Just a few centuries ago, San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena, Los Angeles was Porciúncula, and Philadelphia was Shackamaxon. There are often fascinating stories attached to the origins of American city names. If it were not for a translator’s error, Buffalo would have a markedly different name today. Cleveland got its name when a local newspaper shortened the original one to fit on a page. Meanwhile, the name of Portland was determined by three coin tosses.
Do you know what Native Americans have in common with the railroad? Both were instrumental in the creation of many cities.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, much of what is now the USA belonged to Spain, France, and England, with about 560 Native American tribes living throughout the country. Wars often broke out between European colonizers and the Native peoples. One side pushed the other out of their territory while the other raided settlements, including civilians.
The colonizers’ armies built forts where ordinary people and the army coexisted. As these forts grew, they eventually transformed into conventional cities once peacetime arrived. Then came the 1860s.
One gold rush followed another, and on September 6, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad from Omaha to the San Francisco Bay Area began operations. Stops were established at prosperous farms, significant settlements, and mines.
This attracted new residents to these areas. Their numbers grew rapidly until new towns were founded, often with their names decided by the railway company.
How Town Names in America Came to Be
← Atlanta train station in 1864, by George N. Barnard (1819-1902).
→ City of Atlanta sometime between 1861 and 1865, author unknown.
Atlanta – Terminus
The origin of Atlanta is closely tied to the railroad. After 1836, a decision was made to build a railroad connecting Georgia’s oldest city to Savannah in the Midwest.
Following the first phase of construction, the line began in Chattanooga and ended near the Chattahoochee River, where it would later connect with the railroad to Savannah.About a year after completion, the first residents started to settle at the line’s end. The site was named Terminus, which is Latin for “end.” By 1842, there were only 30 residents, but the number grew rapidly. On December 29, 1847, the town’s citizens approved a name change suggested by the engineer of the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company. The original intended name, Atlantica-Pacifica, was deemed too long and didn’t pass the vote; the shorter Atlanta did.
A view of West Austin from the Texas Capitol. The photograph was taken by Charles B. Wheelock sometime between 1887 and 1894.
Austin – Waterloo
The earliest surviving record of Austin dates back to the 1830s, when a group of Anglo-American settlers arrived in Texas. In 1837, they founded the settlement of Waterloo on the banks of the Colorado River.
In 1839, the Texas Congress turned Waterloo into a city and soon renamed it Austin in honor of Stephen F. Austin, who brokered a treaty with local Native American tribes defining the boundaries.
After much wrangling, Austin became the capital of Texas on February 19, 1846. At the time, the population was only in the hundreds, and Austin did not reach a population of 10,000 until just before 1880.
Birmingham, Alabama circa 1885, by Wellge Norris & Co.
Birmingham – Elyton / Ely’s Town
Birmingham, with a population of 212,000, is the most populous city in Alabama. Its history begins on December 20, 1820, when the City of Elyton was founded at what is now the intersection of Cotton Avenue and 7th Street Southwest. William Ely, a land agent from Connecticut, helped negotiate a gift of 160 acres of land from the federal government, and the town was named in his honor.
Between 1821 and 1871, Elyton served as the county seat of Jefferson County. In 1911, Elyton was absorbed by the rapidly developing Birmingham, which benefited from low commercial real estate prices.
↑ Subway entrance on Boston’s Park Street circa 1905, photo courtesy of the Rotograph Company of New York.
↓ Copley Square in Boston circa the same year, photo courtesy of the Rotograph Company of New York.
Boston – Trimountaine
The first European settlers arrived in what is now Massachusetts around 1630. They named their first settlement Trimountaine, referring to the trio of mountains in the area. They soon changed the name to Boston, inspired by the English town of the same name, where several of the first colonizers hailed from.
In 1635, the first public school in America was established in Boston. Over the next hundred years, the city was entangled in the French and Indian Wars as well as the slave trade.
Over the following 250 years, the size of Boston tripled. While in 1722, Boston had a population of 10,567, by 1820, it had grown to 43,298, and a century later, the population reached 748,060.
Buffalo River between 1900 and 1915, photo first published by Detroit Publishing Co.
Buffalo – Beaver Creek
Buffalo is located in the state of New York, in close proximity to Niagara Falls. The first mention of settlement dates back to 1789, when former slave Joseph “Black Joe” Hodge and trader Cornelius Winney built a wooden shack to facilitate trade with local Native Americans. The area was known as Beaver Creek due to its abundance of beavers.
Beaver pelts were the most desirable commodity in the market, leading to one theory behind the origin of the town’s name. A translator from the Native American language supposedly confused beaver for buffalo. The area was purchased by the Dutch in the early 19th century, and a new settlement was established in 1801. Buffalo was officially recognized as a city in 1832 when it had a population of about ten thousand.
← Elm Street in Cincinnati between 1900 and 1910.
→ Fourth Street in Cincinnati during the same period. The rights to the photographs belong to Detroit Publishing Co.
Cincinnati – Losantiville
The city of Cincinnati in Ohio was founded by descendants of immigrants from Europe in 1788. One of the founders, John Filson, named it Losantiville, a compound of the Latin word os (mouth), the Greek anti (opposite), and the French word ville (town). Losantiville lay opposite the mouth of the Licking River.
In 1790, the governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, renamed the settlement Cincinnati in honor of the Society of the Cincinnati War Veterans, of which he was a member.
