The names we give to the places we live tell us something about who we are.
With the passage of time, the permanence and continuity of place names not only contribute to community stability – they also provide us with historical reminders of who we have been.
As an example, consider the work of Joel Wright.
Wright was a professional surveyor and one of the original Quaker settlers of the frontier village of Springboro. In 1812, he was hired by the Ohio General Assembly to survey and lay out a town that soon would become the new state capital. It would be called Columbus and was to be located on the “high banks opposite Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto.”
The site was euphemistically called Wolf’s Ridge by the inhabitants of Franklinton, who were not amused by the howling serenades they often heard in the evening.
Wright was picked for the job because he had a reputation as a good, reliable and honest surveyor. These were traits admired, if not always emulated, by other settlers of the region.
Despite these challenges, Wright completed his task in relatively short order with the assistance of Joseph Vance, a local surveyor and frontiersman. With survey in hand, it now fell to Wright to name all the streets he had surveyed.
Wright left no record of how or why he named some streets in downtown Columbus. But in retrospect, it is not difficult to figure out some of their origins.
Many major cities in the east – notably New York and Philadelphia – had a High Street and a Broad Street. The former was the main route in and out of town and carried the most traffic; the latter was designed to be wide enough to handle the wagons and carts of local vendors on market days.
The two streets did not always meet, but in the new town of Columbus, they did. High Street followed an old trail north and south, and Broad Street followed another trail from east to west.
To establish boundaries for the new town plat, Wright laid out streets called North, South and East public lanes. There was no West Public Lane because the Scioto River was the western boundary of the town.
Over the years, these lanes would see their names changed to what are now Nationwide Boulevard, Livingston Avenue and Parsons Avenue.
Some of the other streets in the original plat map would have their names changed, as well.
Wright named one street Friend Street. We do not know why, but perhaps it was in recognition of his Quaker faith. In time, Friend Street became Main Street.
Other changes created Fulton Street on the south end of town and Chestnut Street on the north end.
Remarkably, most of the names Wright created for the town have survived to the present day.
South of Statehouse Square running east to west, one can still find State, Town, Rich and Mound streets. The survival of Mound Street is interesting, since the 40-foot Native American mound at the intersection of Mound and High streets has been gone since the mid-1830s.
North of Statehouse Square lie Gay, Long and Spring streets.
Gay and Long streets may be named for early residents of the area, but it is not clear why Wright selected them for recognition.
Spring Street is named for a creek that rushed a wide path of water to the Scioto. A crude bridge spanned the creek in the early days of the town. That creek remains but now is contained in a large sewer deep below the paved street.
Perhaps running short of inspiration, or perhaps with a stroke of sentiment, Wright decided to name the alleys of Columbus for trees and plants he found in the area. Hence, we still have Hickory and Walnut alleys, as well as Strawberry, Gooseberry and Cherry alleys.
Scioto and Olentangy are Native American names. Scioto is a variation on a word denoting hair and is a reference to the large quantities of deer hair once found in and near the river during molting season. The east fork at the Scioto originally was known by a native term meaning “river of the sharpening stones.” Early settlers called the stream Whetstone Creek.
In the 1830s, the Ohio General Assembly wished to return Ohio streams to their native names. Unable or unwilling to pronounce the Native name for whetstone, the legislators borrowed the name of a nearby stream and called the river the Olentangy.
Olentangy is loosely translated as “river of red clay.” As far as I know, there is no red clay near its banks. The original Olentangy is now called Big Darby Creek.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.