Tuzigoot. Great Egg Harbor. Yosemite. Who came up with these names? What do they mean? Sometimes they come from one person, sometimes a whole culture—but the stories behind these memorable monikers reveal interesting details about these places and the people who have loved and lived in them.
Yosemite: It might not mean what you think it means.
1. Yosemite National Park, California
Standing amid the beauty of Yosemite’s granite walls and sparkling waterfalls, visitors might be surprised to learn that the park’s name literally means, by different accounts, “those who kill” or “they are killers.” The name stems from the words Yohhe’meti and Yosse’meti used by the Miwok tribes of the region to describe a group of tribes that the Miwok feared and viewed as enemies.
2. Tuzigoot National Monument, Arizona
Tuzigoot is known for its ancient ruins, but its name refers to the water that surrounds its western boundary. Photo
One of the more unusual-sounding names in the park system, Tuzigoot actually refers to something pretty basic: water. More specifically, it means “crooked water” in Apache. The term refers to Pecks Lake, the curving reservoir that bends around the western side of the monument.
3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
You call that dry? Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park.
Who would call this park “dry” when it is literally surrounded by the ocean? The term was actually used by mariners to indicate that none of the seven small islands has fresh water. Meanwhile, “tortugas” dates back to Spanish explorer Ponce de León, who found the area’s numerous turtles so notable that he dubbed the islands “Las Tortugas” in 1513.
4. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
Not so devilish after all? Devils Tower National Monument.
Numerous Native American tribes consider this distinctive igneous rock formation sacred and know it by many names. Bear’s Tipi. Tree Rock. Great Gray Horn. Bear Mountain. None of these names, however, mention a devil. Members of an 1875 U.S. Army expedition to the site misinterpreted the name as “Bad God’s Tower,” which was later shortened to Devils Tower.
5. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas
Historic homesteaders in Nicodemus, Kansas.
In 1877, seven men from Kentucky—most of them formerly enslaved—set out to create the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains. These pioneers viewed Kansas as a “promised land” to escape the discrimination, racial violence, and poor living conditions of the South following the Civil War. They named the town after a legendary enslaved man (by some accounts an African prince) who had purchased his own freedom.
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.
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