03 May 2011

What's in a Name?

How something got its name is of constant interest to BDC customers. Most people just want me to "tell" them why Simmons Road is Simmons Road or why Broomfield Plantation is Broomfield Plantation.

That's not what librarians are supposed to do.

The United States Board on Geographic Names is legally responsible to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government. The Board comprises representatives of Federal agencies concerned with geographic information, population, ecology, and management of public lands. Sharing its responsibilities with the Secretary of the Interior, the Board promulgates official geographic feature names with locative attributes as well as principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic names, foreign names, Antarctic names, and undersea feature names.

The key word is "geographic" which means that the USBGN doesn't address its attention to names of plantations, or houses, or roads, or streets, etc.

With these much more local structural and infrastructural names, we rely on reputable sources to let our customers determine for themselves why a particular name is associated with a particular piece of real estate, house, or road.

The first source I look for about names of places is Names in South Carolina, a periodical originally published by the English Department of the University of South Carolina beginning in the mid-1950s. The BDC and Hilton Head Branch Library have the complete sets in print. There is a digital version of Names in South Carolina at http://www.cas.sc.edu/iss/SCNames/ that you can search from home.

Archaeological reports almost always have a research section devoted to the history of a particular piece of property. This often includes information on the source of a name. The BDC has more than 200 archaeological reports. If your plantation or gated community was developed since 1966 odds are there just might be an archaeological report on it somewhere. Caveat: Not all archaeological reports are considered public documents.
We share whatever we have with customers who come to the Research Room.

For a general reference to laws on archaeology, see the National Parks Service Archeology Program page on "Archeology Law and Ethics."

Another good source of information about the names of specific properties are vertical files. The BDC has more than 1100 files on people, places, topics, events, and things in Beaufort District. We have a few specific "Name Plantation" files, but mostly rely upon the general "Names," “Plantations,” "Roads," "Streets," vertical files to start people along their research path.

Local magazines and newspapers can be a font of information. The problem with using local magazines and newspapers is that the indexing is non-existent or just refers to article titles. If the name of the place isn't in the article title, the index won't be very useful.

Maps can help pin down information about specific pieces of property. The BDC has more than 500 maps but finding a specific piece of property can be problematic. Doing map research takes up more time than many of our customers have to spend reading all the various levels of identification on a particular map. There is no index to all the names indicated on a particular map. And, the name of the piece of property doesn't indicate why it was named its name - but can show the name associated with a particular feature at a particular point in time. It is not uncommon to find several names associated through time with a particular structure or piece of ground.

This is why our house vertical files rely upon the address of a structure, ex. 411 Craven Street, rather than "The Castle" or the "Joseph Johnson House" or "The Rauch House" a name associated with the structure. Families come and families go but only a few houses have actually been moved around town. Perhaps I'll write a blog entry about that topic in the future.

Plats can help pin down information about specific pieces of property but seldom include why a particular piece of property was called by a specific name. Because Beaufort is considered a "burned county," we rely heavily on the contents of the South Carolina Archives records. I wrote an blog entry about Land Records on April 3rd that you might find helpful.

You can use the names of former owners to perhaps check our obituary files for any references to place names or activities or services they performed which might be remembered in the naming of a road, area, school, etc.

An image of a guide on how to trace the history of your house leads off this entry. Using the same steps, you can also try to trace the history of a particular piece of property.

Please bring your property title information along with you to our Research Room. Clues can be uncovered as you do your research that might not have been apparent before you started doing the research.

Realistically speaking, you must allot no less than two to three hours to performing the steps in this research process. You will have to do your courthouse work first. And, even then, there is no guarantee that you'll find what you're seeking.

Currently, the Beaufort District Collection Research Room is open Mondays through Fridays, usually 10 am until 5 pm. (Sometimes, though, we have to close from Noon – 1pm for lunch when we only have one person on duty for the day. Known upcoming lunchtime closures are May 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, and 25th).

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