The Magazine of South Carolina

Place Names in South Carolina

Both Sides of the Congaree


by Irene LaBorde Neuffer

Believe it or not, Swansea's town name origin is more likely German than Welsh. As for Frog Level, well, you had to've been in the Dutch Fork when the hard rains came.


The Congaree River, from Indian words appropriately (considering its shallowness) meaning "Scraping Bottom," is the divider of the state midlands. Other Indian-named streams in the area include the Saluda, meaning "Corn River" (good bottom land for growing corn); Wateree, meaning "rough water" or "rushing stream"; and Catawba for "caved-in river banks" - this last one pronounced Kuh-TAW-buh.

Excepting the two-countied Irmo area, the Congaree is the dividing line between Richland and Lexington counties. Richland was the colonial name for the Taylor family plantation, which was laid out in the late 1700s (three miles east-west by three miles north-south) to establish the midland's state capital city. The present Lexington County in colonial times was called Saxe-Gotha for the homeland of one of King George's daughters-in-law, and the closer-to-Richland area between the Saluda and Broad rivers was called Dutch Fork for the Deutsch (Germans) who settled there - accounting for the many German-named folk still present among my friends across the river.

In pre-Columbia times, the Friday family operated a ferry across the Congaree River right about where Columbia is now on the east side. The story goes that 20 miles down the river where Swansea is now located an old German ran a store. Travelers on the Catawba Path would stop for respite and ask him, "How many miles to Friday's Ferry?" and in broken English he'd respond, "How many mile? Zvanzig!" (the German word for 20) - hence the present name, via folk etymology, for the town of Swansea. However, various other stories tell us it's from settlers coming from the Welsh village of Swansea. Or an early midlands settler built a pond in which he placed two swans, hence the name Swan Sea. No research has located any Welsh settlers there in colonial times or records of a "swan sea" builder. That there was a German storekeeper on the Catawba Path in those years lends preference to the mispronunciation explanation.

Down the road a bit are the Scandinavian-named towns of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, lending credence to the too-often inaccurate explanation that they were named by settlers from northern Europe. Actually, during the mid-19th-Century building of railroads throughout the state, the station and now town on the line was named for a railroad official, Mr. Denmark. Other settlements nearby took the three other Scandinavian names "just to be agreeable."

As early as November 1760 in the South Carolina Gazette there was mentioned (but not located) the Charing Cross Ferry, kept by Joseph West. More recently over in Irmo (up I-26 west of Columbia) there's a residential street titled Charing Cross Road, its folk-etymological origin (ten-dollar word for "mispronunciation") dating back to Henry I (1100-1135): Grieved by the death of his beloved queen, Henry had crosses placed on each side of the road leading to her graveside, thereafter French-titled Cher Reine Croix ("crosses of the dear queen") and today a street in London where a special bookstore was located.

Platt Springs, Lightwood Knot Spring and Cohee's Shoals are among the delightfully described watering places in O.B. Mayer's Dutch Fork fiction, as recorded in Prof. Jim Kibler's article in Names in South Carolina, Vol. XXVIII. A less pleasantly named stream is Stinking Creek, with attempts to change much opposed by history buffs. Stinking Creek's name is of occupational origin: Early settlers who made a living skinning and curing animal hides effectively soaked them in a cove of this stream. Though the cove site occupation is there no more, the smelly title survives.

Farther west of Lexington is the Dutch Fork area of Newberry County, including several rare names. From the mid-1830s until 1873 the now properly named town of Prosperity (titled from an early church name) was the post office of Frog Level, with the first postmaster being David Kibler, forebear of our NSC contributor Jim Kibler. Varied stories attempt to explain the name, but our favorite is of the depressed farmer who bottlely tried to forget his crops ruined by flooding spring rains. He rode his mule across the too-wetness, drinking as he rode. When the jug was empty, he and the jug rolled off the mule's back into a ditch. When he came to, it was raining again and a big bullfrog was croaking on the edge of the ditch above him. Sobbing, the farmer expressed his shame: "I've been low in my time, but this is the first time I've been below frog level." He straightened up, took the pledge, and thereafter (until 1873) the town was named Frog Level.

Also in Newberry County is the town of Pomaria, in no way truly explained as being for an indignant old lady named Mary whom sympathetic folk frequently referred to as "Po Mary." And much as I admire Sen. Ryan Shealy's lottery attempts, I wasn't persuaded by the Florida-based Shealy genealogist who suggested Pomaria was named by the colonial Shealys who came to South Carolina from their homeland of Pomerania. It's fairly well documented that William Summer, grandson of the first Summer colonial settler, established a nursery, widely acclaimed throughout the Southeast, and named it Pomaria from the Latin word "Pomus," meaning "plants" or "trees."

Dr. James C. Kinard, former president of Newberry College, wrote the NSC article on several of these variegated names, including Jalapa, named by members of the Palmetto Regiment returning from the Mexican War. They camped in this Newberry area and, so the story goes, the pleasantness of the spot reminded the men of the Mexican town of Jalapa. So they gave that name to the South Carolina community; we pronounce it with the "J" sound of Ja-LAP-uh rather than the Mexican Hu-LAH-puh.

