by Kathy Wolfe

There is an abundance of cities across the U.S. with unusual names, and this week, Tidbits takes the time to visit a few.

The city of Tucson was founded in 1775, although the spelling and pronunciations were quite different from our modern ones. A Franciscan priest spelled it Tuqison. The Pima Indians called it Ts-iuk-shan, which translates “village of the dark spring at the foot of the mountain,” referring to nearby Sentinel Mountain. Hugo O’Conor, who is considered the founding father of the city, spelled it Toixon. O’Conor was a colonel in the Spanish Army, having fled to Spain from Ireland at age 16 to avoid religious persecution. He established El Presidio del Toixon in August of 1775. In the mid-1800s, the Mexicans pronounced the village Took-shon, but by the 1870s, the pronunciation had changed to Tu-sawn.

    The name of Akron, Ohio comes from the Greek word meaning “summit.” The city grew from its location near the summit of the Ohio and Erie Canal, under construction in 1825. Akron is the county seat of Summit County. During the 1910s, Akron was known as the Rubber Capital of the World, and was home to four major tire companies, making it the nation’s fastest-growing city. Today, Akron’s population is around 190,000. 

We might call it the “Windy City,” but the Algonquian people’s name for the settlement was Shikaakwa, which became Chicago. Their word translated “the place of smelly wild onions” for the plants that grew near what is now the Chicago River. It’s possible the city derived its name from the name of a chief named Shecaugo who drowned in the river, a name that means “playful waters.” In the 1830s, the time when the city was first referred to as Chicago, the population was around 100. It’s now the nation’s third-largest city, and the world’s third-largest metropolitan area.

    Louisiana’s capital city, Baton Rouge, was founded in 1721 on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. The city’s name translates from the French language for “red pole.” As French explorers navigated up the Mississippi River in 1699, they saw a 30-ft-tall (9.1-m) red pole embellished with fish bones. They later learned that the post marked the boundary line between two Native American nations, the Bayagoulas and the Oumas. The French established a military post there in 1721, naming it after the pole. Today, a red pole monument sits on the site, in the heart of the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge.

The first Europeans to visit the Tallahassee, Florida, area arrived in 1528, explorers who claimed the land for Spain. A Spanish Franciscan mission was built there in 1656. The indigenous tribes of the area, the Apalachee, and later the Creek and Seminole tribes, gave the area its name from a Muskogean Indian word for “old fields” or “old town.” The community became Florida’s territorial capital in 1824, with three log cabins serving as the official capitol buildings. There was some argument as to how to spell the new capital’s name, a dispute settled by the governor’s wife, Octavia Walton, who determined the final spelling.

Pensacola, Florida, started out as Panzacola, named for a Native American tribe who lived in the western part of the Florida Panhandle. The tribe’s name translated from their language, meaning “hairy people.” A village was established there in 1657 as part of the Franciscan mission of San Juan De Aspalaga, with the first recorded use of the name Panzacola. The change to Pensacola probably occurred in the 1760s when the area came under British rule.

• The southwest Michigan city of Kalamazoo started out as Bronson in 1831. After founder Titus Bronson was run out of town for allegedly stealing a cherry tree in 1836, the village was renamed Kalamazoo. The name comes from the Native American Potawatomi word “Ki-ka-ma-sung,” which means “place of where the water boils.” This originates from a foot race that was held every autumn by the tribe, in which runners had to sprint to the river and back before a pot of hot water came to a boil.

Rhode Island is home to the town of Woonsocket. There are several explanations for the origin of this community’s moniker. Some say it takes its name from a nearby hill, which has its origin in the Native American Nipmuc tribe’s word “Niswasocket,” which translates “place of steep descent.” Others say it’s from another Native word “Woonksechocksett,” meaning “fox country,” while still others claim it’s from the word “Wannashowatuckqut,” translating “at the fork of the river.” The first European settlement was in 1666 when a colonist built a sawmill there. There are actually two Woonsockets in the United States. The second one is in South Dakota, incorporated in 1888. It was named by the superintendent of the railroads there, who named it after his own hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

    A Chippewa word, “passadina,” meaning “there is a valley,” gave Pasadena, California, its name. Ten miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena was officially incorporated in 1886, and was in the heart of orange groves country. The city’s nickname was amended to Crown of the Valley. The Tournament of Roses was first held in Pasadena in 1890, and the first Rose Bowl football game followed in 1902. It’s a parade rule that every inch of a float be “covered with flowers or other natural materials, such as leaves, seeds, or bark.” The average float has about 100,000 flowers along with greenery. So where did Pasadena, Texas, get its name? It was named after Pasadena, California! The founder of the Texas community named it after the California town because he had read about the lush vegetation there and saw the Texas area as similar.

    Why would the folks of Tuxedo, New York, name their town after men’s formal wear? This community in New York’s Orange County, along the Ramapo River, actually takes its name from the language of the Native American Lenni-Lenape tribe. Their word “tucseto” translates “place of the bear.” The name was modified by colonists, and in 1863, the city of Tuxedo was founded.

    When traveling through Covington County, Mississippi, make a stop in that county’s community of Hot Coffee. In the late 1800s, Mr. L. N. Davis built a store near the mid-point of the road from Natchez, Mississippi to Mobile, Alabama. There was also an inn at the site that provided lodging for merchants and farmers on their supply trips. Mr. Davis hung a coffee pot sign over his door advertising “the best hot coffee around,” brewed from local spring water, beans from New Orleans, and molasses as a sweetener. The metro area of Hot Coffee boasts around 9,700 residents.