Assembly line at the Chandler Motors Corporation automobile factory at 300 East 131st Street. Today, only the torso of the building can be found on the site. The early 20th century images were taken by the Cleveland Press.
Cleveland – Cleaveland
The city’s history began on July 22, 1796, when explorers from the Connecticut Land Company established several towns on the Western Reserve (now the state of Ohio). The main one was named Cleaveland after its leader, Moses Cleaveland, and the town was officially incorporated on December 23, 1814.
The first citizen of Cleaveland was Lorenzo Carter, who built a cottage on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.
The renaming to Cleveland occurred in 1831 in a rather curious manner. The change was pushed through by the local newspaper, The Cleveland Advertiser, which itself dropped one letter to make the name fit the width of the page. The paper ceased publication in 1837, but Cleveland still exists today.
← Colorado Springs sometime between 1900 and 1910. The photograph is credited to the Detroit Publishing Co.
→ Antler’s Hotel and Pike’s Peak Avenue circa 1908.
Colorado Springs – Little London
The area of present-day Colorado Springs was first inhabited by the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne Indians. They lost some of their land in 1803 when the United States bought it from the French.
The first permanent residents appeared in Colorado Springs around the mid-19th century, with more significant growth coming with the Pike’s Peak gold rush.
Colorado Springs got its name from the three mineral springs around the town, although settlers and tourists from England mostly called it Little London. The name was primarily lobbied for by financier William Abraham Bell, who provided the capital to bring the railroad to Colorado Springs.
The Capitol Building in Columbus, Ohio Circa 1860.
Columbus – Franklinton
Columbus, the capital and, with a population of 850,000, the largest city in the state of Ohio, has a history that began in the 18th century, when the French and the fur trade dominated the region.
Periodic wars were frequent, and conflicts did not end even after the American Revolution. Only after the 1795 Treaty of Greenville did peace and the opportunity for settlement arise.
In 1797, a young surveyor named Lucas Sullivant established a settlement on the west bank of the confluence of the Scioto River and the Olentangy River. An admirer of President Benjamin Franklin, he named the new settlement Franklinton. Unfortunately, a flood destroyed the settlement just two years later.
Within a few years, however, the village was rebuilt and a new town was established nearby on February 14, 1812. Named Columbus after the discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus, the town grew rapidly and absorbed the declining Franklinton by 1837.
A Streetcar in Denver Circa 1895.
Denver – Montana City
In the summer of 1858, the gold rush was at its peak in the Pikes Peak region of the Rocky Mountains. A group of Kansas gold miners established a settlement on the banks of the South Platte River, named Montana City. However, its fame was short-lived. After only a year, its residents abandoned it, moving mostly to the towns of Auraria and St. Charles City.
Around the same time, land speculator and later Senator William Larimer Jr. founded the town of Denver on the site of the abandoned Montana City, near the settlements of Auraria and St. Charles City.
Larimer was strategic, choosing the name Denver in honor of Kansas Governor James W. Denver. He anticipated Denver would become the county seat of Arapaho County. His plan did not come to fruition, and Governor Denver subsequently resigned from office.
The City of Des Moines, Iowa Circa 1914.
Des Moines – Fort Raccoon
The history of Des Moines, the most populous city in Iowa, dates back to May 1843 when Captain James Allen supervised the construction of a fort at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. The fort was intended to mark out the territory of the Sauk and Meskwaki Indian tribes, who had been relocated to the area by the government.
While Captain Allen favored the name Fort Raccoon, the USA War Department preferred the name Fort Des Moines. The fort itself was unsuccessful; the illegal whiskey trade flourished, and by 1846 the Indians had been relocated once again. On September 22, 1851, the town of Fort Des Moines was established on the site of the fort, and its name was shortened to the present-day Des Moines in 1857.
Detroit has Always Been Pulled by Industry. This 1914-1918 Photo Shows Female Welding Shop Employees at the Lincoln Motor Company.
Detroit – Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit
In 1701, Officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, along with 51 other Frenchmen, founded the settlement of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit. The fort was named after the Detroit River and Louis Phélypeaux, Count of Pontchartrain and French Minister of the Navy during the reign of Louis XIV.
The French government granted the land free of charge to attract settlers to what is now Michigan. This strategy worked. While Detroit had a population of only 800 in 1765, by 1778 it had increased to 2,144, making it the third largest city in the province of Quebec at the time.
The region’s prosperity was underpinned by the then thriving fur trade. The British took control of the city in 1760 and shortened its name to Detroit. The Americans acquired Detroit through the Jay Treaty of 1794, which also established the present-day border between the US and Canada.
A House of Unburned Brick in El Paso, with Mount Franklin in the Background. Also, a Mexican Church in El Paso. Both Images Circa 1907 Published by the Detroit Publishing Co.
El Paso – Franklin
El Paso, Texas, was established as early as 1680 as a temporary outpost of the Spanish government for the territory of New Mexico. It did not come under Texas administration until 1848, when El Paso was incorporated by the United States.
The following year, the Americans established Fort Bliss, a military base in the area. Around the same time, the settlement of Franklin began to develop further west, which eventually became the heart of present-day El Paso.
The city of El Paso was officially incorporated in 1873. At that time, its population was 87% Hispanic.
