The steelworks, spacemen and sex that changed the identities of cities
Throughout history, borders shift, languages evolve, wars are fought and deals are struck. One consequence of this is that cities can change their names. Settlements that have been known by one name for centuries can suddenly have their identity altered, simply as a consequence of what might now, cynically, be known as a “rebranding”. Here, we’re going to look at the whys, the wherefores and the what the effs of a few of these cities.
Oh, and for clarity, I’m not including places that differ purely in what they’re called by speakers of the native language versus others (ie Gdańsk and Danzig or Plzeň and Pilsen). I’m talking about places that have actually taken on a different identity.
New York City, USA (formerly New Amsterdam)
Englishman Henry Hudson, sailing under the banner of the Dutch East India Company and failing to find a western passage to Asia, actually came across the area of land now known as Manhattan.
He discovered that there was a huge beaver population, and due to beaver fur being very fashionable in Europe at the time, Hudson let his bosses know of this rodent-based gold mine. This report led to the founding of the trading post of New Amsterdam, followed by Fort Amsterdam in an effort to stave off attacks from both natives and the British.
A series of battles meant the settlement changed hands a number of times, with the Dutch eventually reclaiming it and naming it New Orange. Eventually, however, they ceded the entire colony of New Netherland to the British in exchange for Suriname (which was rich in crops such as cocoa and coffee). The Dutch influence remains to this day in the names of boroughs such as Harlem (after the Dutch city of Haarlem) and Brooklyn (Breukelen).
Gagarin, Russia (formerly Gzhatsk)
Naming a city after a Soviet hero was a very obvious propaganda tool, so let’s instead look at a remarkable man. Born to parents who worked as a carpenter and a milkmaid on a collective farm, young Yuri was clever, handsome and athletic – in other words, the perfect model for a Soviet hero. During training for his historic flight into space in Vostok 1, Sergei Korolev, one of the brains behind the project stated that Gagarin had “a smile that lit up the Cold War”.
Strapped to the top of what was basically a missile, with no control over it (Soviet scientists had no idea how a human would react to weightlessness and so the rocket was controlled from the ground), his one-hour orbit of the earth ended with him landing in a field and being discovered by a farmer and his daughter. Only the last-minute addition of the letters CCCP to his helmet before the flight stopped him being arrested as a spy.
Due to the secrecy of the programme, the first his parents knew of his historic achievement was when they heard it on the radio – all they knew was that their son was in the Air Force. All of this, added to his tragic and premature death at the age of 34 in a plane crash, means he will stay a Russian hero for all time.
Donetsk, Ukraine (formerly Yuzovka)
Originally known as Aleksandrovka – it was first mentioned under this name in 1779 – the city was renamed the pretty Slavic-sounding Yuzovka in 1869. Digging a little deeper uncovers a bit of an oddity, though. “Yuz” is actually a Russian approximation of the British surname Hughes, as it was here that Welsh businessman John Hughes built a steel mill and sank several coal mines into the mineral-rich earth of the region. Coal and steel meant the city grew rapidly, and under the Soviets, it was renamed again, this time as Stalino, before becoming Donetsk (after the region of which it is the capital) in 1961.
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, USA (formerly Hot Springs)
This bizarrely named town began life as Hot Springs, but shot to a mild amount of fame in 1950 when Ralph Edwards, host of the popular American radio programme Truth or Consequences declared that the 10th anniversary edition of the show would be broadcast from the first town to change its name to that of the show.
Hot Springs did so, and therefore won the honour of the broadcast. For the next 50 years, Edwards would visit the town on the first weekend of May for a festival to commemorate the renaming; the festival still runs to this day.
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada (formerly Pile O’ Bones)
Because would you like to live somewhere called Pile O’ Bones? Taken from the original Cree name for the settlement (which translated as: “Bones which are piled”). Cree hunters would kill buffalo, eat the meat and use the fur, then pile the bones up in the belief that other buffalo would return to visit the bones. The town became known as Regina when it was visited by the Governor General of Canada, who was married to Princess Louise. Louise was the daughter of Queen Victoria, and decided that the Latin for queen would be a much nicer name. For this reason, Regina is sometimes known as The Queen City.
Constância, Portugal (formerly Punhete)
Changed in 1833, due to someone noticing that the name Punhete is remarkably similar to the word punheta, which is Portuguese for hand-job.