Tuesday, August 12, 2014

TOPONYMY IS A TRIP

photo by Lynn Carlson
post by Lynn

Toponymy is the study of place names. A toponymist is someone who studies the science and origins of place-names. If all that sounds dry as sawdust to you, I beg to differ.

Because of one little book, I find toponymy fascinating and full of things to think and write about.



“The romance of Wyoming is included in the names of its rivers and mountains, in the titles of its cities and counties…”


So says Mae Urbanek in the preface of her book, Wyoming Place Names (copyright 1967). 

Mae wrote many books (poetry, fiction and what she calls “historical prose”) at her ranch in my home county of Niobrara. She died in 1995. When I was growing up, I’d hear my father talk about Mae but I always misunderstood the name. I thought he was saying “Mayor Banek” and so I had the notion that this person ran the town of Lusk. But I digress…

Wyoming Place Names is a book I sit with often. It has a simple format: place names, in alphabetical order, followed by the county and whatever Mae could dig up on the origin of the name. She threw in stories attached to the place, too, when she found them.

There’s history in those names, to be sure, but much, much more. There’s…

MYSTERY: Bad Medicine Butte. Fremont. Named by Shoshone Indians because of the unexplained death of one of their scouts who climbed the butte to scan for enemies. They found him there, dead, with his face on his folded arms. 

POETRY: Ishawooa Mesa, in Park County. A Shoshone name meaning “lying warm.” (Can’t you just imagine someone stretched out on the mesa in, say, April, letting the wind pass over, sponging up sun and naming this place by how it made them feel after a long Wyoming winter?)

DISCOURAGEMENT: Fourlog Park, Albany. A prospector started a cabin here in the 1870’s, and quit after he had laid up four logs. 

TRAGEDY: Meadow Creek, Natrona. Homesteaders of 1890s thought this a beautiful meadow in which to live. When a big flood in August 1895 struck the tents in which the people lived, they hurried to grab quilts, and get to higher ground. Mrs. Nuby and her three children drowned. Their bodies were caught in piles of driftwood. 

LONGING: Bosom Peak, Fremont. Named for its resemblance to the female figure when seen from Dinwoody area. (No doubt some guy had gone for a very long time without female companionship!)

HUMOR: Drizzlepuss, Teton. A pinnacle where it always seems to rain or hail when a climbing party is taken there by Exum Mountaineering School. 

REVENGE: Dead Man Creek, Albany/Carbon. Named about 1868, when the body of Jack Hockins was found buried in the gravel of creek bed. Hockins had assaulted and killed a girl in the east. His body was found after the brother of the dead girl learned where Hockins lived on this ranch.

Some place names have stories attached to them that smack of a certain WYOMINGNESS: Big Warm Springs Creek, Fremont County. When President Chester A. Arthur, with a military guard… traveled this valley in 1883, they tried to camp on Clark’s place near the mouth of DuNoir creek. Clark ordered them off. General Sheridan called him down saying, “This is the President of the United States.” Clark answered, “I don’t care what he is president of, he’s camping on my property without permission. I want him off.” Camp was moved.

Or a YEAH, WHATEVER attitude: Dutch Creek, Sheridan. First called Hungarian Creek for a Hungarian who homesteaded there. Word was too long for settlers who shortened it to “Dutch.”

Photo by Lynn Carlson
Wyoming Place Names is full of barely-hinted-at tales and half-forgotten voices… so many stories it makes me itch. I’m always reading them out loud to my husband, “Hey, Mike, listen to this…”

Saying that I am a toponymist who studies these place names is a stretch. It’s more like I use them to catapult my imagination into new territory. Sometimes they serve as writing prompts (see below) that lead me into the thicket of story.

So, thanks, Mae Urbanek. I’m grateful you weren’t the mayor of Lusk and had the time and inclination to gather all this information so I could go tripping through the toponymy of our Wyoming. I bet you never suspected that your book would live on to feed my imagination so generously.


Note: Words in italics were taken from Wyoming Place Names, by Mae Urbanek.


Here are two writing prompts inspired by Wyoming Place Names: 

Cache Mountain, Yellowstone Park. Takes the name from creek where Indians surprised prospectors, and stole their horses, except two mules; men had to “cache” what mules could not pack. 

Write a scene where three of the prospectors return to dig up the cache. What do they find?

~~~ 

Nightcap Bay, Teton. A small bay in Jackson Lake named by John D. Sargent, pioneer of 1887: brilliant and erratic, he claimed the bay was visited by an apparition—a man in a boat which appeared at midnight on a certain night each year. 

It’s 2014. You discovered some old journals that reportedly were written by Sargent. One enigmatic entry says “Jackson Lake: October 13, 12:01 am. Three years in a row.” Your friend makes you a $100 bet that no ghost will appear. You take it. You and your friend push the boat away from shore at 11:30 pm on October 12th. What happens?


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