Why the h was there an “h” in Galesburg


by Les Winick


Our city was founded in 1837 when a group of settlers from upstate New York, led by the Rev. George Washington Gale, made their home in what is now known as Galesburg. There were a few families from New England, and nearly all of the families were connected with the Presbyterian and Congregational denominations.

A Mr. P. Atkinson, of Bloomington, Ill. wrote on Aug. 29, 1857 that the purpose of the colony was to establish and build a town and a college, which would become a base for the spread of education and religion through the surrounding region. They selected this area in what was then known as the Military Tract, or the region lying between the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers. Atkinson ended his letter with this statement, “Galesburg is undoubtedly one of the most desirable places for a residence to be met with in the West.”

The Galesburgh Post Office was established on Sept. 30, 1837 with Nehemiah H. Losey as the first postmaster. The name given the city at its founding, Galesburgh, was named after Rev. Gale and a then-popular spelling of “-burgh” was used — at least in Post Office records.

Fifty years later, The U.S. Board of Geographical names asked the Post Office Department to change all the names of post offices, dropping the “h” from all cities that ended with “-burgh” and change “borough” to “boro.” The Post Office Department started a formal standardization of names to adhere to this request.

On December 1, 1894, the government agency officially dropped “h” from burghs; and the “ugh” from “boroughs.” The official notice of these changes was Post Office Order No. 147, dated December 7, 1894, six days after the changes were actually made.

According to the official post office records, Galesburgh formally changed its name to Galesburg on April 20, 1893, more than one year before the Post Office’s official deadline of Dec. 1, 1894. Incidentally, the glaring examples of cities that refused to change their names are Pittsburgh, Plattsburgh and Newburgh.

It is interesting to note that Mendenhalls Road Map of Illinois, made in Chicago in 1902, still spelled the city name as “Galesburgh” and the Stearman Association reported that “Dave and Debbie Groh’s Stearman won Best PT-17 at the National Stearman Fly-in in Galesburgh, Illinois.”

The most amazing part of this historic story about the Galesburg name change is that of all the mail received and sent during the 56 years of being officially named Galesburgh, not a single envelope has been located with that spelling in the return address or the recipient’s address.

The Covenant Mutual Benefit Association, organized in January 1877, was a big mailer in those days. Yet, their printed return address uses the spelling of “Galesburg.” Meeting notices to be held at the Odd Fellows Hall were spelled “Galesburg.” Incidentally, their assets at the time were $1,300,000. Letters sent to and from residents all used “Galesburg” without the “h”. Yet in every case the post office cancellation was “Galesburgh.”

Twenty-four years later, during the World War I era, the July 13, 1918 edition of the Galesburg Evening Mail announced that a name change movement was organized. A group of local businessmen formed a “Pro-Ally Galesburgh Committee” in order to emphasize what they felt needed was a change from a German name (Galesburg) to an Anglo-Saxon name (Galesburgh). The Moline Daily Dispatch wrote that “there is one time when a silent “h” becomes more eloquent, and that is when it spells the difference between a German and an Anglo-Saxon name.”

This name change movement made the “big time” with an article in the New York Tribune of Oct. 11, 1918. Their article observed, in a story on Galesburg’s proposed name change, that “Burg is English and not German.” The article went on to state that “Galesburg is no more German than Canterbury Cathedral in fact. The American “burg” in Galesburg, like the “burgh” in Pittsburgh hails from the Englsih “borough” or the Scottish “burgh.”

“Both terms derive originally from the same Anglo-Saxon root as ‘bury’, and neither is any more German than in any other good Anglo-Saxon word.” The New York paper suggested that “...sensitive Galesburgians might insist on Galesborough.”

The name change movement of World War I must have died a quick and quiet death since I could find no other reference to it after the report of its original organization.

While doing research on the name change, I came upon an interesting article in the Sept. 25 (year unknown, but probably 1918) edition of The Galesburg Mail. Dr. St. Clair Drake, Illinois state health commissioner, established new parameters for anti-vice around Illinois colleges that were accepting young men for military training.

Colleges must have a radius of at least 20 miles —  ten miles each way from the school — and it might be greater than this, depending entirely upon the surrounding localities. The article in the paper said, “Galesburg will have to clean up its bootlegging joints, its gambling halls, its liquor-selling drug stores, and any houses of ill-fame which may try to locate here. Uncle Sam says so, and what he says goes.”

This information came from the Galesburg Public Library, the Knox College Library and the November 2004 issue of the Illinois Postal Historian.