Armed Wells Fargo Express Co. employees transport $250,000 worth of gold cylinders from the Great Homestake Mine. The picture was taken in 1890 by John Grabill.
Fargo is a movie, a TV show, but most importantly, it’s the most populous city in North Dakota. It was founded in 1871, serving as a stopping point for steamboats on the Red River. Due to its convenient location, it was initially named Centralia.
The city’s growth was greatly spurred by the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which is credited to its director and also the founder of Wells Fargo Bank, William Fargo. The town was renamed in his honor on February 14, 1872.
A horse market in Nebraska circa 1914, copyrighted by Bee Publishing Co.
Florence: Cutler’s Park
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled near the confluence of the Missouri River and Platte River in August 1846 during their journey to the Rocky Mountains. About 2,500 Mormons did not stay long in Nebraska, leaving the settlement in December of that year. They left behind a monument and several buildings.
Resettlement occurred in 1854 at the initiative of settler James C. Mitchell. He repaired the original buildings and named the site Florence after his niece, Florence Kilbourn. Today, Florence is just one of the neighborhoods of Omaha’s 400,000 residents.
In the early 20th century, California was one of the world’s largest oil refiners. This image shows oil derricks near Fresno, as captured in 1910 by a photographer from the R. J. Waters Aerial Photograph Co.
Fresno: Fresno Station
Fresno was founded in 1872 by the Central Pacific Railroad, which was building a line from New Orleans to Los Angeles. It constructed a stop in the interior of California at what was then a flourishing wheat farm and named it Fresno Station.
Businesses soon sprang up near the station, and a new town was born. A significant portion of the immigrants were citizens from Millerton, a village often plagued by flooding from the nearby San Joaquin River.
Fresno was incorporated as a city in 1885, during a period of rapid population growth. Consider this: in 1880, the population was 1,112; 10 years later, it was 10,818.
Hartford: Fort Hoop
← In the early 20th century, young men made a living selling newspapers. They often worked from five or six o’clock in the morning…
→ …their shift ended around 9:30 p.m. The best customers were said to be the drunks from the saloons. Both photos were taken in Hartford in March 1909 by Hine Lewis Wickes.
Europeans first arrived in Connecticut in 1614 in an expedition led by Dutch merchant Adrian Block. They returned to America nine years later to open a branch of the Dutch West India Company.
On the south bank of the Park River, they built Fort Hoop, which housed Dutch soldiers, among others. The town of Hartford was built by the English after 1637 north of the fort, named after the English town of Hertford.
In the 19th century, Hartford greatly benefited from the Industrial Revolution; it was one of the wealthiest cities in the entire USA. Today, Hartford has a population of around 125,000 and is home to the prestigious Trinity College.
A winning 1896 design by architect George Richard Mann for a Montana state capitol building never came to fruition. The design competition was canceled after it was discovered that the committee deciding the winner intended to fraudulently take the money.
Helena: Last Chance
Helena is a town in Montana, standing on the foundations of the Last Chance settlement built during the Gold Rush around 1864. The original name didn’t last long. Later that year, a committee of seven self-proclaimed settlers met and first proposed the Indian name Tomah.
Because it was the day before Halloween, the meeting dropped the snide names Pumpkinville or Squashtown. The name Helena, referring to a small town in Minnesota, was suggested by John Summerville, a native Scot.
The Union Station train station in Charleston, South Carolina, sometime between 1910 and 1920. Photo courtesy of the Detroit Publishing Co.
Charleston, SC: Charles Town
The history of Charleston, South Carolina, began on March 24, 1663, when King Charles II of England established Charleston as the capital of South Carolina. Stuart (Charles II) granted eight loyal friends the province of Carolina. It took them a full seven years to arrive in the province with the first settlers from Bermuda.
The settlers founded Charles Town on the west bank of the Ashley River, naming it in honor of the English king. At that time, Charles Town was the first English town in America to have a government and precise plans for development. In 1719, there was a minor name change from Charles Town to Charleston.
It is worth noting the first half of the 18th century, when Charleston was one of the centers of the fur trade. Between 1739 and 1761, 2,376 tons of deer skins were exported from the city, equivalent to 0.5-1.25 million deer.
George Cox was a 13-year-old impoverished African-American who was able to attend an agricultural school thanks to a charitable foundation called the 4-H Club. The man in the foreground is his teacher. The photo was taken on October 10, 1921, by photographer Lewis Wickes Hine.
Charleston, WV: Fort Lee
Colonel and land dealer George Clendenin purchased 5 square miles of land near the mouth of the Elk River in 1786. He executed his plan the very next year when he and his company of Virginia Rangers began building the fort town of Fort Lee, named for Washington official and later governor of Virginia, General Henry Lee.
Fort Lee provided protection for white settlers from Indian raids. Over the years, the settlement grew into a town that was renamed Charles Town after Colonel Clendenin’s father. Later, the name was shortened to Charleston due to confusion with another town, Charles Town, in the eastern part of West Virginia.
In the early 19th century, the discovery of vast salt deposits aided the development of Charleston. In 1808, about 1,250 lb of salt were produced in the area each day. At that time, the salt mines could only dream of a railroad.
Hotel in the town of Chugwater north of Cheyenne, photo taken in the early 20th century.
