Detail from a painting of the lost city of Indianola, Texas ~ Shannon Salyer
Courtesy Calhoun County Museum (Click image to view the complete painting)
Today, the privilege of naming a community seems reserved for real estate developers. The names they choose for subdivisions, gated communities, or urban high-rise housing — Candlewick, Pickwick Village, The Towers — function primarily as marketing tools. While the names may reflect an area’s history, or a neighborhood’s geographic location, often they do not.
In times past, residents named their own nascent communities. If contention over the choice arose among the citizenry, or if conflict developed between a town and the Postal Service, the history of the naming process could become as interesting as the history of the town itself.
Some places changed their name so often even residents could forget where they lived. In New Hampshire, the Plantation of Penney Cook became Penney Cook; then Pennacook; then Rumford; then Concord. In Arizona, Swilling’s Mill became Hellinwig Mill; then Mill City; then East Phoenix. Finally, the name we know today — Phoenix — became permanent.
Some names were obvious choices. Washington, Franklin, Madison, and Jackson rose to prominence as Americans honored men who contributed to the nation’s founding. On the other hand, Oxford, Paris, New London, and Winchester became almost as popular. It’s easy to imagine a little nostalgia in the naming process: perhaps even a longing to be as well-regarded as more historic cities.
Now and then, place names occur in clusters. Despite having no obvious single source, they spread across the country: chosen for good reason, quirky reasons, or no reason at all. Indianola is one of those names.
Florida’s Indianola, platted in 1920 by Helen Brooks Smith, extended from Little Sarasota Bay across an early part of the Tamiami Trail. The name may have been inspired by the Indian middens found in the area, since Smith named her streets Huron, Iriquois, Seminole, Mohican, and Wyandotte. Whether she imagined Indianola to be a tribal name isn’t clear. Since it’s not, most assume that she made it up, or borrowed it from another source.
When Indianapolis, Pennsylvania emerged in 1919 as a coal company patch town, its development and naming was overseen by Thomas Fear, Superintendent of Mines for Inland Colliers, a subsidiary of Inland Steel. After laying out the town, Fear arranged for rail shipment of pre-cut houses from Michigan. After being unloaded at Harmarville, they were transported on to Indianola by horse-drawn wagon.
Fear had built similar towns in Tennessee and Alabama before arriving in Pennsylvania, so it’s entirely possible he passed through Indianola, Mississippi. Sited on a river bank once inhabited by Choctaw Indians, the town received the name Indian Bayou in 1882. Between 1882 and 1886, the name was changed to Eureka, to Belengate, and finally to Indianola. Improbable as it may seem, local lore claims the town name honors an Indian princess named “Ola.”
When the Treaty of Point Elliott created the Port Madison Reservation in Washington State, a quite verifiable tribe, the Suquamish, were granted two parcels of land straddling Miller Bay. Eventually, a portion of that land fell into private hands. When Ernest Loughrey, a principal land owner, sold some of the property to Warren L. Gazzam, it led to the platting of yet another Indianola.
How the town received its name has been disputed. Some accounts reference a simple Postal Service decision. Others prefer the story told by Robert Hitchman in his volume dedicated to the origins of Washington place names. There, he records the claim that land developer and eventual Seattle mayor Ole Hanson added a variant of his own first name to “Indian,” thus creating our westernmost Indianola.
The landmark dock at Indianola, Washington
Meanwhile, in Nebraska, a locator for the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad named D.N. Smith was seeking a town site to serve as the seat of government for Red Willow County. After a friend offered acceptable land on Coon Creek, Smith returned in the spring of 1873, surveyed the land, registered a plat, and named the new town Indianola, after his hometown in Iowa.
Remarkably, Indianola, Iowa is only fifty miles from my own hometown.When I moved to Texas and discovered another Indianola on the Texas coast, I assumed immigrants from Iowa had carried the name with them. I was wrong. Texas got its Indianola first, and the story of how the name traveled from Texas to Iowa is the quirkiest of them all.
Established in 1846, Warren County, Iowa held its first elections in 1849. The newly-elected county commissioners were put in charge of locating a county seat, and providing a name for the town.
As Paul Jewett tells the story:
In the spring of 1849, Colonel P.P. Henderson, the county sheriff, was eating with some friends. His lunch was wrapped in a page from “The New York Sun,” to which he subscribed.
