This morning I was doing a bit of light reading and “Google map traveling” to follow up after our recent trip to Morocco. Mostly I was reading about the history of the African Maghreb, French colonialism and some geographic details about the countries that border Morocco—including the disputes about the Western Sahara.
Imagine my surprise when, while reading about French Algeria, I came across an article that circled back to the Midwestern, United States—to the small town of Elkader, Iowa. Apparently the town is the only one in the USA named after an Arab Muslim—and a jihadist to boot. The American settlers who founded the city in 1846 chose to name it after an Algerian colonial resistance fighter named Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri.
The article and fascinating radio documentary, “Couscous and Cultural Diplomacy” tells the story of Elkader and a couple who stared an Algerian Restaurant the small Iowa town. It is interesting because of the unlikely mix of issues that are negotiated in a post 9-11 United States. The New York Times, PRI and others have also written about Elkader in the past year or so.
While listening to the documentary I got to thinking about the historical moment in the 19th century when midwestern cities like Elkader were being named. It was a context when, in the act of colonial settlement, native place names were obliterated and replaced by new town names. In many cases names were taken from international cities and historical figures across the world. (In the case of Elkader it is, of course, ironic that even as the “pioneers” were colonizing the midwestern United States—obliterating native resistance—they founded a city named after a colonial resistance fighter.)
What kinds of conversations took place about these moments of place naming? What was the sociocultural context of the naming? The radio documentary mentions Delhi, Iowa. But there are so many others! How about Canton, Missouri, Pekin, Illinois or Montevideo, Minnesota? The interesting thing is that these places weren’t named by settlers who immigrated from these places—one must assume they were named to evoke some other meaning.
In her book The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol along the American Highway, Karal Ann Marling describes the social history of giant roadside statuary that mark the “places of no place” for settlers of the seemingly endless expanse of the midwestern landscape. Surely naming towns after international destinations could be usefully compared to this. It seems, however, that there is a difference between the fictional Paul Bunyan and a real historical figure like Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri—or founding a new town after actual cities like Havana, Athens, Manchester or Madrid.
On one level it certainly resists the stereotypes of the small-town midwest as provincial. Don’t these choices demonstrate a kind of 19th century “pioneer cosmopolitanism?” I wonder if anyone has written on this subject. It seems there might be an interesting history here.
Just for the heck of it, I decided to make a Google Map of some of the easiest-to-locate cities and towns in the states around Iowa. I’m sure there are many, many others.
A colleague at my university offered an extensive comment on Facebook that included a link to a book A History of the Origin of the Place Names in Nine Northwestern States (1908) which looks very interesting!