Answer Man

Gratitude to France brought a coup de ‘ville’

By Roger Schlueter

Belleville, the beautiful city, was a nod to the French.
Belleville, the beautiful city, was a nod to the French.

Q: Why do the names of so many towns and cities end in “ville”? Also, is there any truth to the story that a family named Springfield settled all the American cities named Springfield?

Fred Shrader, of Aviston

A: Long after the United States had won its hard-fought struggle for independence from Great Britain in 1783, you still would have found citizens throughout the world’s newest nation shouting, “Vive la France!”

With good reason, too, because the French wound up playing a key role in the Revolutionary War even though it cost them dearly. Looking to avenge its losses to Britain during the French and Indian War, France began secretly sending supplies to the upstart colonists as early as 1775. Then, after the Americans stunned everyone by capturing Gen. John Burgoyne’s army in late 1777, France started to think, “Sacre bleu! These guys could win!” Less than four months later, France recognized the United States as a sovereign nation, joined the war against Britain and began sending money, men and materiel to aid the American cause against France’s hated rival across the channel.

The effort would leave the French government with a mountain of debt on the eve of its own revolution, but it helped turn U.S. citizens into avid Francophiles. One way of showing their gratitude was to start adding the suffix of “ville” — the French word for “town” or “city” — to the names of new communities throughout much of the country for the better part of a century.

This sudden naming revolution is easily detected with even a cursory study of American history, according to the late George Rippey Stewart. In addition to his essential account of the last battle of Gettysburg (“Pickett’s Charge”), the University of California at Berkeley professor also was a noted toponymist — a person who studies the origins, meanings and use of place names (toponyms).

Before the revolution, names of towns did not usually use suffixes unless the settlement decided to name itself after an existing town in the Old World. When a suffix was used, “town” or “ton” was typically added, such as Charleston, S.C., which originally was known as Charles Town, and Trenton, N.J., founded by William Trent. By the 1750s, the suffixes “borough/boro” and “burgh” also became trendy.

But after the war, “ville” quickly became as popular here — especially in the South and Appalachian regions — as it had in France after 600 A.D. and, 400 years later, in England after the Norman conquest. A perfect example popped up already in 1780 when settlers in Kentucky founded Louisville, which not only has the “ville” but also was named to honor King Louis XVI of France. For the next 70 years or so, ville and burgh/burg became the favorites, although “burgh” usually was added to a personal name (e.g., Pittsburgh) while “ville” could be tacked on to most any word (hence, Belleville or “beautiful city”). By the 1850s, however, its popularity began to wane as newer suffixes became fashionable, including “wood,” “hurst” and “dale.”

As for your second question, that would have had to have been one monster family considering that, according to the U.S. Postal Service, there are at least 41 cities and townships named Springfield, easily making it the most popular post office name. From this very fact alone, I hope you can see there is not even a whit of truth to the story you’ve apparently been told.

For additional proof, you need only look at our own state capital. If you’re not familiar with its history, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that after John Kenny built the first cabin there in 1820, the new settlement was initially named Calhoun to honor South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun. By 1821, Calhoun had become the county seat of Sangamon County because of its fertile soil and trading opportunities, and settlers were making their way there from as far away as North Carolina.

But by 1832, John Calhoun had begun to fall out of public favor, so when it came time to incorporate, residents began looking for a new name. They settled on Springfield, hoping their new city eventually would turn into the civic powerhouse that the nation’s very first Springfield — Springfield, Mass. — had become.

Founded in 1636 by English Puritan William Pynchon, the Massachusetts town eventually was named Springfield after Pynchon’s hometown of Springfield, Essex, England. Over the next two centuries, it blossomed into sort of the Silicon Valley of its time. The soil there was fertile. Its strategic location near the confluence of four rivers led George Washington and Henry Knox to establish the United States National Armory, which was a primary center for the maunfacture of military firearms from 1777 until it was closed in 1968. (You may have heard of the Springfield rifle.) Later, it would become a hub of industrial innovation, including the first use of interchangeable parts and the assembly line (1819), the first steam-powered horseless carriage (1825) and patent of vulcanized rubber (1844).

Our own Springfield never achieved anything close to that kind of fame, but, of course, in 1837, the Illinois capital was moved there from Vandalia. And, on April 15, 1837, Abraham Lincoln moved to Springfield from nearby New Salem and began practicing law with John T. Stuart.

As you can see, family had nothing to do with the naming of these two towns, nor did it with other Springfields. Many, like the ones in Kentucky, Oregon and Louisiana, are named for the abundant springs in the area. Springfield, Calif., was a gold-rush boom town where miners used the springs to wash off their carts of dirt-covered ore in hopes of striking it rich. So while rocker Rick Springfield may have had a No. 1 hit, there’s no town singing the praises of his family tree or any other for its name.

Today’s trivia

Who hosted the first charity telethon on television?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Pope Pius IX, the man who convened the First Vatican Council in 1869, still holds the record as longest reigning elected pope — 31 years, 7 months and 23 days, more than five years longer than his nearest contender, Pope John Paul II. Shortest reign? Thirteen days by Pope Urban VII from Sept. 15-27, 1590. He died of malaria before he could even be coronated, although he reportedly did issue a ban on the use of tobacco in any form in or near any church..

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer