I had to be in Seattle last week for work, and there’s nothing like travel to make you curious about everyday things you usually ignore at home.  I got to wondering about the origins of the city’s name — turns out it was named in 1853 after Chief Seattle (actually spelled Si’ahl) who led tribes local to the area.

Here's Chief Seattle. I'm just impressed there's even a photo of him. Source: Wikipedia

This got me thinking about where the names of other US cities come from.  I’ll start with the top 10…Letterman-style…although I’m actually a Conan guy:

Top 10 Largest US Cities

  1. New York: named in 1664 after England’s Duke of York who went on to become King James II (England’s last Catholic king who had daughters Mary and Anne…Mary being the one who married William and together overthrew James, Anne being the one who succeeded them and was the final monarch in the House of Stuart).
  2. Los Angeles: named in 1781, derived from the original Spanish name for the town — in English, “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels” (“Queen of the Angels” being one of the Virgin Mary’s Roman Catholic titles)
  3. Chicago: named in 1679, derived from the Miami-Illinois (Native American) word for “wild onion” which is “shikaakwa”…sound it out-loud…it’s pretty cool
  4. Houston: named in 1876 after Sam Houston, a general and later President of Texas
  5. Philadelphia: named in 1682 after a city in what was Asia Minor (and is now in modern-day Turkey) whose name means “brotherly love” in Greek.  Now I know where the slogan comes from.
  6. Phoenix: named in 1865 after the mythical bird
  7. San Antonio: named in 1691 after Saint Anthony when Spanish explorers came upon the site on the feast day of “St. Anthony of Padua”
  8. San Diego: named in 1602 after Saint Didacus (aka San Diego de Alcala) by a Spanish explorer (also the name of the explorer’s ship)
  9. Dallas: named in 1844, unclear after whom as there are a handful of likely candidates with that last name
  10. San Jose: named in 1777, derived from the original Spanish name, “El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe” (“San Jose” or “Saint Joseph” being Jesus’ earth dad)

Two items I find interesting here:

  • Three of the top 10 cities got (and have maintained) the names that we know today as far back as the 1600s despite not being located on the east coast.  I guess the US really isn’t a Saul Steinberg cartoon.

  • There’s extensive diversity of language origin — above, we see names rooted in four languages: English, Spanish, Greek, and Miami-Illinois.  I wonder if any other country’s largest cities have as extensive a mix.

Next time I’ll do names for the largest cities globally.