To the Editor of the Knickerbocker.
Sir: I am somewhat of the same way of thinking, in regard to names, with that profound philosopher, Mr. Shandy, the elder, who maintained that some inspired high thoughts and heroic aims, while others entailed irretrievable meanness and vulgarity; insomuch that a man might sink under the insignificance of his name, and be absolutely “Nicodemused into nothing.” I have ever, therefore, thought it a great hardship for a man to be obliged to struggle through life with some ridiculous or ignoble Christian name, as it is too often falsely called, inflicted on him in infancy, when he could not choose for himself; and would give him free liberty to change it for one more to his taste, when he had arrived at years of discretion.
I have the same notion with respect to local names. Some at once prepossess us in favor of a place; others repel us, by unlucky associations of the mind; and I have known scenes worthy of being the very haunt of poetry and romance, yet doomed to irretrievable vulgarity, by some ill-chosen name, which not even the magic numbers of a Halleck or a Bryant could elevate into poetical acceptation.
This is an evil unfortunately too prevalent throughout our country. Nature has stamped the land with features of sublimity and beauty; but some of our noblest mountains and loveliest streams are in danger of remaining for ever unhonored and unsung, from bearing appellations totally abhorrent to the Muse. In the first place, our country is deluged with names taken from places in the old world, and applied to places having no possible affinity or resemblance to their namesakes. This betokens a forlorn poverty of invention, and a second-hand spirit, content to cover its nakedness with borrowed or cast-off clothes of Europe.
Then we have a shallow affectation of scholarship: the whole catalogue of ancient worthies is shaken out from the back of Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, and a wide region of wild country sprinkled over with the names of the heroes, poets, and sages of antiquity, jumbled into the most whimsical juxtaposition. Then we have our political god-fathers; topographical engineers, perhaps, or persons employed by government to survey and lay out townships. These, forsooth, glorify the patrons that give them bread; so we have the names of the great official men of the day scattered over the land, as if they were the real “salt of the earth,” with which it was to be seasoned. Well for us is it, when these official great men happen to have names of fair acceptation; but wo unto us, should a Tubbs or a Potts be in power: we are sure, in a little while, to find Tubbsvilles and Pottsylvanias springing up in every direction.
Under these melancholy dispensations of taste and loyalty, therefore, Mr. Editor, it is with a feeling of dawning hope, that I have lately perceived the attention of persons of intelligence beginning to be awakened on this subject. I trust if the matter should once be taken up, it will not be readily abandoned. We are yet young enough, as a country, to remedy and reform much of what has been done, and to release many of our rising towns and cities, and our noble streams, from names calculated to vulgarize the land.
I have, on a former occasion, suggested the expediency of searching out the original Indian names of places, and wherever they are striking and euphonious, and those by which they have been superseded are glaringly objectionable, to restore them. They would have the merit of originality, and of belonging to the country; and they would remain as reliques of the native lords of the soil, when every other vestige had disappeared. Many of these names may easily be regained, by reference to old title deeds, and to the archives of states and counties. In my own case, by examining the records of the county clerk’s office, I have discovered the Indian names of various places and objects in the neighborhood, and have found them infinitely superior to the trite, poverty-stricken names which had been given by the settlers. A beautiful pastoral stream, for instance, which winds for many a mile through one of the loveliest little valleys in the state, has long been known by the common-place name of the “Saw-mill River.” In the old Indian grants, it is designated as the Neperan. Another, a perfectly wizard stream, which winds through the wildest recesses of Sleepy Hollow, bears the hum-drum name of Mill Creek: in the Indian grants, it sustains the euphonious title of the Pocantico.
Similar researches have released Long-Island from many of those paltry and vulgar names which fringed its beautiful shores; their Cow Bays, and Cow Necks, and Oyster Ponds, and Mosquito Coves, which spread a spell of vulgarity over the whole island, and kept persons of taste and fancy at a distance.
It would be an object worthy the attention of the historical societies, which are springing up in various parts of the Union, to have maps executed of their respective states or neighborhoods, in which all the Indian local names should, as far as possible, be restored. In fact, it appears to me that the nomenclature of the country is almost of sufficient importance for the foundation of a distinct society; or rather, a corresponding association of persons of taste and judgment, of all parts of the Union. Such an association, if properly constituted and composed, comprising especially all the literary talent of the country, though it might not have legislative power in its enactments, yet would have the all-pervading power of the press; and the changes in nomenclature which it might dictate, being at once adopted by elegant writers in prose and poetry, and interwoven with the literature of the country, would ultimately pass into popular currency.
