Problems of Place: The Place of Names in Environmental History

In Louise Erdrich’s 2020 novel The Night Watchman, the character Zhaanat, the matriarch of a Chippewa family living in Turtle Mountain Reservation, mulls “Things started going wrong, […] when places everywhere were named for people – political figures, priests, explorers – and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals.” Zhaanat goes on to explain that when these names changed, it affected the affairs of these places. Animals avoided a place no longer named for them and dreaming halted in the places where it was not mentioned. Names had the power to shape these places.

The fictional character Zhaanat points out a few fundamental features of place names. Place names are ubiquitous in the lives of people from different cultures and places throughout the world. We can think of a multiplicity of things as what we refer to as “a place”: cities, settlements, mountain ranges, trails, and many more. At the very least, what all these things have in common is that they are locales that people designated to organize their worlds and communities.

As place names are both ubiquitous and contested, social scientists have worked to compile historic place name data, including language and vernacular variants, that move beyond what is displayed on historical maps. As scholars use place name data in their work, digital humanists have created digital gazetteers, or directories of place names, to preserve and make available historic place name variants. The Kima gazetteer indexes historical place names in Hebrew, in an effort to preserve and compile a record of Jewish diasporic experience. Other resources add geographic coordinates so users can visualize place name data. Examples include Pleiades, a gazetteer of ancient places, and the World Historical Gazetteer (WHG), a global historic place name database, (disclosure: I work on the WHG team). Think of these as thesauri for place names that also contain a Google map feature for historic places. By compiling, indexing, and digitizing place name data, digital humanists aim to recover and reclaim lost or forgotten place names.    

Many scholars and cartographers in North America are working on recovering and reclaiming traditional and historical indigenous place names. Through decolonial and anti-colonial mapping, these scholars create maps that recenter indigenous knowledge and mapping practices. One such project, “Coming Home to Indigenous Place Names,” maps indigenous place names across Canada made with geographic knowledge from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. The map does more than reveal historic place names. It reclaims the history of Canada’s indigenous population while also resisting colonialism. There are many other scholars, community leaders, artists, and cultural resource managers doing anti-colonial and decolonial mapping and with that work uncovering historic place names. A 2020 special issue on decolonizing the map in Cartographica discusses many of these efforts.

Environmental Historians and Place Names

A recent article on EHN by Christy Hyman encouraged me to think about place names and environmental history alongside one another. In the post, Christy noted that the need to simplify geographic data to fit into GIS software forces an oversimplification of historical landscapes without acknowledging the power dynamics that organized the landscape. Place names, especially those that refer to the material world, also tend to simplify, masking the inherent power dynamics between people and nature as well as people and other people. I’ve thought about how place names, and importantly for environmental historians the names of places given to the material world, are worth thinking critically about.       

In the United States, the act of renaming a place was significant in the settler colonial mission and people employed names of the material world in their conquest. A search for the word “squaw,” a racist and sexualized term for an indigenous woman, in the World Historical Gazetteer reveals 97 locations in the continental U.S with the word in its name (Voles, 2015, 32). Almost all use cases refer to a material thing in the environment: lake, gulch, canyon, valley, spring and coulee. Searching the word “virgin” reveals 57 entries, a word that prompts the illusion of an unoccupied land as well as a sexualized conquest over nature. The word almost exclusively describes a material features of the world such as cave, bay, canyon, island, basin, and lake. These names reveal a celebratory conquest and exploitation of nature, and an exploitation of indigenous people. Seen together spread across the U.S. on a map, all of these locations highlight the authority of the white masculine colonial project. As nonhuman nature carries within markers of past colonial violence, it is also a reminder to environmental historians of the hybridity of nature and culture as caves and bays become tied into effort to promulgate colonial violence. Thinking about place names reveals the role of non-human nature in cartographies of empire.  

A screenshot of hits for “squaw AND virgin” as a search term in
[Image description: digital map of the United States with red dots scattered throughout (mostly in the western U.S.) representing hits of place names based on a search term in World Historical Gazetteer.]

Place names that carry with them political meaning can be prohibitive to others, staking claim for dominant groups. A recent reckoning over place names in the rock-climbing community illustrates how names can act as gatekeepers of the material world. Current movements for racial and gender equality in the U.S. have pushed many recreational climbers to reconsider the names of places in their community, calling into question slabs of rocks that tout racists, misogynistic, and homophobic descriptors. Names such as “Whipping Post” and “Rape and Pillage” made the cultural landscape of rock climbing unwelcoming to many. Climbers, especially Black and Indigenous climbers, are pushing back on these names and bringing to light the ways they reinforce power structures and gatekeeping in the sport as they endeavor to change their names to be more welcoming. By contesting the names of places, these climbers are challenging who has the right to claim non-human nature.

While place names show the hybridity of nature and culture, they are not merely tools for humans to impart nature with culture, ignoring the environment’s own agency. Take for example Philadelphia’s buried rivers and creeks. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, city officials systematically converted streams into sewers by enclosing them in cement and brick. They filled in entire stream valleys with earth and built homes on the top. They changed the names too. Cohoquonoque Creek, or Pegg’s Run, became Willow Street. Dock Creek became Dock Street. Over time, residents slowly forgot the creeks were ever there, underscored by their new forms and names. Yet, the creeks continue to exert their own agency in the city affecting the landscape and people above them. Frequent sinkholes and cave-ins plague the city, often in its lower income neighborhoods. In response, groups like the West Philadelphia Landscape Project have dedicated their work to ameliorate some of the problems caused by buried creeks. Despite new names, Philadelphia’s buried creeks serve as a reminder that human constructions cannot fully contain or control the material world.

Construction of the Mill Creek Sewer in West Philadelphia, circa 1883 from
[Image description: Black and white photograph of people standing around a stream that is being enclosed in concrete to construct a sewer. Brick scattered around and buildings in the background. Text below photograph says “Mill Creek Sewer between 47th & Haverford” and “City of Philadelphia, Department of Records.”]

Place names are portals into the different ways people understand and organize their worlds. They can be especially helpful for thinking about the relationship between nature and culture. Place names, and the maps they find themselves on, are one of the most powerful factors in the creation of cultural landscapes and bear examination and historization.

Berman, L., Mostern, R., & Southall, H. (Eds.). (2016) Placing Names: Enriching and Integrating Gazetteers. Indiana University Press.

Erdrich, Louise. (2020) The Night Watchman. HarperCollins Publishers.

Kandula, I. (2020) “Climbers are pushing back on how racists climbing routes are named,” Conde Nast Traveler (August 17, 2020).

Levine, Adam. “The History of Philadelphia’s Watersheds and Sewers,” 

Mark, D. (2020) “Rock climbing’s new-found popularity uncovers dark past of unsavoury route names, sparking its #MeToo moment,” ABC News (August 11, 2020).

Rose-Redwood, R., Blu Barnd, N., Hetoevėhotohke’e Lucchesi, A., Dias, S., & Patrick, W. “Decolonizing the Map: Recentering Indigenous Mappings,” Cartographica: the International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 55(3), 151-162.

Voles, T. (2015) Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. University of Minnesota Press. 

*Cover image: Gazetteer of the Antarctica: Names Approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names (Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation), 1989.

[Cover image description: two columns which lists name variants and geographic information.]

Edited by Natascha Otoya, reviewed by Alyssa Kreikemeier.