Geography

4 U.S. places named after Native American words

Sometimes looking at a map of the United States feels like a bad copy/paste job of European capitals. We have New York, New Jersey, New Castle, Paris, Dublin, Baltimore, and New Orleans, to name just a few of our European rip-off names. But that’s not an entirely accurate image of American place names. There are actually quite a few places that retained their original Native American names. Here are four.

Alabama

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Quite a few states have Native American names, but we’re including Alabama because it was the one that surprised us the most. We’re not really sure why it’s such a surprise, though if we had to venture a guess, it’d be because we figured the name was some kind of modified Spanish or French, since those were the first Europeans in the area. The name’s origins aren’t exactly known, but have been narrowed down to two main sources. It either means “tribal town” in Creek or else comes from the Choctaw language, meaning either “thicket-clearer” or “vegetation-gatherers.”

Malibu

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The origin of Malibu’s name is thought to come from a Native American village that sat on the east side of the mouth of Malibu Creek. The village was that of either a Chumashan or Shoshone tribe, with the original name being something closer to Maliwu. That’s a change that’s easy to chalk up to someone mishearing a description or even just accidentally smudging a map label. It’s one of many places in California that still retain their original Native American names, albeit most with a few minor changes, like the 'w' changing to the modern 'b' in Malibu.

Manhattan

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Manhattan’s first appearance in a European source is the Velasco map, a product of Henry Hudson’s explorations in 1609. On the map, “Manahata” and “Manahatin” appear on either side of the Hudson River, though modern historians believe this to be a redundant labeling that was the product of a series of misunderstandings. Communication between Hudson’s voyage and local Native Americans was limited at best and hostile at worst, meaning Hudson likely didn’t get the information from American Indians themselves, but from an earlier unknown source. The word itself comes from two dialects of the Algonquian language, Munsee and Unami. Both were widely spoken in Northeastern America, with speakers surviving to modern day.

Susquehanna Valley

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