Should such a reforming association arise, I beg to recommend to its attention all those mongrel names that have the adjective New prefixed to them, and pray they may be one and all kicked out of the country. I am for none of these second-hand appellations, that stamp us a second-hand people, and that are to perpetuate us a new country to the end of time. Odds my life! Mr. Editor, I hope and trust we are to live to be an old nation, as well as our neighbors, and have no idea that our cities, when they shall have attained to venerable antiquity, shall still be dubbed New-York, and New-London, and new this and new that, like the Pont-Neuf, (the New Bridge,) at Paris, which is the oldest bridge in that capital, or like the Vicar of Wakefield’s horse, which continued to be called “the colt,” until he died of old age.
Speaking of New-York, reminds me of some observations which I met with some time since, in one of the public papers, about the name of our state and city. The writer proposes to substitute for the present names, those of the State of Ontario, and the CITY OF MANHATTAN. I concur in his suggestion most heartily. Though born and brought up in the city of New-York, and though I love every stick and stone about it, yet I do not, nor ever did, relish its name. I like neither its sound nor its significance. As to its significance, the very adjective new gives to our great commercial metropolis a second-hand character, as if referring to some older, more dignified, and important place, of which it was a mere copy; though in fact, if I am rightly informed, the whole name commemorates a grant by Charles II. to his brother, the duke of York, made in the spirit of royal munificence, of a tract of country which did not belong to him. As to the sound, what can you make of it, either in poetry or prose? New-York! Why, Sir, if it were to share the fate of Troy itself; to suffer a ten years’ siege, and be sacked and plundered; no modern Homer would ever be able to elevate the name to epic dignity.
Now, Sir, ONTARIO would be a name worthy of the empire state. It bears with it the majesty of that internal sea which washes our northwestern shore. Or, if any objection should be made, from its not being completely embraced within our boundaries, there is the MOHEGAN, one of the Indian names for that glorious river, the Hudson, which would furnish an excellent state appellation. So also New-York might be called Manhatta, as it is named in some of the early records, and Manhattan used as the adjective. Manhattan, however, stands well as a substantive, and “Manhattanese,” which I observe Mr. COOPER has adopted in some of his writings, would be a very good appellation for a citizen of the commercial metropolis.
A word or two more, Mr. Editor, and I have done. We want a NATIONAL NAME. We want it poetically, and we want it politically. With the poetical necessity of the case I shall not trouble myself. I leave it to our poets to tell how they manage to steer that collocation of words, “The United States of North America,” down the swelling tide of song, and to float the whole raft out upon the sea of heroic poesy. I am now speaking of the mere purposes of common life. How is a citizen of this republic to designate himself? As an American? There are two Americas, each subdivided into various empires, rapidly rising in importance. As a citizen of the United States? It is a clumsy, lumbering title, yet still it is not distinctive; for we have now the United States of Central America; and heaven knows how many “United States” may spring up under the Proteus changes of Spanish America.
This may appear matter of small concernment; but any one that has travelled in foreign countries must be conscious of the embarrassment and circumlocution sometimes occasioned by the want of a perfectly distinct and explicit national appellation. In France, when I have announced myself as an American, I have been supposed to belong to one of the French colonies; in Spain, to be from Mexico, or Peru, or some other Spanish-American country. Repeatedly have I found myself involved in a long geographical and political definition of my national identity.
Now, Sir, meaning no disrespect to any of our co-heirs of this great quarter of the world, I am for none of this coparceny in a name that is to mingle us up with the riff-raff colonies and off-sets of every nation of Europe. The title of American may serve to tell the quarter of the world to which I belong, the same as a Frenchman or an Englishman may call himself a European; but I want my own peculiar national name to rally under. I want an appellation that shall tell at once, and in a way not to be mistaken, that I belong to this very portion of America, geographical and political, to which it is my pride and happiness to belong; that I am of the Anglo-Saxon race which founded this Anglo-Saxon empire in the wilderness; and that I have no part or parcel with any other race or empire, Spanish, French, or Portuguese, in either of the Americas. Such an appellation, Sir, would have magic in it. It would bind every part of the confederacy together as with a keystone; it would be a passport to the citizen of our republic throughout the world.
We have it in our power to furnish ourselves with such a national appellation, from one of the grand and eternal features of our country; from that noble chain of mountains which formed its back-bone, and ran through the “old confederacy,” when it first declared our national independence. I allude to the Appalachian or Alleghany mountains. We might do this without any very inconvenient change in our present titles. We might still use the phrase, “The United States,” substituting Appalachia, or Alleghania, (I should prefer the latter,) in place of America. The title of Appalachian, or Alleghanian, would still announce us as Americans, but would specify us as citizens of the Great Republic. Even our old national cypher of U. S. A. might remain unaltered, designating the United States of Alleghania.
These are crude ideas, Mr. Editor, hastily thrown out to elicit the ideas of others, and to call attention to a subject of more national importance than may at first be supposed.
Very respectfully yours,