Since the beginning of recorded history, we have given names to the places that are a part of our very existence. Although there is evidence that our distant ancestors were intrigued with the origins of place names, the systematic accumulation of such data is primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon. This pursuit is now considered to be a "science" with its own nameonomastics.
Warren Upham's Geographic Names of 1920 is generally considered to be the standard of this field by which all other works are judged. While some features of his book are dated, its thoroughness and general accuracy were at levels which were previously unknown. It is a fitting and probably unique fact that a city in North Dakota was named in Mr. Upham's honor.
Books on place names are never complete, nor are they ever completely accurate. The establishment and naming of a new settlement is rarely documented, and the passage of time coupled with the emergence of local folklore complicates any research project. The relative newness of North Dakota would seem to make this effort relatively easy, yet this same newness makes the elusiveness of such name origins as Zap that much more frustrating.
Place names are usually divided into two categories, natural and artificial, and it is the intended scope of this work to concentrate on the latter, which I prefer to call man-made. The scope is further restricted to places which were at some point intended to represent a place of habitation. The existing fifty-three counties of North Dakota are covered by capsule histories in the county-by-county index following the main body of this book. Townships, those political subdivisions that generally are six-by-six mile squares, are not included within the scope of this work, but represent a major area for future study.
Chronologically, the first names in this book were the direct result of the fur trade, beginning with the Chaboillez Post of 1797. The later enterprises called Fort Union, Fort Berthold, Fort Clark, etc. have acquired an almost legendary status when discussing the pre-territorial history of North Dakota.
Formal military presence in the state began in the 1850s with the establishment of Fort Abercrombie, and similar installations have taken their rightful place in history along with the various camps, posts, cantonments, etc. that preceded or supported the forts. In a special category are the named campsites of the 1863 Sibley Expedition, which were in most cases literally one-night stands, but still seem worthy of inclusion within the scope of this book.
Permanent settlement by white people in what is now North Dakota began in the Pembina area in the 1840s, and by the time of the Civil War this region had begun to take on an air of civilization. River traffic was beginning to open other areas to settlement, but without doubt the single greatest catalyst to development occurred in 1871, when the Northern Pacific Railway crossed the Red River at what would become Fargo. Within two years the railroad had reached the Missouri River, and new townsites began every few miles along its route. The next few years saw a period of unparalleled growth as railroad branch lines were built in all directions, and when statehood was achieved on November 2, 1889, maps of eastern North Dakota closely resembled those of today.
Many different railroads operated in North Dakota during territorial days, but by the turn of the century, mergers and reorganizations had greatly reduced that number. For this book I have not used the names of these short-lived pioneer lines, instead using the following generic names and abbreviations for what would become the five major lines in the state: NPRR (Northern Pacific), GNRR (Great Northern), Soo Line RR (Minneapolis, St. Paul, & Sault Ste. Marie), Milwaukee Road RR (Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific), and C&NW RR (Chicago & Northwestern). Because the merger of the NPRR and GNRR as part of the Burlington Northern system occurred long after the state's initial development, I have used the appropriate original railroad's name. Small independent railroads that thrived during the boom period of North Dakota development, most notably the Midland Continental, are identified by their proper names.
Although agriculture continues to dominate North Dakota's economy, its settlements have provided an identification for all residents of the state. While most cities owe their existence to the railroad, their survival is now influenced by the automobile. This form of personal transportation has caused many smaller villages to become ghost towns. A review of population figures will show that most smaller cities in the state have steadily declined during the last half century, while the major cities have continued to grow. This trend is found nationwide.
A large percentage of the place names in this book are rural post offices. A few of these facilities had their own buildings, and many were housed in country stores, but most were located in the homes of the postmasters and moved about as different people assumed the duties of the position. The period from about 1890 until 1910 saw thousands of these post offices established nationwide, some serving only a handful of patrons. While they were not settlements in the literal sense, they did fill a void in an era when rapid communications was becoming a necessity.
The post office, of course, has always provided a sense of community identification. In 1982 co-authors Alan H. Patera and John S. Gallagher published their excellent North Dakota Post Offices 1850-1982, which is strongly recommended for any readers interested in this aspect of North Dakota history. A considerable amount of postal history will be found in this book, including a thorough review of post offices which received government approval, but never went into operation. The abbreviation "pm" is used throughout the book, and should be read postmaster or postmistress, whichever is applicable.
In a special category are the so-called "copyright" towns. Cartographers for many years have engaged in the practice of placing fictitious towns on their maps as a means of detecting unauthorized copying of their products. Attempts at contacting officials of the major map publishers to discuss this practice were consistently met with evasive hedging, yet such places continue to appear on many state maps. It is amusing that several rural Interstate exits were "unnamed" in the mid-1980s because of confusion for tourists, yet the practice of using copyright towns continues to flourish. If some travelers searched in vain for Geck, Lippert, Dengate, etc. I wonder how many have searched with equal futility for Yandell, Coryell, Dixboro, etc?
The main body of this book is alphabetical in format, with each place name having its own entry. All entries are placed in their appropriate present-day counties, although it should be remembered that today's county boundaries date only from 1916. Most of the places in this book have locations per the Rectangular System for land surveys adopted in 1785, which remains in the opinion of many the best such system ever devised. In addition, most places that are now either very small or nonexistent are reported in miles and direction from an existing place.
Many places have had more than one name, with each name receiving separate treatment. During the 1890s the federal government attempted to standardize place names, eliminating such things as two-word names, romantic spellings, possessive spellings, etc. Examples of this effort can be found throughout this book, but public sentiment caused many original spellings to be restored after about ten years. To facilitate cross-referencing, subject and alternate names are completely capitalized when appearing within an entry.
This book is by no means the first study of North Dakota place names, nor will it likely be the last. The collecting of such information is an endless pursuit. As early as 1929 a cursory listing of North Dakota place names was included in Walter E. Spokesfield's The History of Wells County, North Dakota and its Pioneers. Mary Ann Barnes Williams of Washburn published Origins of North Dakota Place Names in 1966. This often criticized book in truth was a great advance over what existed at the time, and undoubtedly would have been more error-free had Mrs. Williams lived long enough to complete her research.
My contribution to this ongoing effort contains well over three thousand entries, with major emphasis on the small, and virtually forgotten places of our not so distant past. While each individual entry is a collection of trivia, the entire book hopefully provides a history of the state with a somewhat offbeat twist. Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot, etc. take their rightful places in the book, but such places as Mondak, Krem, Mardell, Wamduska, and Whynot are included as equals. Likewise, the giant figures of North Dakota's history, from Lewis and Clark to Lawrence Welk, receive mention, but stand together with Joseph Colton, Emery Mapes, Ernest Jacobi, Elling Ulness, Linda Warfel Slaughter, and thousands of other North Dakotans who contributed to our heritage.
Ten years passed from the start of this project, and while it rarely took top priority, nevertheless countless hours were spent compiling the information. It quickly became apparent that the book could never be complete, or error free, but every effort was made to approach that goal. The subject of the book is ever changing. Indeed, during the period of research, many settlements virtually disappeared and dozens of post offices closed their doors, yet during that same time new cities were born. My only hopes are that readers will consider my efforts worthwhile, and that it might someday inspire another writer to continue the pursuit.
Douglas A. Wick
Bismarck, North Dakota August 1988
Source: North Dakota Place Names - Front Part of Book