USGS: Let’s Talk Turkey Across the Landscape

By Mark Newel, