What’s in a name?

What is in a name? We have so many names in Indiana County that have unique origins and reasons for being named the way they were. There is a classification of place names devised by George R. Stewart (1895-1981) a professor of English and Berkley and a native of Indiana, PA. This classification places names into ten different categories: (1) Descriptive, (2) Associative, (3) Commemorative, (4) Commendatory, (5) Incident, (6) Possessive, (7) Manufactured, (8) Shift, (9) Folk etymology, and (10) Mistake.

The first category, Descriptive Names, is one of the most basic of place names, because they are identified by a perceived quality of the place. In Indiana County, most of the names within this category are applied to hydraulic features, describing color, appearance, size, or location. These names include Big Run, Straight Run, Crooked Run, Muddy Run, Tearing Run, Roaring Run, Rock Run, Twomile Run, East Run, Yellow Creek, and Little Yellow Creek.

Some descriptive names have originated with the Indians (Native Americans). Take for example Plum Creek coming from the Delaware “Sipuas-hanne” which translates to “plumb” (straight) water. Contrast with the Delaware “Woak-hanne” – Crooked Creek.

A few names come from the description of the cultural landscape. For example, Center Township was named due to its location near the center of the County. Centerville was named for its position on the Pennsylvania Canal between Johnstown and Blairsville, and North Point was named because of its situation along the county’s northern border. However it seems that the only adjectives that have been applied to Indiana County communities are those of location; as you notice there are not any towns named “Bigvilles” or “Yellowburgs.” Littletown in Brush Valley Township was not named for size but instead for a local farmer/landowner William Little.

The second category is Associative Names. When white settlers first came to what is now Indiana County, they inherited only a few names from the Indians. This is due to the fact that there were not many sedentary Indiana populations here, instead it was hunting and trading parties passing through. Therefore the only Indian names that survived were those of larger water courses. The Indian names that were used by associating it with some nearby familiar features. Salt deposits were such associative objects; resulting names were Mahoning Creek (where there is a lick), Two Lick Creek (Nischa-honi), and Blacklick Creek (Naeska-honi). Other places were linked to indigenous flora or fauna: Cowanshannock Creek (brier stream), Kiskiminetas (plenty of walnuts), and Conemaugh (otter).

As settlers began to arrive in Indiana County, they also associated places with nature. Certain relief features became known as Turkey Knob, Buck Hill, Chestnut Ridge, and Spruce Hollow. Water courses were named for plants (Brush Creek, Brush Run, Beech Run, Pine Run, Laurel Run), animals (Bear Run, Buck Run, Goose Run), minerals (Sulphur Run, Coal Run), and for nearby landmarks (Boiling Springs Run, Sugarcamp Run). Communities have also received associative names: Cherry Tree, Gas Center, Saltsburg, Locust, Oak Tree, Pine Flats, Pineton, Brush Valley, and Spruce. Place names are also associated with local landmarks, these places include: Five Points, near the junction of five roads (there are only four now); and Purchase Line, near the line of the same name described in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.

Indiana itself may be considered associative, based on the traditional story that the name comes from the area’s first inhabitants.

The third category is that of Commemorative Names. The purpose is for the place name to outlast the namer, these were oftentimes planners and leading citizens. In Indiana County were have Commemorative Names of four presidents – Washington (Township), Jackson(-ville), Taylor(-sville), and Grant (Township). Marion Center honors South Carolina’s Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox”’ of the American Revolution. The Pennsylvania Canal was instrumental into the vitality of the existence of early Blairsville, therefore the community thanked the Canal’s promoter, John Blair, by adopting his name. George Armstrong and George Clymer, both national figures, played important roles in the county’s early history, and are likewise commemorated by place names.

Presidents and generals are remembered in history books, but less important persons may end up being forgotten. So to preserve for posterity the memory of a noted local politician or businessman than by a commemorative place name. The place name evokes the memory of the man in local minds and once on a map, it guarantees a sort of world recognition.

Indiana County place names honor judges (Buffington, Burrell, Logan, White, Rayne), congressmen (Covode, Marchand), early settlers (Deckers Point, Elders Ridge, Strongstown), businessmen (Cramer, Beyer), and miners (Lovejoy, Claghorn, Rembrandt, Starford). In the early days, community sometimes adopted the name of its post office, which either through acclamation or self-commemoration, was often the name of the postmaster or member of his family. Today, there are few Indiana County places named for presidents than there are for postmasters and their kin: Alverda, Davis, Hillsdale, Martintown, McIntyre, Rochester Mills, and Tanoma are examples.

When new settlers came to the area, they often wanted to remember the places from where they came. At first, place names borrowed from the old country serve as preservatives for the community’s collective memory: regions like New England, tidewater Virginia, and eastern Australia are full of such names. When eight Irish families settled in East Wheatfield Township, they named their settlement for the town of Armagh in their homeland. Scottish settlers of West Wheatfield Township named their community Clyde, after a district in Scotland. Similarly, Luzerne Mines commemorates Luzerne, Switzerland, the ancestral home of the Iselin family.