In Henderson’s words, “While we were eating, my eye fell on a paragraph in that paper which said that a shipment of camels had been unloaded in Indianola, Texas, to try the experiment of using them in the army for beasts of burden crossing the plains to the Pacific coast. Mr. A.D. Jones suggested that we call our county seat “Indianola,” and it was agreed upon by unanimous vote.
“On a New Shore” – Steel silhouette sculpture by Brian Norwood, Jal, New Mexico
Commissioned and installed at Indianola by the Calhoun County Historical Commission, 2011
The so-called “Great Camel Experiment” is a story of its own. Supported in Congress by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the first load of 34 camels landed at Indianola on May 14, 1856. They stayed at Indianola for several weeks before beginning the trek to their new home at Camp Verde, near Kerrville. Other camels followed, and several expeditions into the desert southwest were made. Unfortunately, an assortment of complictions, including the Civil War, brought the experiment to an end.**
For years, the conceit that camels underlay the naming of an Iowa town endured. But in 1941, Don Berry, editor of The Indianola [Iowa] Record and author of A History of Warren County, found himself in Texas.
After a visit to his town’s namesake, he began some research of his own. Before long, he spotted a factual error that unraveled the story. Camels didn’t land at Indianola, Texas until seven years after Indianola, Iowa had been founded. Further investigation revealed that the April 6, 1849 newspaper lunch-wrapper that led to the naming of Indianola, Iowa, actually was reporting an outbreak of cholera along the Texas Coast.
It probably wasn’t’ the first report, and it wouldn’t be the last. Between 1836 and 1867, yellow fever epidemics occurred nearly every year, and cholera outbreaks were common. In 1846, cholera became so widespread that the dead lay unburied in the streets of Indianola.
Warren J. Hahn records the story of Georg Christian David Kensing, his wife Henriette, and seven children, who set sail from Bremen, Germany on November 13, 1845. The mother, Henriette, died at Indianola in 1846. Two children, Heinrich and Dorothea, died in 1846, also at Indianola. Perhaps hoping to escape, the family moved inland to Victoria. David set up a blacksmith shop, but he also died, in July of 1846. By 1850, Texas was initiating quarantine procedures, seeking to slow the spread of disease throughout the state.
“The kind of ‘assisted emigrant’ we can not afford to admit.” An 1883 Puck drawing, showing members of the New York Board of Health wielding a bottle of carbolic acid in their attempts to keep cholera at bay. (Photo credit: © Corbis Images)
Quarantine Station No.2, Galveston, Texas (1870) Meant to slow the spread of diseases such as cholera to other Texas ports, it was destroyed in 1875 by one of two storms which also devastated Indianola
However interesting camels, cholera, and newspaper-wrapped lunches may be, one question remains. How did Indianola, Texas, receive her name?
As with so many other towns, there were a few changes along the way. Shortly after weary and uncertain German settlers stepped onto the shores of Matagorda Bay, their little community became known as Carlshafen, after Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, the Commissioner-General of the Society for German Immigration, or Adelsverein.
Two years later, in 1846, the town of Indian Point was surveyed and formally established. Over time, the town grew, merging with the Carlshafen settlement and growing somewhat southward, toward Powderhorn Lake.
By 1849, Indian Point had become a significant port city, rivaling Galveston in terms of trade and serving as the eastern terminus for the Chihuahuan trail. John Henry Brown, publisher of the Indianola Bulletin, had opened a stagecoach line between Indian Point and Victoria. Improvements meant to accomodate the Morgan and Harris steamship lines had been made, and regular passenger schedules were kept among Indianola, Galveston, and New Orleans.
With general agreement that a new name was in order for the burgeoning port, discussion began. After some debate, it was Mrs. John Henry Brown who suggested “Indianola.” Her explanation, that the name would retain the “Indian” of Indian Point, while adding the Spanish word ola, or wave, was well received. On February 1, 1849, Indian Point became Indianola, and the future of the young town seemed secure.
None of those who voted in favor of Indianola could have known what lay ahead. They had, after all, provided for waves of immigrants, and survived waves of disease. Even the waves of a land-falling hurricane, in 1851, failed to temper their enthusiasm. Rebuilding, reclaiming their future, they moved on. But there was more to come — much more.
(To be continued…)