Zion National Park (1919)

The most prominent and recognizable landmarks in Zion National Park bear religious names: the Court of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob); Moroni; the Temple of the Virgin, the Temple of Sacrifice, Angel’s Landing, and the Great White Throne.“You’d be hard-pressed to find another national park so steeped in religious references.” [1] 

Zion's Great White Throne

Zion's Great White Throne

On the shuttle that ferries visitors between these spectacular sights, a recording tells riders that that “the name Zion derives from a Hebrew word meaning refuge or sanctuary,” but they do not learn that Zion National Park was originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument, nor why Mukuntuweap was jettisoned in favor of Zion. [2]

According to Native American Placenames of the United States,  “The word Mukuntuweap comes from the Southern Paiute family of language.  Mukkuntameans 'straight', uippy means 'canyon' [the 'y' is a vowel pronounced kind of like the 'u' in put, but without the lips rounded], "Straight Canyon.” [3]

John Wesley Powell’s Grand Canyon expeditions (in 1869 and 1871) ventured into what “Indians call … Mu-koon-tu-weap, or Straight Canyon.,” a name that Powell seems to have learned from his Paiute guide, Taú-gu. [4]  

But even before Powell’s expedition, Mormons had settled in Utah, including one Isaac Behunin, a sometime bodyguard for Joseph Smith.  Behunin was so taken with the Mukuntuweap canyon that he wrote to Brigham Young.  "Come on down and bring the saints down here. You stopped too soon because I have actually found Zion."  … Brigham Young wrote back,  “That is not Zion," he said, "Zion is where the saints are at.  Behunin, apparently unconvinced, stayed put and called it “Little Zion.” [5]

Still, it was the Powell expeditions that introduced Utah’s canyonlands to the vast majority of Americans living east of the Mississippi. Among the most influential presentations of Mukuntuweap to Americans were the paintings of Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. Dellenbaugh had been a member of the second Powell expedition, and his paintings of Mukuntuweap were displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and featured in Scribner’s Magazine. So striking were the images that some doubted the reality of what he painted, assuming that “Dellenbaugh had merely painted a fantastical dreamscape for surely such a beautiful place could not be real.” [7] 

In 1909, President William Howard Taft conferred “national monument status” on Mukuntuweap because it was an “extraordinary example of canyon erosion and is of the greatest scientific interest, and it appears that the public interest would be promoted by reserving it as a National monument.” (Proc No. 877, 36 Stat. 2498). [8]

The oversight of national monuments fell willy-nilly to states and federal agencies. When the National Park Service was formalized in 1916, its administrators lobbied to confer on Mukuntuweap national park status, but they worried that its name would alienate members of Congress. Acting director of the National Park Service Stephen Albright admitted that although he generally preferred to keep the “traditional” names intact, “Mukuntuweap was a problem.” [9]  Instead, he proposed changing the name Mukuntuweap to Zion.  Congress accepted Albright’s proposal, and Zion became a national park in 1919. 

The idea to change the name Mukuntuweap to Zion may have been bit of strategic repackaging for the immediate and laudable purpose of protecting public land, but this re-naming also shines a light on the everyday processes by which Natives were discursively displaced and replaced. Though more visibly done by corralling Natives onto reservations, “assimilating” them in  boarding schools, and using military might to squelch any resistance, naming places is an overlooked means by which the same ends were met.

During the time that Albright was busy trying to confer on Mukuntuweap National Park status, Utes and Paiutes were still defending their territory against both Navajo and US incursions.  Following on the major battles of the 1860s and 1870s (the Paiute and Bannock wars), Utes and Paiutes continued to fight against incursions into their territories well into the 1920s.  This fierce and stubborn resistance, such as the “Posey” war of 1923, provided the US with the needed excuse to impose limits on land holding of the Utes.  

To be sure, the US was also suspicious of Mormons in Utah. In the late 1850s, President James Buchanan sent troops to Utah Territories to stem Mormon dominance and secure US control of the territory; in 1878, the US Supreme Court decided against the religious liberty claim of Mormon George Reynolds to practice polygamy. When Utah was finally made a state in 1896, the ban on polygamy was written into the state constitution. 

