Derek Watkins

Inundated with place names


I figured I’d jump right in with my first post and share a map I made a while back that I finally got around to polishing up:

Generic place names (or toponyms) such as Cumberland Gap or Mount Rainier provide general categorical descriptions of a geographic feature, in contrast to specific toponyms, which provide a unique identifier: Lake Huron. This map taps into the place names contained in the USGS National Hydrography Dataset to show how the generic names of streams vary across the lower 48. Creeks and rivers are symbolized in gray due to their ubiquity (although the etymology behind the American use of creek is interesting), while bright colors symbolize other popular toponyms.

Lite-Brite aesthetic notwithstanding, I like this map because it illustrates the range of cultural and environmental factors that affect how we label and interact with the world. Lime green bayous follow historical French settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast and up Louisiana streams. The distribution of the Dutch-derived term kill (dark blue) in New York echoes the colonial settlement of “New Netherland” (as well as furnishing half of a specific toponym to the Catskill Mountains). Similarly, the spanish-derived terms rio, arroyo, and cañada (orange hues) trace the early advances of conquistadors into present-day northern New Mexico, an area that still retains some unique cultural traits. Washes in the southwest reflect the intermittent rainfall of the region, while streams named swamps (desaturated green) along the Atlantic seaboard highlight where the coastal plain meets the Appalachian Piedmont at the fall line.

There are a few patterns on the map that I haven’t been able to figure out. West Virginia shows a sharp north to south division between runs and branches that continues to puzzle me. Some other geographic patterns I’ve noticed in WV largely run parallel to the Appalachians, from the SE to NW. I don’t know much about the area, though, and I have no idea what could be behind such a distinct division. Any West Virginia-ites willing to take a stab? I’m also intrigued by the patch of branches in southwestern Wisconsin, which I suspect may have something to do with the diffusion of naming practice by way of branch-loving Appalachian miners during a regional lead mining boom in the early 19th century.

This map originally came from a late 2009 project in a class by Joby Bass. If I remade it now, I’d probably try to negotiate some of the overlaps in symbology that happens in very crowded areas, but I still think it’s interesting as-is. If you are interested in learning more about toponyms, George Stewart’s Names on the Land is an engaging classic on naming practices in the US, and there are more specific articles about stream names from Wilbur Zelinsky and Robert West.

Edit: It inexcusably slipped my mind, but a tip o’ the hat to Bill Rankin  for design inspiration!

Update: James Cheshire over at Spatial Analysis has posted a version for the UK. Very cool to see which names did – or more interestingly, the ones that didn’t – make the jump to the US. For example, why did brook have such influence in New England, when it doesn’t seem to be very pervasive on James’ map? Was brook more popular in the UK in the past? Interesting stuff!

Update 2: Pfly posted this link to his flickr page in the comments below, with some interesting maps of toponyms pulled  from the Geographic Names Information System (the underlying dataset for the names I queried from the NHD). Some stream patterns are much easier to see when only one or two names are mapped at a time, and the set also includes some nice maps of non-watery toponyms, as well.