Maybinton, Jew's Harp Spring, Silverstreet, Chappell's Ferry and Stony Battery are among the array of Newberry County's interesting place names whose origins were recorded in this first state place name journal in the United States. One of my chiefest Life's Extras while researching two of these stories was the day we were invited guests of NSC's from-the-beginning patron Mrs. Nell Maybin. We made a trek through the woods to the Jew's Harp Spring.

And now we head back across the Congaree River to some of our most mispronounced place names, number one of which is Huger Street in Columbia. Just last year a lass from Pennsylvania came down to visit her aunt who wasn't feeling so well; the aunt asked the niece to please "go down to Grice's on Huger (You-Gee) Street and get me some fresh fruit." The young lady was eager to oblige. Being an able cartologist, she got out her city map, left the house and hasn't been seen since - all because the aunt knew this Huguenot name is given neither the French pronunciation (almost You-Zhay) in these parts nor the proper pronunciation HUE-ger, as too many missionaries and even natives often still say.

Out in my growing-up neighborhood of Shandon Annex (the southeastern section of Columbia, early in this century developed by the Shand family) there's another frequently mispronounced street: Bonham Road, named for Gov. Bonham and properly called by the still-present family Boneum, though a radio newsman defended to me his saying BONN-um "because it sounds better."

Although when speaking of novelist James Fenimore we erudite folk properly should say KOO-per (as in "booze"), the name in South Carolina properly is pronounced KOO-puh (as in "foot") for the University's Cooper Library, the Cooper River or John Hughes Cooper, in whose Lakeview of years gone by I learned how to swim (I mean dog-paddle).

Though we have yet to educate some of the speaking media thus, the one word on which a person is the final authority is the pronunciation of his/her own name. With such a name as mine - pronounced KNIFE-uh because after 250 years of its being in these parts no southerner is going to twist his mouth to Germanize NOI-fer - I ensured myself a brief political career when this past summer a young governor-promoter called of an evening to say, "Hello, Mrs. NEW-fer, how are you? I'm calling for the governor to ask your help." And I responded (I thought politely), "Darling, you tell the Guv y'all oughta pronounce names right if you want votes." The young lady gasped and hung up.

Across the street from Richland Mall and a bit north of the commercial area is the residential section called Quinine Hill (take your pick between pronouncing it QUI-nine and QUINN-ine). The late Sen. Jim Hammond early owned this land and wrote several stories of name origins in the area for our journal. A spring thereby reputedly had a quinine taste, from which regular consumption coped with malaria. Actually, the city dwellers down in the Congaree River valley during the summer mosquito months often took refuge "in the hill" where the biters were less plentiful.

Going farther east, take a left turn onto North Trenholm Road to head out toward my neck of the woods. As Dean Francis Bradley noted in his early NSC articles on Columbia area streets, Trenholm, treasurer of the Confederacy, had his home on this now much-traveled thoroughfare through the residential area developed since World War II. Though real estate developers sometimes resort to absurd duplications (at last count there were more than 55 Pine Something or Something Pine streets in the Greater Columbia area), there are enough name stories out here to fill a separate book.

There's a bit of smug know-better felling I have when some of the newcomers out here see all the trees down both sides of the lengthy Sylvan Drive and incorrectly call it SILL-vun Drive. It's named for the Sylvan (SILL-VAN) family, longtime jewelers in Columbia.

Naturally, Satchel Ford Road School is one of my favorite place names, since my children went to school there and a host of other mothers and I had a famous baseball game (The Cool Cats vs. The Country Squares) to raise money to build the second baseball field (still appropriately named The Ann Hampton Field, for Satchel Ford Road School's first and favorite principal).

The name Satchel Ford goes back to the last century. A fellow living out here in the country would trudge back from town with his food and varied supplies in a satchel. He'd walk alongside the stream just to the east of the present schoolyard until he came to a place narrow enough and shallow enough for him to ford (cross) the stream without getting his satchel wet. Hence the present name of the road thereby and so, too, the school.

Up the road, Sadie Kelly suspects I'm trying to change the name of her town of Blythewood back to its earlier titled Doko (the possible railroad reference to "watering place for the iron horse"). That's where my favorite America's worst poet, J. Gordon Coogler, was born to pen much more than his most famous couplet: "Alas for the South! Her books have grown fewer/ She never was much given to literature." Only such unique souls as Claude and I would have published Coogler's complete works in 1974 - which resulted in Coogler clubs being established from Seattle to Miami.

And out my way is the Gillespie family, whose forebears were well-known cock fighters credited with giving Revolutionary Gen. Thomas Sumter the nickname The Gamecock. He was highly praised as being "one of the Blue Hen's chickens" so that his namesake, the town of Sumter, is appropriately called The Gamecock City.

Since I didn't even get into such gems as Blaney and Elgin, Shivar Spring, Castine Drive (for another favorite school principal), Pin Cushion, Three-Dog Road, Poinsett Park and several thousand others, the Sandlapper boss said I could come back another year. If you're too curious to wait, look 'em up in the fully indexed Names in South Carolina in the reference room of any public library over the state (and even a few other full-setter libraries from New York to Chicago to San Francisco).

Yes, siree, I'm mighty proud of the mammoth onomastic work my Claude Henry did. As I reminded one of our state senators the other night out at Woodfield when he sorta apologized for bragging about what he had done in the legislature, "Just remember, Senator, the Scripture says, 'Whosoever tooteth not his own horn, said horn will not be tooted.' Claude was too modest to brag, so I do it for him, from Oyster Point to Keowee."


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