Another source of place names came from the Bible. They were not mean to be solely memorials to long buried Philistine or Moabite settlements, these names are there to serve to remind settlers of religious devotion: Heshbon (Numbers 21:25-31), Ebenezer – old Lewisville – (I Samuel 7:12), and Crete (Titus 1:5-12).

The fourth category of place names comes in the form of Commendatory Names, which are selected mainly to praise the quality of life in a place in order to keep the locals content and to attract prospective settlers. Although these names are commendatory, and may or may not be truly representative of the place.

Take for example Diamondville, in Cherryhill Township, being named because the land owner viewed it as the richest – that is, the diamond – of all the pine tracts in the area. Joseph Wharton, a miner, similarly applied the name Coral to the Center Township community, claiming the local coal and clay deposits would prove to be as valuable as coral.

When the suburb of Indiana, Chevy Chase Heights, was planned in the 1920s, the intention was for it to be a restrictive neighborhood for the town’s wealthy citizens. The chosen name was commendatory, named after the Maryland neighborhood where the elite of Washington, D.C. live. However, the Depression changed the plans for the neighborhood, the named remained.

Since the 1940s, there have been many private developers who have selected commendatory names to attract new buyers to the new housing subdivisions. The communities include: Pleasant Hill, Grandview, and Sunset Acres.

The fifth category of place names are Incident Names, so named because of certain events that have occurred at a particular place that are sometimes noteworthy enough to serve as identifiers. These names in Indiana County often provide some of the most intriguing and most interesting local tales.

Our first example comes from Young Township of the creek of Whiskey Run. There are several versions of how the creek received its name; two of them are incident related. The first is that some Indians who were intoxicated on whiskey tried to kill some settlers down by the run. The settlers instead convinced the Indians to help split logs. While at work, one farmer removed the wedge from the log, thereby trapping the Indians’ hands. The settlers then killed the Indians. The second story is that the proprietors of an untaxed liquor business in nearby Reed, learned of a upcoming visit by revenuers, and before their arrival dumped the evidence (whiskey) into the creek.

Cush Cushion Creek in Green Township, is said to have received its name because Indians stole early settler John Bartlebaugh’s pig near here, shouting “Kisch Kusha!” as they ran off.

Vinegar Hill in White Township, is another place where there are several versions of its origin. One says that a man came into Indiana for supplies, including a large cask of vinegar. While on his way home, the cask broke loose, rolled down the hill, hit a rock and broke, giving the entire hill a vinegary smell for weeks.

At one time, Uniontown in Green Township, was known as both Kesslerville and Berringer. The local citizens wanted a single name, but they were indecisive about a name until one morning they woke up to find, nailed to a tree, a board with the name Uniontown. The name stuck.

Wallopsburg in Conemaugh Township, was the former name of Nowrytown, so called for a “wallop of storm” which blew through here at one time.

The sixth category of place names is possessive names. It is important to note that the Indians of this area had no concept of private ownership of land, and for this reason there were no names denoting possession. But with the arrival of the Europeans, possessive place names became common. Many examples in our county include: Barr Slope, Clarksburg, Fleming Summit, Smith, and Kintersburg. Mill proprietorship has been applied as well: Campbells Mills, Mottarns Mills, and Rochester Mills. Finally, more than half of the county’s streams have possessive names (Auld’s Run, Toms Run, Pickering Run, and Whites Run), as do many of the prominent hills (Moose Hill, Watts Hill, and Evans Roundtop).

The seventh category is manufactured names, much thought goes into the selection of a place name, but little creativity. These names usually exist in some other form already. Only a small category of manufactured names do invention and creativity play a part.

Tanoma, is reportedly the name of an Indian princess, but the name was probably created by the postmaster using the initials of his children’s first names: T for Tillie, A for Alice, NO for Norman, M for Matilda and A again for Alice.

Local residents of Mentcle originally wanted to call the post office Clement, but the state already had a Clement post office elsewhere. They were forced to choose another name, the townsfolk merely rearranged the syllables to create Mentcle.

Nolo was a descriptive creation, Nolo received its name from its location on the ridge top, where there was “no low ground around.”

The name Clune came from the old post office of Coal Run was manufactured by joining the CL from coal and the UN from Run with an E added for the sake of euphony.

The final category of place names in Indiana County is that of Shift Names. After a place receives its name, the name is sometimes applied in other forms to related places. Take for example, Blacklick which was first applied to a creek. Later the name shifted to include a community and a township along the creek’s banks. After the name Mahoning was affixed to Mahoning Creek, the tributary Little Mahoning Creek, Mahoning Reservoir and the four Mahoning Townships took the same name. Indiana itself is a shaft name, as it has been passed on from the county to the county seat.

Although this list of places names is not exhaustive, as a map of the county is filled with place names that have an interesting history behind how the name came to be. These names tell us something about the past. So the next time you are taking a Sunday Drive through the County, ask yourself how the name came to be, and if you are really interested  come visit the historical society and do some research on the township, village, body of water, etc.

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Through a broad range of activities, The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County seeks to promote a greater appreciation of the Indiana community's rich heritage and a better understanding of life today.

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