Cheyenne: Crow Creek Crossing
Cheyenne is a city of roughly 60,000 in the state of Wyoming. Its history began on July 5, 1867, during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. General Grenville M. Dodge marked this spot as the intersection of the railroad and Crow Creek, which forms a tributary of the South Platte River.
The railroad at that time brought the prospect of prosperity to forgotten regions. The provisional name of Crow Creek Crossing was changed to honor the Cheyenne Indian tribe, and on November 13, 1867, the first train arrived in town. Within 20 years, the population had grown from the original population of about 1,450 to 11,690.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. The photograph was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Chicago: Fort Dearborn
The name Chicago is a French corruption of the word shikaakwa, which the Indians used to refer to wild triple-grained garlic. The first mention of settlement dates back to the 1890s. The Northwest Indian War had just ended and the area was turned over to the U.S. Army by the Indians.
Fort Dearborn was built on the site. Although it was destroyed during the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812, the army did not give up and later rebuilt it.
By 1833, about 200 people already lived in the area. On Saturday, March 4, 1837, the city of Chicago was officially founded. Its location made it an important transportation point and for decades it was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. By 1900, it already had a population of 1.7 million, a large portion of which were Czechs.
Battle of Jackson, Mississippi circa 1863, by Alfred Edward Mathews of the 31st Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Jackson, MS: LeFleur’s Bluff
Jackson was founded in 1821 after the General Assembly of Mississippi decided the state needed a centrally located capital. It didn’t meet the original requirement; Natchez sits on the border with Louisiana.
The search for a suitable location to build a new town was complicated by the swamps of central Mississippi, and eventually the Choctaw Indian tribe’s territory was chosen. The village of LeFleur’s Bluff, founded by French-Canadian trader Louis LeFleur, had been operating on the banks of the Pearl River for several years.
The name Jackson was chosen to honor General Andrew Jackson and his victorious Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. Jackson became the 7th President of the United States in 1829. The town of Jackson developed very slowly. In 1850, it had a population of 1,881, and only surpassed the 10,000 mark in the early 20th century.
The Windsor Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida between 1900 and 1910. Image courtesy of Detroit Publishing Co.
Jacksonville: Cow Ford
The area around Jacksonville was first settled by Europeans in 1564 when French colonizer René Goulaine de Laudonnière began building Fort Caroline. Just a year later, the fort fell into Spanish hands and was renamed San Mateo.
In 1763, the Spanish ceded Florida to the British, who subsequently built a road from St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast to Georgia. They named the area Cow Ford and controlled it until 1783. At that time, the Spanish regained control of it for the next 38 years.
Jacksonville began to take shape in 1791, although it didn’t truly start to develop until Florida was taken over by the United States 30 years later. Named after President Andrew Jackson, the city received its official charter on February 9, 1832.
← Kansas City’s business district circa 1915.
→ Kansas City’s Great Market circa 1890.
Kansas City: Westport
The settlement of Westport was founded by Reverend Isaac McCoy and his family in 1831, approximately 5 miles south of present-day downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The city wasn’t formally incorporated until February 1857. The Reverend’s son, John Calvin McCoy, along with other citizens, purchased land under the Town of Kansas Company and began to build a new town.
While Westport was relatively undeveloped, neighboring Kansas City was rapidly gaining population. In 1860 there were only 4,418 residents, by 1870 there were 32,260, and ten years later there were 55,785. Westport was annexed to Kansas City in 1897 and is now one of its neighborhoods.
← O Street in Lincoln circa 1901,
→ Lincoln during World War I between 1917 and 1919.
Lincoln was founded in 1856 as the village of Lancaster on a site where people had mined salt for centuries. The name didn’t last long. The very next year it was renamed in honor of Abraham Lincoln and became the capital of Nebraska.
In 1868, the capitol building was authorized and subsequently, on April 1, 1869, Lincoln was officially designated as a city.
In the early 1870s, the railroad arrived in Lincoln and the population grew from just 2,441 to 55,164 in 1890.
Main Street in Little Rock, Arkansas sometime between 1900 and 1920, image courtesy of Detroit Publishing Co.
Little Rock: La Petite Roche
Little Rock, the largest city in Arkansas, began to develop in 1722, when French explorer Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe co-founded a market town near the Quapaw Indians’ territory.
He named it La Petite Roche, French for “the little stone.” The name was chosen due to a stone jutting out of the Arkansas River that served as a landmark for the nomads.
In the early 19th century, Arkansas came under American control, who renamed it Little Rock and made it the capital of the Arkansas Territory in 1819. Interestingly, Little Rock was not officially recognized as a city until 1831.
Shore patrol on the beaches of Los Angeles between 1915 and 1920. Photo courtesy of Bain News Service.
Los Angeles: Porciúncula
The area around Los Angeles was discovered in the 16th century, but it wasn’t first settled until September 4, 1781. A group of 44 settlers known as the Los Angeles Pobladores founded a settlement with the lengthy name of “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula.”
Translated into English: the town of our Lady, Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula. The Queen of the Angels was the Virgin Mary, the Porciúncula was the chapel.
By 1820, the population had grown to 650. A year later, Mexico gained independence from New Spain, and the settlement quickly became the capital of Alta California. Los Angeles joined the United States on February 2, 1848. Subsequently, the railroad arrived in California, and by the early 20th century, Los Angeles had become the world’s largest oil producer.
← Louisville City Hall building sometime in 1906. The photograph is credited to the Detroit Publishing Co.
