Thursday, February 9, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 2.

Conjuring spirits

On a bright morning in a coffee shop I silently pronounced the names on my map, trying to conjure up the spirits who dwelt in those wonderfully-named little towns to stand and unfold themselves.

There were good 19th Century names.  The French emperor, to whose wars we were happily only spectator, was given not only his namesake of Bonaparte, but his victory at Marengo and his defeat at Waterloo.  Our own Civil War gave us Lincoln and Grant and Harper’s Ferry, all loyally Northern.

There were Indian names.  There is Wapello and Keokuk, Osage and Osceola and Ottumwa.  It wasn’t that long ago that this was Indian land.  The town of Agency was an Indian Agency post in the early 1840s.

There are stories behind the names.  Wapello was a chief of the Fox, second in command to Chief Keokuk of the Sac and Fox Confederation.  The tribes had been pushed west and had fought the Americans in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Young Abraham Lincoln had fought in that war, a captain in the Illinois militia.  After the war the Sac and Fox had been pushed out of Illinois.  Wapello and Keokuk had argued for peace with the white men, against Black Hawk’s counsel of war.  But peace did not save them and after a treaty in 1842, they were removed to a reservation in Kansas.  Iowa is not Indian land anymore.

Names remain.  Ottumwa was originally an Indian village called Ottumwanoc.  According to one tradition, the name means “swift water” or “tumbling waters”, as there are rapids there.  Another interpretation is “place of the departed”.  Other versions interpret the name to mean “one or a small number of persons who live alone by themselves” or “a place of hermits” or “a place of perseverance or self will”.  The early white settlers called it Louisville, but, in 1845, changed it to Ottumwa.  Etymologies like that make you wonder how well the white men ever understood the Indians.

Wapello is also the name of a county which saw, in 1881, the Great Wapello County Gold Rush.  In that year, Mr. O.J. Briscoe announced that he had found gold on his property at Bear Creek.  He built a mill and would from time to time show off nuggets he said he had found.  Briscoe and his associates owned a good deal of land around the discovery site and were not averse to allowing others to share in their good fortune, selling off land for as much as $500 an acre.  After a while it was noticed that no one else was finding any gold.  Mr. Briscoe, now a prosperous man, moved west and was not heard of again.

Even apparently straightforward names have their story.  Centerville, which is not really in the center of anything, began life as Chaldea.  Perhaps displeased by its pagan associations, the Rev. William S. Manson prevailed upon the townsfolk to change the name to Senterville, in honor of a politician from Tennessee.  When their petition to change the name reached the state capital someone apparently thought the unschooled settlers had misspelled the name and corrected it to Centerville.  Trying to rescue some distinction, the residents persisted for many years in spelling the name Centreville, but eventually relented.  Simon Estes, the opera singer, is from Centerville.

Mystic began life as Mistake, which is what the original settlers thought they had made in coming to Iowa.  Some years later, when the railroad came through and built a station, the train people misunderstood the name and called it Mystic.  By this time the residents had made peace with the place and the name stuck.

                                                                       *  *  *

There are small towns that have been touched by fame.  Ollie was the home town of O.C. Bottger, the famous trap shooter, who defeated Annie Oakley in a shooting match in 1903.  Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow visited Cincinnati, in Appanoose County.  In those days, darting across a state line was a practical way of shaking off pursuing lawmen.  One might suspect that Bonnie and Clyde had recently withdrawn some money from a Missouri bank.  Bonnie went into Herman Elledge’s dry goods store and bought a pair of overalls.  She put them on in the back room.

Sometimes it’s just as interesting not to know about a name.  How did there come to be a Cincinnati here?  Did settlers moving west remember passing a prosperous city on the banks of the Ohio and hope for as much for their new town, here far removed from any river, hard on the dry Missouri line.  Or were they thinking of the society of Washington’s veterans from the great war that their fathers or grandfathers might have fought in?  Or were they remembering the Roman original, the citizen-farmer called away from his plow to save his country?  Being ignorant of the truth, I could have all these meanings milling around in my mind while Bonnie Parker put on her new overalls in the back room of Herman Elledge’s dry goods store.  Somehow, I had never pictured Bonnie Parker in overalls.

I was wrong, I realized, about the circuit board map, though it wasn’t the roads but the names that brought it to life, hyperlinks to the invisible, parallel existence of the past; portals to we time travelers.

(to be continued . . .)

1 comment:

  1. Great stories here. Who'd name a town "Mistake"? There is a town in NC named "Whynot" and supposedly that was the word most often hear when they had a meeting to come up with the town's name. Why not this, why not that...

    Ottumwa is also the hometown of Radar on the TV show, Mash. It is interesting how the writers of that show gave their characters "hometowns" that we never saw, but came to know through them.