It may seem strange that the name Zion was adopted for the site, given US animosity to Mormons. In Utah territory, Zion was associated with Mormons, but at least Mormons were white.  The US’s most pressing need to create white possession and dominance across the continent outweighed the problems that Mormons otherwise presented.  

Eschewing Mukuntuweap in favor of such a widely recognizable and authoritative referent, one shared by a range of white colonial settlers (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Mormon) was an effective means by which to conjoin this new western territory,  one of the last pockets of Native resistance. Zion replaced the “problem” that Mukuntuweap presented and unified a diverse range of whites in a generically meaningful scriptural signifier. 



[1] Lynn Arave, “Come to Zion, come to Zion: Utah park abounds in religious references,” Deseret News, May 22, 2010, E.1. 

[2] Author transcript, from the recording played during the week of April 7-13, 2014.  

[3] William Bright,Native American Placenames of the United States(Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2004), 301.

[4] J.W. Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries explores in 1869, 1870, 1871 and 1872 Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1875), 111. Paul Reeve, Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes(Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 75.

[5] A History of Isaac Behunin posted at

https://familysearch.org/photos/stories/2073353, July 4, 2014. 

[6] Frederick Dellenbaugh, “A New Valley of Wonders,” Scribner’s Magazine35 (Jan-June, 1904), 1-18; Tiffany Taylor, Images of AmericaZion National Park(Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 75. 

[7] Appendix D, Zion National Park Legislation, www.nps.gov.

[8] Horace Albright and Marian Albright Schenck, Creating the National Park Service: the Missing Years (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).  

Source: Zion National Park (1919)

Nicodemus, Kansas (1877)

During the period of the so-called Kansas Fever Exodus, several black settlements were established, Nicodemus being one.  It was founded in 1877, is the sole remaining Reconstruction-era town established by and for Blacks. 

As a result, it has received a fair amount of attention in the history books. Yet one matter about it remains unclear: how it came by its name. 

Most historians think the name "Nicodemus" comes from a legendary slave of African birth. They think this because of a well-known Civil War-era song, "Wake, Nicodemus!" that was used to advertise plots for sale.

But there are good reasons to think otherwise (which I explain fully in an article published in Great Plains Quarterly). Suffice it to say that the minor biblical character of Nicodemus, who appears only in the Gospel of John, was well-known among African Americans eschewing former slave identities and forging new lives in new places. 

Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus in secret and at night, as did African Americans seeking to worship and learning to read (especially learning to read the Bible). 

Nicodemus is the one to whom Jesus says, "You must be born again" (or "from above"). The shedding of a former slave identity for a free self made Nicodemus especially resonant for Reconstruction-era Blacks. (John 3:1-17) 

African American portraitist Henry Ossawa Tanner painted this portrait of Jesus and Nicodemus in 1899. He was one of a number of African Americans using Nicodemus as a touchstone, a number that includes the founders of this sole remaining African American town founded during Reconstruction. 

Jesus and Nicodemus on a Rooftop
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus.jpg

Corpus Christi, Texas (1840s)

It has long been assumed that Corpus Christi was simply taken from Corpus Christi Bay, a name itself allegedly conferred by Spaniard Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda, who claimed it for the Spanish Crown in 1519 while mapping the gulf coast. As the story goes, the day Pineda encountered the shallow inlet happened to fall on the feast day of Corpus Christi, a day in the Latin church calendar to emphasize and ritualize the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the consecrated host. [1] 

The inland Corpus Christi (now the eighth largest city in Texas) did not come into existence until the decade between the Texas Revolution (1835-1836) and the Mexican American War (1846-1848). Not until 1845 or 1846 do maps show an inland place named Corpus Christi in addition to the bay of the same name.  [2]

In fact, in the early part of the 1840s, what is now called Corpus Christi was then called Kinney's Rancho, for a character named Henry Lawrence Kinney who virtually stole the land.  When the US set its sights on doing the same thing, i.e., annexing Texas, President Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and his "army of occupation" to the border.  They set up at Kinney's place.

Taylor's Army of Occupation near Kinney's Rancho in 1845. 

Taylor's Army of Occupation near Kinney's Rancho in 1845. 