→ The excursion steamer Island Queen on the Ohio River between 1890 and 1910.
Louisville, Kentucky: Corn Island
Corn Island was discovered in 1773 by a group led by colonizer Thomas Bullitt. The fertile land wasn’t settled until five years later, when a group of soldiers and about sixty civilians settled there during the American Revolutionary War.
The settlers farmed for a living, which is how the place acquired the name Corn Island. In 1780, the government decided to establish a new town adjacent to Corn Island. It was named Louisville in honor of the French King Louis XVI.
Miami Beach Casino sometime in 1923. Note the almost hopelessly full parking lot.
Miami – Fort Dallas
The history of Miami dates back to the Seminole Wars in the 19th century. The U.S. Army seized part of Richard Fitzpatrick and William English’s plantation in 1836 and built the Fort Dallas base on the site. It was built not to fight Indians, but to deter potential enemies in the nearby sea.
The fort provided protection not only for the soldiers, but also for the population that was moving into the area around the Miami River. A road was built to Fort Lauderdale, a railroad to Jacksonville, and on July 28, 1896, Miami became a city. At the time, it had a population of 300; just 35 years later, it was 110,637.
Miami got its name from the nearby Miami River. It takes its name from the ancient Mayaimi Indian tribe. The same name was once given to nearby Lake Okeechobee.
Minneapolis train station circa 1895, taken by photographer Burt Levy.
Minneapolis – Fort Saint Anthony
The area near the Great Lakes was inhabited by Dakota Indians as early as the 17th century. Around 1680, the French began exploring the area, displacing the Indians and taking control of the area and the lucrative fur trade.
In the early 19th century, Americans took over the territory from the French and built Fort Saint Anthony, later known as Fort Snelling, in 1819. The fort provided protection for merchants, traders and ordinary citizens, and the population grew.
In 1855, Saint Anthony had a population of 3,000 and was declared a city. A year earlier, construction of dwellings had also begun on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Thanks to founder John H. Stevens, the building was organized, and the new city was legally incorporated in 1867 and named Minneapolis.
Today, with 410,939 residents, Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota.
Street Government Street in Mobile, Alabama sometime between 1900 and 1915. Photo courtesy of Detroit Publishing Co.
Mobile – Fort Louis de la Louisiane
French colonizers were behind the birth of Mobile when they built Fort Louis de la Louisiane on the banks of the Mobile River in 1702. Residents simplified the long name to La Mobile. The territory then belonged to the French, and the fort was intended to provide easier surveillance of the area.
The fort’s population fluctuated between 178 and 279, depending on how the slave trade was doing and how Louisiana was plagued by waves of disease.In 1813, Mobile fell to the Americans and was officially recognized as a city on January 20, 1814. Three years later, a boundary change occurred and Mobile became part of the state of Alabama, where it remains today.
The Nashville Railroad Depot in 1864, in the background you can see the Tennessee State Capitol building. The picture was taken by George Barnard.
Nashville – Fort Nashborough
Nashville was founded in by explorers James Robertson and John Donelson outside the palisade of Fort Nashborough. It protected the settlers from wild animals and Indian raids. Hiding about 20 wooden dwellings, it was named for American Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash.
The population grew rapidly, Nashville benefited from its advantageous location on the banks of the Cumberland River. After the opening of the port and railroad, it became a major transportation crossroads, and in 1806 Nashville was officially incorporated as a city.
At the time, Nashville had a population of about 345, less than half of whom were African American slaves. Today, Nashville is best known as America’s center of country music.
← Canal Street in New Orleans was the widest street in the world at the time this photo was taken in 1850.
→ Sugarcane was one of the most important agricultural crops in Louisiana. In this 1902 image, they are preparing to load the commodity onto a steamboat.
New Orleans – La Nouvelle-Orléans
The city of New Orleans was founded on May 7, 1718 by the Mississippi Company, which managed property in the French colonies in North America. The area of Louisiana belonged to the French with a brief hiatus until 1803, hence the city’s first honorific French name, La Nouvelle-Orléans.
The name was chosen in honour of Philip II. The name was chosen for the title of Pierre de Orléans, who ruled France at the time. Louisiana was then inhabited by the Chitimacha Indians, and New Orleans eventually became one of the centers of the slave trade.
In the early 19th century, slaves made up approximately 90% of the population of New Orleans. Their numbers grew significantly, with the city surpassing the 100,000 mark before 1840, and by 1900, 287,104 people lived in New Orleans.
← Broadway and the Times building in Times Square, New York City, 1903-1910.
→ The entrance to New York City’s City Hall subway station circa 1904. Both photographs are from the Detroit Publishing Co.
New York: From New Amsterdam
New York was built upon the Dutch colonial city of New Amsterdam. It was established in 1625, just outside the protective walls of Fort Amsterdam, which served as a defense for the fur trade around the Hudson River. At the time, the area was ruled by the Dutch, and that same year, New Amsterdam was designated the capital of the entire province.
The city was renamed New York on September 8, 1664, in honor of the Duke of York, who later became James II of England.
← Oakland train station circa 1870, photo taken by Thomas Houseworth of San Francisco.
→ On November 8, 1869, the first transcontinental train had just arrived in Oakland.
Oakland: From Encinal
The first mention of Oakland dates back to 1772 when the territory, along with the rest of California, was under Spanish rule. A dense oak forest characterized the area, which was thus named Encinal, Spanish for “oak grove”.
