Wednesday, August 15, 2018

In Texas, Persons' Places a Thang

Downtown Fort Worth, one of my favorite Texas places, during an antique car show

Imagine being the first person to discover a place. 

Nobody reading this blog has discovered a geographic place.  Our planet is fully explored and mapped, often by successive waves of explorers, mariners, land surveyors, government agents, migrants, and indigenous tribespeople. 

Indeed, for most Europeans who emigrated to America, starting with the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who landed in Florida in 1513, the discoveries they chronicled weren't firsts for humankind.  They were discoveries for Europeans.  Indeed, our continent was already inhabited - albeit sparsely - by other people groups.  We forget that before Europeans arrived, with written languages (and financial sponsors back in the Old Country who expected the explorations they were funding to be fully documented), the people we consider indigenous to the United States already had discovered many of the places the white-faced settlers claimed.

Unfortunately for the Native Americans, however, their experiences didn't count back then, and while a lot of their names for places remain with us to this day, history is written by the victors.  Which means white folks ended up taking credit for finding - and naming - most of the places where we live.

Because when you discover someplace, one of the first things you do is name it, right?

I'm not white-bashing here; I'm just pointing out that a lot of people have gone to a lot of places before us, and historically, politically, and socially, a lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge of exploration.  A place is really only ever "discovered" once, but other people can lay claim to discovering that place if prior discoveries aren't sufficiently established.

Which brings me to present-day Texas, where I live, and which is home to one of the most diverse geographies of any state in America. We have lush tropical-like beaches lining the Gulf of Mexico, dense pine forests in the Piney Woods of east Texas, plus vast expanses of average scrubland, flat prairies, and finally, before you get to New Mexico, the impressive Davis Mountains.

All these places were discovered over centuries of exploration and settlement by Native Americans, Mexicans, and Europeans. Some of the Native American and Mexican names have stuck, while many more places have been named by Europeans either trying to honor themselves, or someplace in their home country or culture.  Texas has particular regions dominated by Germans and Czechs, for example, so some names reflect that heritage.

After living in the Lone Star State all these years, I've made a discovery of my own - and it's the discovery of how charismatic the names of some of this state's places are.  Some seem downright Texan, as if they belong nowhere else but here.  Some seem to portray a characteristic of Texas, such as its tendency for boastfulness and flash, or rustic romance, or even how plain and unremarkable much of the state's topography can be.  Some are stereotypical Western, almost as if they were named by a Hollywood producer. 

Some, like Uncertain (in Harrison County), and Cut and Shoot (in Montgomery County) seem simply dumb.  Located in the far eastern side of Texas, Uncertain is on Caddo Lake, which is the only natural lake in the state.  It's a small town, numbering all of 94 people as of 2010.  Apparently, when settlers went to incorporate the place, they couldn't decide on a name, so they filled out the state paperwork with "uncertain" in the space for the town's name.  So when the state approved the town's charter... you can see how a lack of planning doesn't lead to much, considering the place never grew very much either.  Besides, it's only half a square mile in size, and a lot of that is water.

Cut and Shoot is officially one of the newest towns in Texas, incorporated in 1969 north of Houston.  But its history extends as far back as 1912, when two opposing religious factions in the area argued over access to a meeting house so fiercely that an 8-year-old boy reputedly wailed, "I'm scared!  I'm going to cut around the corner and shoot through the bushes in a minute!"

Mostly, however, these places have names that seem strangely pleasing to the ear, and maybe even to the mouth, while speaking it.  And you have to speak the names with a Texas accent, which - just so you know - tends to drawl a bit.  Whiteright, for example, was named for the New York City financier who purchased the land for it from a nearby railroad, but Texans don't say it the way the man's family back East would have said it.  "Whatt-raht," with only a brief touch of the t's, is the proper Texas way of saying it.

So, without further ado, see what you think about some of these favorites of mine:


Boerne - (Texans pronounce it "burn" - it's one of the German towns I mentioned)




Cotulla - (with a long U)


- (sounds like a fine name for the town of an oil tycoon, which it is - kinda.  The celebrated rancher WT Waggoner was drilling wells in scrubland near Wichita Falls, looking for water for his cattle.  Yet he's quoted as complaining that all his wells hit were oil, not water!  Electra was his daughter's name, but she never actually lived in the town.)




Freer - (pronounced with a Texas drawl as a one-syllable word, not "free-er")



Gun Barrel City




Levelland - (out in the middle of nowhere, west of Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle, where the "land" really is "level".  Texans pronounce it "LEV-ul-lan")

Loving - (somehow, I can't picture any town in New York State being named such a romantic word)






Montague - (Texans pronounce it "MON-taeg")




Ruidosa - (Texans pronounce it "Ree-ah-DO-sa")


Shiner - (home of a famous alcoholic beverage, and one of the Czech communities I mentioned)

Tom Bean - (named after a wealthy landowner, Thomas Bean, who obviously thought "Beanville" or "Beantown" weren't suitable for his legacy.  Texans pronounce it "tomBANE" with no space between first name and last name)


Van Alstyne

Vidor - (Texans pronounce it "VAH-der")



As a bonus, I'll also add the county name of Deaf Smith, located in the barrens of Texas' Panhandle.  The name honors Erastus Smith, whose nickname was "Deaf" because he partially was.  Older generations of Texans pronounced it "DEEF," but not anymore.  "Deaf" Smith was born in New York State, but eventually found his way to Texas, serving as a soldier in the Texas Revolution, and one of the first Anglos to reach the Alamo after it fell to the Mexicans.  "Deaf" himself was not racist, marrying a Hispanic woman despite the political disputes between Texas and Mexicans at the time.  One of "Deaf's" daughters also married a free black man, who served with him in the Texas Revolution.

Purty inneresting, ain't it?  Considerin' all the sociopolitical rancor we like to mess with these days.