Meanwhile, Polk and the pro-annexation parties sounded the drumbeats with rhetoric in which American sacrifice in Texas featured prominently. Corpus Christi, in Latin, means the body of Christ -- the sacrificed body. As annexation propagandists eulogized those killed at the Alamo and at Goliad, they merged Anglo deaths into national destiny, a destiny that could only be realized when America’s identity was clear, and that identity was “most intelligible in contradistinction to Mexico: Protestant, not Catholic; Anglo-Saxon not Indian/Mestizo/Spanish; republican not tyrannical; industrious not slothful.” [3]

After the Army of Occupation left Kinney's spot to start a war with Mexico, it was henceforth known as Corpus Christi.  The name, now consonant with the bay, implied American borders that extended beyond the land to include bays, inlets, rivers, and coastlines. The authoritative power and efficacy of mottoized Latin was long familiar in US national and state seals, such “E pluribus unum,” “Annuit Coeptis,” and “Novus ordo seculorum.”  Corpus Christi would have been a familiar bit of Latin, and not just to those with a Catholic background. Further, its evocation of sacrifice subtly underscored other discursive efforts to depict Texas as a site of Anglo sacrifice, and therefore deserving of annexation.


*I discuss this in more detail in a paper published in the journal Names.



[1] On Pineda, see Donald E. Chipman, Nuño de Guzmán and the Province of Pánuco in New Spain, 1518–1533 (Glendale, California: Clark, 1967) and Robert S. Weddle, Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500–1685 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985).  

[2]The Center for Texas Studies at Texas Christian University, Going to Texas: Five Centuries of Texas Maps (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2007).

[3] John Pinheiro, Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican American War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 65.

Ophir, California (1850)

Adopting the name Ophir for a California Gold Rush town makes perfect sense. In the Bible, Ophir was the source of King Solomon’s famous wealth (1 Kings 9:26-28; 10:11;  22:48;  29:4;  8:18; 9:10, and Job 22:24; 28:16;  45:9;  13:12).  [1]   No wonder that Ophir was a popular choice of name for mining towns, adopted in New South Wales (Australia), as well as several US states such as Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. 

The Ophir in California, located just west of Auburn on the North Fork of the American River, was evidently named in 1850 by one in a recently arrived cadre of gold seekers from Ohio calling themselves the “Buckeye Rovers.”  One of these Ohio gentlemen, Charles Giles, “made a speech on the occasion of showing this to be the land of Ophir, and thought it but fair to name at least one place with the ancient name, so Ophir it is.” [2] 

At least one place.  Giles seemed surprised that no settlement had yet been so named. After all, the press had been referring to California as “our Ophir” since the earliest reports of gold discovered there.  In 1849, the periodical Scientific American published an article theorizing that the mystery of Ophir's actual location had been solved: “California is the ancient Ophir.”  [3]  


More than a mere biblical analogy, naming Ophir addressed Anglo Protestant anxieties about race and religion in California on the one hand, and aspirations about about its natural resources, on the other.  Why else but for inscrutable Providence (i.e., manifest destiny) did the Spain and later Mexico not unearth California's riches? Many theorized that Ophir (qua California qua gold) had been occluded until such time as Providence saw fit to reveal its hidden riches to a white and Protestant people. [4]  How else to explain why Spaniards had controlled the area for hundreds of years, while “the enterprising Anglo Saxon had needed only three months” to find gold? [5] 

Providence and race were rhetorically linked to great effect as Anglo American leaders sought to frame the discovery of gold as confirmation of a divinely ordained errand.

Naming Ophir implicitly foregrounded Anglo Saxon entitlement to California’s gold. California, referred to in the press as “our Ophir,” quickly took the starring role in the infinitely adjustable biblical story about a covenanted people arriving at the Promised Land. 


[1] Ophir is also listed as the name of one the sons of Joktan in the Table of Nations (Gen 10). 

[2] Howard L. Scamehorn, ed., The Buckeye Rovers in the Gold Rush (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1965), 140.  See also Erwin Gudde and William Bright, eds., California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names, 4th Ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 270; Erwin and Elizabeth Gudde, California Gold Camps: A Geographical and Historical Dictionary of Camps, Towns, and Localities Where Gold Was Found and Mined; Wayside Stations and Trading Centers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 252-253. 

