Yes, Virginia, Names Are Always Important


By Conley L. Edwards


Conley L. Edwards is the State Archivist of Virginia and Director of the Archival and Records Management Services Division at the Library of Virginia. As State Archivist, he serves as the chair of the Virginia Board for Geographic Names. He is also the coordinator of the State Historical Records Advisory Board, having been appointed to that position by Virginia Governors Allen, Gilmore and Warner. He is currently the immediate past president of the Council of State Archivists, an organization representing state archives throughout the United States. He has been a member of the staff at the Library of Virginia since 1974.


            A recent article in the Virginian-Pilot asked “What’s in a Name?” The article went on to discuss how use of the term “Tidewater” to describe the southeastern coastal plain had changed over time. In the 1980s, the region’s “movers and shakers” decided that “Hampton Roads” had a better ring, sounded less “swampy,” and would serve as a better asset for development. Yet the use of “Tidewater” still lingers on despite the dictates of the newspaper’s stylebook and the efforts of area boosters.

            The desire to name places has been present throughout recorded history. The study of place names (toponymy) can reveal valuable clues to the exploration, settlement, migration and cultural history of an area. As the Tidewater example illustrates, local usage has a powerful influence that can effect public perceptions and perhaps economic vitality. In answer to the newspaper’s question, there can be a lot in a name.

            Confusion, uncertainty, and misunderstanding may occur if there is inconsistency in naming places, rivers, mountains, and other geographic features. The systematic standardization of geographic names in the United States began in the late nineteenth century. The surge in mapping that occurred after the American Civil War demonstrated the inconsistencies and contradictions in the names, spellings, and application of geographic terms. The situation became a serious concern for mapmakers and scientists who required uniform, non-conflicting geographical nomenclature.  As a result, President Benjamin Harrison signed an executive order in September 1890 establishing the United States Board on Geographic Names.  The Board was given authority to resolve all “unsettled questions concerning geographic names,” and their decisions were to be binding on all departments and agencies of the federal government. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt extended the Board’s authority to standardize all geographic names for federal use, including name changes and new names. Since 1947, the Domestic Names Committee of the Board has carried out domestic name standardization. Representatives from the Departments of the Interior, Commerce, Agriculture and the Government Printing Office, Postal Services, and Library of Congress are responsible for standardizing the names of places, features, and areas within the fifty states and other areas under the sovereignty of the United States.

            The Board on Geographic Names (BGN) carries out its responsibilities in part through working relationships with state name authorities and state and local geographic information system agencies, as well as local governments, tribal agencies, and the public. When I became State Archivist of Virginia in 1996, I assumed responsibilities as the state name authority. One of my first duties as State Archivist was to make a recommendation on naming a hollow in Botetourt County after two faithful dogs, Joe and Honey, who had accompanied the proponent for years on regular walks. The dogs particularly enjoyed romping in the hollow and their owner thought their enjoyment should be memorialized by naming the hollow after them.

            State boards apply the BGN’s principles and policies and make recommendations to the national board. Decisions at each level are guided by the existing principles and policies and factors involving established, historical, legal, legislated, written, and verbal usage. Considerable weight is given to local use or preferences and both the state and national boards often provide extensive documentation on the evolution of geographic names.

            While most documentation is well-researched and based on fact, some explanations approach the fanciful. The June 2009 review list of proposed changes includes naming an unnamed island in Flathead County, Montana, “Invitation Island.” The name recalls a folktale involving “a young man who could not find the love of his life in his home town.” He left town but returned later and met a young lady at church. After making numerous trips to the small island to create a perfect setting, he rowed his true love to the island where he proposed marriage and she accepted. Although there are no other details, “the proponent is certain the incident took place approximately 100 years ago and that the story is familiar to other local residents.”

            There have been no proposals before the Virginia board that match the fanciful nature of Invitation Island. As you might expect, the number of unnamed features in Virginia is much less than in other parts of the United States. As a result, the Virginia board has made recommendations to BGN on 22 name proposals since 1998. Two proposals stand out.

            Many travelers on Interstate 64 near Charlottesville and Waynesboro assume they are crossing Afton Mountain when they pass the intersection of State Route 250 and the Blue Ridge Parkway. In fact, there was no official geographic feature known as Afton Mountain until the Board on Geographic Names approved the name in 1998. Afton Mountain’s location is one-and- one-half miles southwest of the Interstate and one-half mile east of Stony Ridge. The elevation is 2,418 feet.

            In 1999-2000, there was considerable local controversy in Prince Edward County over the correct name of a stream that is a tributary of the Appomattox River. Proponents wished to change the name of Harris Creek, which currently appears on USGS maps, to Brisentine Creek in order to recognize widespread use of that name by area residents. Documentation was submitted showing deeds and surveys with references to Brisentine Creek from the early twentieth century. Letters of support came from long-time residents and a petition with over 200 signatures was submitted. Supporters for retaining the Harris Creek designation also submitted documentation, letters of support, and petitions. Evidence included a Virginia land grant in 1745 to Edward Harris and copies of a county map from 1820 showing the creek. One state legislator and the local historical society sent letters saying they did not support the change, while the county board of supervisors tried to keep everyone happy by proposing that the name be changed to Harris-Brisentine Creek. After a well-attended public hearing on the proposal during which seventeen area residents made statements, the Virginia board recommended retaining the existing name and the BGN rejected the proposed change.

            The Harris Creek proposal demonstrates the reliance of BGN on historic usage and local acceptance in making its decisions. The resources at the Library of Virginia are a perfect match for questions that arise about Virginia place names. The Library has a collection of over 40,000 historical maps relating to the Commonwealth and a rich variety of other resources. Questions about geographic features are frequent enough that the staff prepared a resource guide, Researching Virginia Place Names.

Excellent sources to check for current place names are: United States Board on Geographic Names. Approved Place Names in Virginia: An Index to Virginia Names Approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names through 1969, compiled by Mary Topping (University Press of Virginia, 1971), the Virginia Gazetteer, and the Geographic Names Information System. The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), developed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the Board on Geographic Names, contains information about the almost 2 million physical and cultural geographic features labeled on the USGS 7.5-minute topographic maps. [For more information, refer to the April 17, 2009 blog posting “Where is That Place – Using the USGS Web Site.”]

            Naming geographic features after individuals is one way that settlers marked the land and signified that their lives and contributions were important. In a nation where numerous individuals are remembered for their accomplishments, the Board has established principles, policies, and procedures to decide commemorative names. An individual must have been dead for five years and must have a direct association with the feature or made a significant contribution relating to the feature before the Board will approve a commemorative name. Unfortunately, the proposal to commemorate two faithful family dogs by naming a feature in Botetourt County “Joe-Honey Hollow” fell short of the Board’s policies. The dogs’ owner would have to be satisfied to see his two friends romp among the trees.


Some Names Approved by the Virginia Board on Geographic Names Since 1996


            Haymount – Caroline County                             John Rucker Lake – Green County

            Ryons Dam – Fairfax County                             Potomac Falls – Loudoun County

            Forty Foot Gully – Shenandoah County               Brambleton – Loudoun County

            Barren Rock – Highland County                         Shipps Corner – Virginia Beach

            Midwatch Point – Westmoreland County            Atkins Pond – Surry County


Placename books of genealogical interest include Gilbert S. Bahn’s American Place Names of Long Ago: A Republication of the Index to Cram’s Unrivaled Atlas of the World Based on the Census of 1890 (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1898, repr. 2008) and the (Columbia) Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World, available in various editions, including the 1859 edition, that comes with a subscription to


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