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Stories Behind the Names of Great American Cities

Stories Behind the Names of Great American Cities

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Getaway Staff
Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Every city in the world has an origin story, and American cities are no exception. Early settlers often named new communities after geographical features. Some city names honored founders, prominent leaders, or historical events of the time, while others christened new colonies after cities and villages they left behind in the old country. The unique — and sometimes confusing — stories behind the names of its cities are an important part of America's cultural history.

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01Chicago, Illinois

Chicago River Cityscape at Sunset Mlenny / Getty Images

Most historians agree that the Windy City was originally named after the wrong plant and a bad smell. Early explorers who arrived in the area in the 1600s mistakenly determined that the indigenous Miami and Illinois term "chicagoua," which was a type of garlic, referred to wild onions. And in the Ojibway native language, a similar term, "chi-cag-ong," was the word for "skunk." Both were associated with unpleasant odors. It took 200 years to finally figure out the inaccurate translations. In the early 18th century, French speakers changed the name "Chicagou" to "Chikago" or "Chicago."

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02Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles cityscape at dusk LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

The Europeans who first landed in the Los Angeles area chose a name that honored their Catholic beliefs. The Spanish claimed the area in 1542, established the first settlement in the late 1700s and dubbed it "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles," or the "Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels." It later fell under Mexican rule until the mid-1840s, when Americans took control. For decades, the English pronunciation for Los Angeles was a source of contention, with some of its residents preferring the Spanish version. But, by the 1930s, the English pronunciation became the most commonly accepted.

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03New Orleans, Louisiana

Pubs and bars with neon lights in the French Quarter, New Orleans f11photo / Getty Images

The indigenous people who inhabited the swampy coastal area along Louisiana's coast for 10,000 years — the Chitimacha, Choctaw, Ishak, Tunica, and Natchez indigenous tribes — called it Balbancha, "the land of many tongues." The French arrived and claimed the area as a French territory in 1682. According to indigenous oral histories, tribe members led French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to the high ground that would become New Orleans. Bienville named his village La Nouvelle-Orleans in 1718 to honor the French regent, Philippe, Duc d'Orléans.

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04Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon, USA downtown skyline with Mt. Hood at dawn. Sean Pavone / Getty Images

In 1845, before it was Portland, it was a small settlement called "The Clearing." But two developers, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, wanted to name the settlement after their hometowns, Boston, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine. They settled the conundrum with a two-out-of-three coin toss, and Pettygrove's hometown won. The 1835 penny the settlers used to make the decision was found in a safe deposit box that Lovejoy left behind. It was eventually given to the Oregon Historical Society and is currently on display at its museum.

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05Orlando, Florida

Lake Eola Park, Orlando, Florida, USA aphotostory / Getty Images

People don't always agree on the origins of their city's name, and Orlando is one of those cities. Some say it was named after a soldier named Orlando Reeves who was killed while on sentinel duty outside of Fort Gatlin in 1835. In 1884, a newspaper reported that, yes, the city was named after a soldier, but his name was Orlando Jennings. Both soldier stories were later disproven when neither man was found on the War Department's list of soldiers killed in action. Some local historians trace the name to a local politician, J.G. Speer, who was a massive fan of Shakespeare and named the city after his favorite character in "As You Like It."

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06Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta, Georgia, USA downtown city skyline

The forcible removal of the Creek and Cherokee people in the 1830s cleared the way for expansion of the state's railroads into its interior sections. In 1837, as the Georgia Railroad was working its way west, the Western & Atlantic Railroad was building eastward. The zero-mile marker, where the two met, became a community, which was originally called Terminus. In the 1840s, it became "Marthasville," after Governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter, and later changed to Atlanta, which some say was a feminine form of "Atlantic" in the railroad's name. Others claim it was Martha Lumpkin's middle name.

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07Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas, Nevada

A Mexican trader named Antonio Armijo discovered Las Vegas on his way to Los Angeles in 1829. He called it "Las Vegas," which means "the meadows" in Spanish. It was a green, wetland oasis sitting within the massive Mojave Desert, which covers more than 25,000 miles of the area's landscape. It officially became a city when the railroad auctioned off 110 acres of land in 1905. Las Vegas was an ideal refueling point and rest stop for the railways due to the availability of water.

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08Boston, Massachusetts

Boston, Massachusetts, USA skyline over Quincy Market. Sean Pavone / Getty Images

Like many other cities in the New World, early settlers named Boston after a city in England. Members of the Massachusetts Bay Company, who hailed from Boston, England, were the first to land there in 1630. At that time, earlier colonists named the locale Trimount due to a large, triple-peaked hill nearby. Not long after they landed, the Massachusetts Bay Company renamed the town Boston.

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09Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minneapolis Skyline Aerial With Park And Lake Davel5957 / Getty Images

Minnesota's largest city started as a platted townsite in 1854 on the west side of the Mississippi River. Like many other cities, Minneapolis went through several name changes before it was incorporated. It was the city's first schoolmaster, Charles Hoag, who came up with the city's official name, composed from two words: the Dakota word for waterfall, "Minihaha," combined with the Greek word for city, "polis." He originally spelled it Minnehapolis, but the "h" was dropped to become Minneapolis, which translated as "city of falls."

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10Miami, Florida

South Beach Miami from South Pointe Park, Florida, USA Pola Damonte via Getty Images / Getty Images

It's hard to imagine the sprawling metropolis that is Miami was once nothing more than a settlement of just over 300 people. Its name comes from the Mayami, an indigenous tribe that lived in the Lake Okeechobee area during the 17th or 18th centuries. The city started as the "Village of Miami," on the south side of the Miami River. By 1900, the railroad had extended into Miami, and the city grew rapidly. Within ten short years, Miami's population grew to nearly 5500 residents.

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