[3] Author unknown, “California the ancient Ophir,” Scientific American, New York, Vol. 4 No. 20, (Feb. 1849), 155.

[4] It was a frequent observation that “Providence had held the gold in readiness for just the right historical moment,” and just the right historical people, viz., white Protestants.  See the comments cited in David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 30-32. This idea preceded for many that actual finding of gold, as Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s study of religion in frontier California points out. “Between 1796 and 1845, thousands of mome mission societies, located primarily in the northeastern states, embraced the notion that the settlement of vast territories to the west played a crucial role in the divine plan of salvation.”  Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Religion and Society in Frontier California(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 14. See especially chap. 2 in this volume for discussion of how Protestants engaged the concept of providence to filter and frame the discovery of gold and its effects.

[5] David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s, 31. 



Troy, New York (1789)

After the Revolutionary War, an influx of settlers claimed land near what is now Albany, New York. Dutch colonist Jackob Vanderheyden was persuaded by them to sell portions of his farm, which he did on the condition the settlement be called Vanderheyden. But the new settlers found the name “too polysyllabic, Dutch and strange,” and opted instead to name the place “Troy,” explaining in the Albany Gazette on January of 1789 that they expected “at no very distant period, to see TROY as famous for her Trade and Navigation as many of our first towns.” [1]



Homer lavished praise on Troy (also called Ilium) in The Iliad. It was an exceptionally well-built, well-defended city, with steep, strong walls that enabled it to endure more than a decade of persistent attacks by the Greeks. Strategically situated on a narrow strait, the Trojans dominated access to the Black Sea.

Having just successfully withstood a better-armed and better-funded army (the British), former colonists used Troy and other classical place names to “portray them[selves] as equals to the world’s most famed warrior states,” and to vaunt their “fragile Revolution and bleak prospects beyond its seeming tenuousness.” [2]

Some ridiculed the new name, and said that whoever suggested it was “playing a trick with the good people of the place, and is now laughing in his sleeve at their ignorance of ancient history.” [3] But the name was retained, and became one most frequently replicated classical town names in America (there are upwards of 95 Troys in the U.S.).

Choosing the name Troy followed the tactic long used by colonists of adopting a famous ancient figure as a pseudonym. These classical alter egos (Cicero, Livy, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius and others) were “textual masks” that enabled “ventriloquized performances” of civic duty. [4] Pseudonyms aided in imagining America as a re-invented Roman republic, with its orderly Senate, its ethical-statesman, and its idealization of agriculture as a noble, civic pursuit. Ancient personae — Cincinnatus, Cicero, Tully, and etc., etc., — helped former colonists depict themselves as honest pastoralist-statesmen over against the scheming and venal monarchists of Europe.

Naming Troy after a mighty walled city able to withstand sustained attack emboldened this rag-tag band of former colonists to signify their rural existence as militarily strategic, and to project themselves as “the future seat of liberty and civilization.” [5] Soon, places named Syracuse, Apulia, Palymra, Rome, Smyrna, Vesper, Carthage and even Babylon dotted western New York — a naming pattern that soon spread well beyond western New York.



[1] See Rutherford Hayner, Troy and Rensselaer County, New York: A History (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1925), 134-136; Arthur James Weise, Troy’s One Hundred Years 1789-1889 (Troy, NY: William H. Young, 1891), 28-29; and Writers of the Works Progress Administration, New York: A Guide to the Empire State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940), 344.

[2] Eran Shalev, Rome Reborn on Western Shores: Historical Imagination and the Creation of the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 19.

[3] The article is printed in Weise, Troy’s One Hundred, 29.

[4] Meyer Reinhold, Classica Americana: The Greek and Roman Heritage in the United States (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 95.

[5] Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole, “Introduction,” in Thomas Jefferson, The Classical World, and Early America, ed. Peter S. Onuf and Nicholas P. Cole (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 5.

*There are excellent treatments of the profound impact and diverse uses of classicism in early American history. Among these see Caroline Winterer, The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of Classical in American: Greece, Rome and the Antebellum US (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).