In their exploration and mapping of the West, Lewis and Clark named hundreds of places. Some names, predictably, paid homage to the politicians back home, such as the naming of the Three Forks of the Missouri: Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin. Other names paid tribute to the members of the Corps of Discovery: York’s Island, Meriwether’s Bay, Clark’s River, Shannon’s Creek, Seaman’s Creek, Drewyer’s Mountain.
The more interesting names are those that tell you what the experiences of the Corps were at the place. A Smithsonian writer noted that during their exploration, Lewis and Clark created place names that ranged from “the bitterly matter-of-fact to the sentimental. In the Bitterroot Mountains, they named a stream Hungery Creek because, said Clark, ‘at that place we had nothing to eate.’ Because a river reminded Lewis of a woman he thought of as ‘that lovely fair one,’ he named it Marias River.” One of my favorites is Biscuit Creek, named after breakfast. A more grim food-inspired name was Colt Killed Creek, another legacy of the ordeal in the Bitteroots.
Hilariously, Clark named today’s Clastkanie Valley “Fanny’s Bottom,” after his beloved younger sister Frances. In Clark’s journal, the name is recorded as “Fanny’s Valley,” one imagines at Lewis’s urgent intervention.
It turns out that Lewis and Clark’s naming conventions were firmly in the tradition of the American backcountry. I read a detailed account in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed about how American backcountry settlers mostly steered clear of high-toned names such as were common in tidewater Virginia, or inspirational names such as those often found in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. The backcountry settlers liked to name their places after people (Harper’s Ferry, Logan’s Fort). It wasn’t unusual to name a place after food and drink, giving rise to places called Corncake or Whiskey Springs. Lewis’s Camp Disappointment had its ancestors in backcountry places like Lousy Creek, Big Trouble, Scream Ridge, and Devil’s Tater Patch.
At least L&C spared future schoolteachers when they named their camp among the Nez Perce Camp Choppunish, after their name for those Indians. Like a group of early backcountry settlers, they could have named it for their digestive woes and saddled future generations with Camp Shitbritches.
All in all, the backcountry place names and Lewis & Clark’s are remarkable in their similarities, embodying a spirit of fun and improvisation. These kinds of names were uncommon in other parts of the country and in Europe, and resulted in considerable amount of fun being poked at Lewis & Clark when they were published. A British critic even published a bit of doggerel about them:
Ye plains where sweet Big-muddy rolls along,
And Tea-Pot, one day to be famed in song,
Whose swans on Biscuit and on Grindstone glide
And willows wave upon Good Woman’s side!
How shall your happy streams in after time
Tune the soft lay and fill the sonorous rhyme!
Blest bards, who in your amorous verse will call
On murmuring Pork and gentle Cannon-Ball;
Split-Rock, and Stick-Lodge, and Two-Thousand-Mile,
White-lime and Cupboard, and Bad-humour’d Isle!
Flow, Little Shallow, flow! And be thy stream
Their great example, as it will their theme!
Isis with Rum and Onion must not vie,
Cam shall resign the palm to Blowing-Fly,
And Thames and Tagus yield to great Big-Little-Dry.
More interesting reading:
William Foley’s account of how the Lewis & Clark Expedition was viewed in Britain