A blog about a first-time house owner learning to maintain his backyard, and thoughts about nature, science, history, and life.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Freeville History: What's in a Name?

Freeville holds a unique distinction: Freeville, NY is the only incorporated settlement in the U.S. holding that name.  I've just finished reading a spectacular old book about how places in the U.S. got their names, so now is as good a time as ever to share some Freeville yore.

Most towns get their names from but a few ways: a name based on local geography, which was how the Indians named most of their locations...many of these were adopted into English usage.  For example, the city of Chicago was named after the Chicago River, which came from an Indian word for onion, because onions grew near the river in the site that is now a great city.  (There was actually some controversy early on, because a similar-sounding word referred to skunks, and so the new locals were concerned about naming their new settlement, via translation, Skunk Town.)

There's also the approach of taking the name of a place from elsewhere in the world, especially Europe (and particularly early on, England).  New York was so named after the English took over the Dutch New Amsterdam settlement and applied an English city to the name.  More locally, here in central New York, the city of Ithaca was allegedly so-named because the settlement sits on the south side of a lake, with steep hills on the other three sides.  Just as the island of Ithaca was reached only after a long, hazardous journey by Odysseus and his men in Homer's Odyssey, New York's Ithaca required a relatively strenuous journey over the hills.  Even today, Ithaca is about a 45 minute drive over winding two-lane roads from an interstate highway, making it perhaps the most isolated city of its size in New York state.  One other example: the city of Syracuse was named after the city of the same name on the island of Sicily.  Its city fathers noted that the city was being built along the Erie Canal in a swampy area, much as the Old World's Syracuse had been built in a swamp.  They hoped that their new city would eventually approach the stature of the old.

There are places named after people.  The town of Dryden, in which Freeville lies, was named after John Dryden, an English poet and translator of Latin and Greek works: Virgil and Plutarch's Lives.  A story for another time - much of central New York was carved up and parceled out to Revolutionary War veterans as back pay for their service.  The town names, which had to be determined at once by a small committee, often honored Roman and Greek towns and personalities.  At the time, classical culture was adored in America.  And so along with Dryden, we have towns such as Ovid, Virgil, Cincinnatus, and Ulysses, and there's even the city of Rome east of Syracuse.  But communities like Freeville sprung up well after this initial parceling.  Within the town of Dryden, there are small outposts with names such as Hibbards Corners, Howland Corners, Lacy Corners, Smith Corners, and Ellis Hollow, that were likely named after early settlers.  Freeville could easily have taken the name White's Corners or White's Mill, after its first settler.

But some places choose to name themselves after an idea.  There are towns named Independence in Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, and, most famously, Missouri.  There are towns named Freedom in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  The Penn State campus and State College, PA are often referred to as Happy Valley.  The city of Philadelphia owes its name to the Greek word philadelpheia, which Paul used in his letter to the Romans, meaning "Be kindly affectionate one to another with brotherly love", which traces its origin to a king Attalus Philadelphus, "the brother-loving", after whom a city was named in Asia.  This city found its way into the writings of Strabo and Tacitus, and thanks to William Penn, the name has been passed down to us today.

The founders of Freeville may not have had the lofty ideals of Billy Penn in mind, but they did want a nice name for their town.  The town's website argues that the name came because every man in the new town was a freeholder...it really was a free town.  The suffix -ville, I've learned, was a popular one in the early days after the Revolution, as all things French were held in high esteem for their support in the war.  Thus, while Freeville is one of many -villes in the U.S. and the world, it remains the one and only Freeville.

If you're interested in this gem of a book, it's called "Names on the Land", by George Stewart.  It contains more details about the naming stories that I've touched on here and much more.  I can't recommend it enough.

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