Significant development didn’t arrive until 1851 when three developers, Horace Carpentier, Edson Adams, and Andrew Moon, started construction. On May 4, 1852, they successfully incorporated the city of Oakland. With California under American control for a few years already, they simply translated the original Spanish name into English.
The population, particularly during the 1860s and 1870s, grew rapidly. The railroad played a significant role in this growth, and Oakland became one of the major transportation crossroads in the western USA.
←The Old London Café at the intersection of Market Street and Front Street in Philadelphia in 1854.
→ Labor unionist Mary Harris Jones went on strike with textile workers in 1903 to draw attention to the dire state of the American economy.
Philadelphia: From Shackamaxon
The land between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers was first inhabited by members of the Lenape Indian tribe. In what is now Philadelphia, there was an important site named Shackamaxon, where they appointed their chiefs under a majestic elm tree.
British politician and merchant William Penn founded Philadelphia, the capital of the English Royal Province of Pennsylvania, on the same site on October 27, 1682. He had received the land from Charles II Stuart in settlement of a debt owed by the English king to Penn’s father, and he is said to have made a treaty with the Indians under the sacred tree.
By the early 18th century, Philadelphia had become an important commercial center and transportation hub. In 1683, it had only a few hundred inhabitants; by 1701, it was over 2,500. By 1889, the population had surpassed the one million mark.
In 1923, workers built the Mormon Flat Dam on the Salt River east of Phoenix. The author of both photos is unknown; the 68-foot-high dam was completed in 1925.
Phoenix: From Stonewall
The history of Phoenix is closely linked with American Civil War veteran Jack Swilling. In 1867, he traveled across the countryside and saw potential for farming in the Salt River Valley. That same year, he established a small settlement six miles east of what is now downtown Phoenix.
The name Phoenix was proposed by Lord Darrell Duppa, one of the original settlers. The name symbolized the city that rose from the ashes of civilizations that had inhabited the area in Arizona for centuries. Jack Swilling disagreed, preferring to name the town Stonewall after Civil War General Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Others suggested Salina, after the Salt River, or Pumpkinville, referring to the pumpkins that grew wild in the area.
Liberty Avenue street in Pittsburgh, 1899.
Pittsburgh: From Pittsborough
The village of Pittsborough was established in 1758 shortly after the construction of Fort Pitt. John Forbes, a British army officer, was tasked with building the fort and was given the privilege of suggesting the name of the settlement.
Pittsborough was selected to honor William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham, who led Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War. The population of Pittsborough grew despite frequent wars, rebellions, and the American Revolution.
The change from Pittsborough to Pittsburgh occurred on March 18, 1816, when the village was incorporated as a city. It was due to a typographical error in the official documents, but the shortened name of Pittsburgh remained.
This image by an unknown photographer depicts Portland, Oregon, in 1927. Mount Hood is in the background.
Portland: Stumptown / The Clearing
After 1830, throngs of settlers headed to the Willamette Valley, usually following the Oregon Trail from distant Kansas. Within a decade or so, due to their efforts, wooden cottages began to sprout at the mouth of the Willamette River, forming a new settlement.
The settlers referred to the place as Stumptown or The Clearing, names reflecting the many freshly cut trees in the area. In 1843, settler William Overton saw the potential of the site and wanted to establish a village on it. However, he lacked the resources to purchase the land, so he partnered with pioneer and politician Asa Lovejoy.
In 1845, Overton sold his remaining interest to Francis Pettygrove. Subsequently, the new town was officially incorporated on February 8, 1851. Both founders wanted to rename The Clearing after their hometowns: Lovejoy after Boston, and Pettygrove after Portland, Maine. The new name was decided by three coin tosses, with the winner correctly guessing the coin’s side twice. Hence, there are now two cities in the USA named Portland.
The capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, sometime around 1909. The Haines Photo Co.
Raleigh is a city in North Carolina with a population of approximately 450,000. Its history dates back to the late 1770s and early 1781, when the North Carolina General Assembly resolved to create a new county. Formed from parts of Cumberland, Orange, and Johnston counties, Bloomsbury became the first county seat.
In 1788, it was decided to relocate the town further inland, where it would be better protected from coastal attacks. Thus, in 1792, the town of Raleigh was formed, named after Sir Walter Raleigh, the founder of the nearby colony of Roanoke.
↑ Corner of St. Joe Street and 7th Street in Rapid City, circa 1909.
↓ Corner of Main Street and 6th Street during the same period in the city. Edward McNamara claims authorship of both photographs.
Rapid City: Hay Camp
In 1874, the USA Army’s Black Hills Expedition discovered rich gold deposits in the area of South Dakota, triggering a gold rush and significant population growth. The Hay Camp settlement was founded in 1876 by a group of gold miners who promoted the new town as the gateway to the Black Hills. Rapid City was named after the Rapid Creek that flows through the area.
The founders were serious about building a new town. They carefully surveyed the land, laid out a business district, and began selling supplies to gold prospectors. The next significant population increase occurred in the late 19th century when the railroad was extended to Rapid City from the south and east.
Casinos were already thriving in Nevada around 1910, as evidenced by a photo from the Louvre establishment. Note that there is not a single woman in the photo.
