Illinois names

By Bill Monson

The names of Illinois towns fascinate me. Indian names, English names, French, Scottish and German names. Towns named for their founders – like Galesburg; for heroes – like Decatur; for poets – like Byron; for famous Indians – like Pontiac.

If you’re college-minded, there are Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton. There is no pier in Brighton, however, and no cable bridge in Brooklyn. There are tubs in Bath but not of the Roman variety nor is Cicero usually associated with an orator. (How loquacious was Al Capone?) Has Superman ever visited Metropolis? Is there an Alamo in El Paso?

For cities of antiquity, how about Athens, Carthage, Rome, Sparta or Troy?

There are towns named for Presidents – like Lincoln, Washington and Quincy (in Adams County). Even presidents’ homes – like Monticello and Mount Vernon. Whole countries – Albion, Lebanon, Norway, Peru and South Holland.

The Bible is well represented – Antioch, Bethany, Carmi, Mount Carmel, Mount Olive, Palestine and Zion. Even the Norse god Odin gets a town in his honor. Hudson and Polo recognize famous explorers Henry and Marco.

Literature gives us Romeoville – to go with nearby Juliet (or Joliet). Did the Headless Horseman ever ride in Sleepy Hollow? Longfellow’s poem "Hiawatha" provides Nokomis, the storyteller. Elgin is both a Scottish town and a hymn tune. And Shakespeare gives us Bolingbrook in "Richard II."

There is a whole basketful of "chesters" – Chester, Colchester, Winchester, Westchester. In fact, the Brits and Scots are well represented throughout the state – from Abingdon to Windsor.

Places associated with battles also occur – Bunker Hill, Cerro Gordo, Marengo, Monmouth and Waterloo. Revolutionary War figures receive notice – DeKalb and Knoxville, among others.

You can travel internationally without ever leaving the borders of Illinois – Berlin, Cairo, Canton, Edinburg, Frankfort, Geneva, Genoa, Havana, Inverness, Lake Zurich, Marseilles, Milan, Naples, Paris, Pekin, Posen, Rio, Toluca, Toulon, Venice, Vienna and Warsaw. You can even travel to the stars – Orion. Of course, when these names were transferred to Illinois, we often pronounced them differently.

Some towns, though, still have a kind of magic in their sounds – like Moline (Spanish for "the mill") or LaGrange (French for "the barn"). My favorite is Creve Coeur (French for "heart break).

Some seem downright weird – like Midlothian or Teutopolis or Oblong. (Can’t you just see the headline – "Oblong Man Weds Normal Woman")? And what about the town name which was picked out of a hat? The folks in Maroa drew letters of the alphabet until they found a combination they could all accept.

I could do a whole column on Illinois towns with Indian derivations – but somebody has already done a book on those: "Indian Place Names in Illinois" by Virgil J. Vogel. However, I think Knox County has one of the best – Maquon.

And I can’t close without including my second-favorite Indian-inspired place name – Henderson County’s county seat – Oquawka.