have an "e" at the end but since the family had dropped the "e," the Ripley historian got the authorities to change the spelling of this hamlet between Westfield and Ripley. The street sign still preserves the old spelling.

Volusia, a crossroads between Westfield and Sherman, was named for the daughter of an early postmaster. Last name towns are for adult settlers while first name towns are for children, but of course the kids were settlers too.

Some places have names that are in combination. Fluvia and Anna Fenton are remembered in Fluvanna, NY. Brockway and Minton are the early families that combined their names to form Brocton. Another place name created in this manner is Hartfield.

Usually "-ton" in a name means "town" but technically not in Brocton's case. My own last name "Stratton" means "street town." There are a dozen or so towns called Stratton in England and anyone from those towns might assume my last name. That's my Anglo-Saxon ancestors bragging that they were from a town so advanced as to have a paved street (an ancient Roman stone road).

Ellington, NY is named for Ellington, Conn., because so many of its early settlers had come from there. There was some competition for appropriate-sounding place names. Other places tried to be called Westfield but only one such town was permitted per state.

I love our local place names and the fascinating stories in them. Plank Road hasn't been made out of planks for over 100 years but we still call it that. My favorite place on the map is Chicken Tavern - that's over Arkwright way - and it used to be a good place to eat. My real favorite is one that hasn't made the maps.

Skunk Hollow is my family's name for the area where Town Line/Quilliam Road crosses Little Chautauqua Creek. Other families call it Skunk's Misery, but it's the same idea. I suppose this is another place name based on a natural feature, but not as attractive as Maple Springs or Lily Dale. Now that you know where these place names come from, do you know where these places are?

All these place names open up a set of very particular words for the people from these places. Perhaps because of baseball words like "outfielder," it's very easy for me to say I'm a "Westfielder." "Westfieldian" sounds stupid. Usually there is only one way that sounds right but there are no rules except to say it like the locals do.

There are Portlanders and Fredonians. I say Broctonians, but what do people in Brocton say? I asked a man in Sherman if they were Shermanites or what. He didn't like the sound of that. "Shermaners" wasn't it either. "Shermanians" sounded better to him, but he had never heard it used. Then I was over there for a bit of Shermania on Sherman Day having a beer when I overheard one person asking another, "Is he a Shermanite?" So Sherman does have a word!

What about Ripley? When I ask about it, no one can come up with anything. Is it Ripleyer, Ripleyite or Ripleyan? Nothing sounds right to me, but there must be a word! And what about Mayville? Do some towns not even have a word for their own people? Only a long-time resident will know the correct form for these words and asking which word it is may just muddy the waters.



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