Reno: Lake’s Crossing
Reno is a city in the state of Nevada, with an estimated population of 241,000 in 2015.
When gold deposits were discovered near Virginia City in 1850, a small community of gold miners formed locally. The real rush, however, occurred nine years later when silver deposits were found beneath the eastern slope of Mount Davidson.
The area began to develop rapidly, and within a few years, a mill, a hotel, and a diner had been established. The site, named Lake’s Crossing by developer Myron C. Lake, was set to be intersected by the Central Pacific Railroad in January 1863. Sensing an opportunity, Lake donated land to the railroad in exchange for a promise to build a station at the location.
Railroad companies often determined the names of newly founded towns at that time. The promised station was built, and the city of Reno was officially incorporated on May 9, 1868. Charles Crocker, a director of the railroad company, named the city after war veteran Jesse L. Reno, who fought for the North during the American Civil War.
← Union artillery is preparing to move further north. This image was taken in 1865 by the Taylor & Huntington studio.
→ A railroad depot in Richmond in 1865, more than 700 buildings were damaged during an attack by Confederate soldiers.
Richmond: Fort Charles
The first English-speaking settlers arrived in what is now Virginia in April 1607. They frequently clashed with the indigenous Powhatan Indians, which led to the establishment of Fort Charles and Fort Henry in 1645.
A peace treaty in the mid-17th century ended the conflicts. In 1737, more substantial settlement began when planter William Byrd II commissioned the native English builder William Mayo to design a plan for a new town. Byrd named it Richmond after the borough of the same name in London. The view from the James River reminded him of the view of the Thames he had seen as a child in Richmond Hill, England.
Construction of the town progressed rapidly, with the first residents moving into Richmond in April of that year. Richmond was officially recognized as a city in 1742.
Sacramento’s M Street in the summer of 1934, photographer unknown.
Sacramento: New Helvetia
In August 1839, Swiss missionary John Sutter arrived in Upper California, then part of Mexico, and, along with other immigrants from Europe, established a settlement. He named it after his homeland – New Helvetia, translated as New Switzerland. Shortly afterward, a gold rush occurred in the area, and John Sutter’s son decided to build a new town about two miles south of New Helvetia.
The new town was named after the Sacramento River. While in 1850 it had a population of just under 7,000, by 2015, it was estimated to be just under half a million.
← Wabasha Street Bridge – the first bridge over the Mississippi River in the city of St. Paul. The photo was taken in 1867.
→ Cedar Street in St. Paul around 1908, you can see the capitol building in the background.
Saint Paul: Pig’s Eye
South Minnesota was inhabited by Sioux Indians from the early 17th century until 1837. With them, General Zebulon Pike negotiated the purchase of 405 square miles of land in 1805.
The land was divided by the Mississippi River, and the USA Army built the strategically located Fort Snelling on the land in 1819. Explorers, fur traders, and missionaries sought protection from Indian raids there.
In the 1840s, the illegal whiskey trade flourished at the fort to such an extent that the army drove settlers out of Fort Snelling. Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, a former fur trader, was one of the central figures in the whiskey trade. He dealt with his expulsion from the fort in his own way, establishing a new settlement around his Pig’s Eye Inn.
The settlement eventually became an important trading post and a popular retreat for settlers heading west. Between 1850 and 1900, the population grew from 1,112 to 163,065. In 1849, Saint Paul became the capital of Minnesota, although it did not officially become a city until March 4, 1854.
It is worth noting the strong community of Czech and Slovak immigrants who founded the Slovanská lipa literary society (1868-1879), the Sokol physical education union (1882), and the Czech-Slovak Supporting Society in St. Paul.
← April 24, 1898, Salt Lake City: the 24th Infantry leaves the city and heads toward Tennessee.
→ Main Street in Salt Lake City circa 1904, as captured by the photographer Underwood & Underwood.
Salt Lake City: Great Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City was founded by Mormons looking for a secluded and safe place to pursue spiritual development. They arrived in the valley on July 24, 1847, and just four days later proposed the site where they decided to build the Salt Lake Mormon Temple.
It took them 40 years to build, becoming one of the symbols of Salt Lake City and the largest Mormon temple in the world. Meanwhile, settlers were building the city itself, which was formally incorporated as Great Salt Lake City on January 6, 1851.
The city was initially a secluded community; the Mormon community kept to itself. It wasn’t until the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 that Salt Lake City began to open to the world. It became known globally in 2002 when Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics.
← Theodore Roosevelt (center) poses on horseback during the Spanish-American War. San Antonio, 1898
→ A wagon carries supplies of unbleached flour to the Army base at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The picture was taken sometime between 1911 and 1912.
San Antonio: Yanaguana
San Antonio in Texas was founded on June 13, 1691, when a group of Spanish Catholics arrived in the area. That day was the anniversary of the death of the Franciscan friar St. Anthony of Padua, so they named the place after him. It was not settled by the Spanish until 1718, and San Antonio did not become a city until June 5, 1837.
The valley along the San Antonio River provided good conditions for life, and so people resided there before the arrival of the Spaniards. Historically, the first records of settlement mention the Payaya Indian tribe. They called the area rich in river springs Yanaguana, translated as “refreshing waters”.
In San Antonio lies the 1744 Alamo Fort. In the spring of 1836, it was the site of the important Battle of the Alamo, which resulted in the secession of Texas from Mexico and its annexation by the Americans.
← San Francisco was struck by a devastating earthquake at 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, killing more than 3,000 people and destroying 80% of the city. 25,000 buildings in 490 city blocks fell, with a full 90% of the damage done by subsequent fires. The photo is of Sacramento Street, taken by Arnold Genthe.
→ The author of the second photo taken after the San Francisco earthquake is unknown, taken on Kearney Street, facing away from Telegraph Hill.
San Francisco: Yerba Buena
Yerba Buena is the name of a Spanish settlement that was founded around 1776 in what is now San Francisco. The name refers to the micromeria douglasii, a plant that is abundant in the Bay Area.
The city was renamed San Francisco on January 30, 1847, by order of Army Lieutenant Washington Allon Bartlett shortly after the territory was taken over by the Americans. Bartlett subsequently became the first mayor of San Francisco.
←The corner of Second Avenue and Yesler Way in Seattle in 1904.
→ Stores, doctors, and other establishments were located at Second Avenue and Marion Street in Seattle as early as July 1889.
Seattle – From Duwamps to Seattle
Seattle, a port city on the west coast of the USA, had a population of 684,451 in 2015. The history of Seattle began in September 1851, when a group led by Luther Collins settled on land at the mouth of the Duwamish River, establishing a farming community.
Just two months later, a group of American pioneers known as the Denny Party decided to spend the winter nearby. They initially settled in the Alki Point area, the westernmost part of present-day Seattle, and named it Duwamps, referring to the local Duwamish tribe.
In April, they relocated to what is now downtown Seattle and soon renamed the city Seattle, honoring Si’ahl, the chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes.
← 4th Street in Saint Louis circa 1903. No streetcars run there today.
→ The 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis introduced such popular items as ice cream cones, Dr. Pepper, and peanut butter.
St. Louis – From Cahokia to American Hands
St. Louis was founded in 1764 on the site of Cahokia, the largest Native American city between 600 and 1400 AD. Established by French fur traders Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, St. Louis was named after King Louis IX of France.
Between 1763 and 1800, the city was under Spanish rule, after which it returned to French control. It remained French until 1803 when the Americans acquired the entire Louisiana Territory, encompassing the lands of present-day states such as Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and portions of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Louisiana.
For this vast territory, the Americans paid 50 million francs, and also forgave an outstanding French debt of 18 million francs. In today’s value, this would be equivalent to approximately one billion dollars.
A photo from a cigar factory showing child labor – both boys and girls, who had to pay for permission to work. This photo was taken by Lewis Wickes Hine on January 28, 1909, in Tampa, Florida.
Tampa – From Fort Brooke to a Bustling City
The area at the mouth of the Hillsborough River was first settled between 1823 and 1824 when the USA Army established Fort Brooke military base. The USA had acquired Florida from the Spanish just four years prior, so the construction of infrastructure was a logical step.
The first civilian settlers lived near the fort for protection from the local Seminole tribe. In 1849, they founded the small village of Tampa, which had a population of just 974 in 1850. By 1880, the population had declined to as low as 720. However, things soon changed dramatically.
With the arrival of the railroad, the discovery of rich phosphate deposits, and the growth of the cigar trade, Tampa’s population soared from around 700 in 1880 to 101,161 by 1930.
The intersection of West Kennedy Street and West Seventeenth Street in Tucson circa 1890.
Tucson – San Augustín del Tucson
The official history of the city dates back to 1775 when Spanish soldiers established the fortified outpost of Presidio San Augustín del Tucson.
In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and Tucson came under the governance of the Mexican state of Occidente (now Sonora). The city was purchased by the Americans in 1853, who later built the transcontinental railroad. As was typical at the time, the railroad facilitated the city’s rapid growth. Between 1850 and 1880, the population grew from merely 400 to 7,007. Today, Tucson in New Mexico has a population of approximately 531,000.
This photo of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington was likely taken in 1921; the taller building on the left is the Ford Motor Company Building. Today, the Canadian Embassy stands on its site.
Washington D.C. – Alexandria/Georgetown
The decision to establish a new capital near the Potomac River was made on July 16, 1790. Under the USA Constitution, the Federal District is a distinct entity and is not part of any USA state. The land for Washington D.C. was jointly donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia, with the existing settlements of Alexandria and Georgetown being part of it.
Washington officially became the capital of the USA in 1791, named after the first President, George Washington.
During the Second American War of Independence on August 24-25, 1814, Washington was burned. The British army invaded the capital, causing significant damage to the Capitol, the White House, and the Treasury Department building. Most of the damaged structures were quickly repaired, with only the Capitol Building not completed until 1868.
← Children selling newspapers on the streets of Wilmington
→ 14-year-old Robert Reynolds earns a living by selling newspapers. He makes 50 cents a week. Both images were taken by Lewis Wickes Hine in May 1910.
Wilmington – Fort Christina
The area around Wilmington in Delaware was once the first to be colonized by the Swedes in America. The settlers, led by Peter Minuit, arrived in March 1638 and established Fort Christina on land purchased from the Indigenous people.
The fort served as the base for the small colony of New Sweden. In the 17th century, the English began to colonize Delaware, and in 1731, landowner Thomas Willing ordered the growing settlement to be renamed Willingtown. He did not enjoy the new name for long as, around 1739, King George II of England ordered a name change to the current name, Wilmington.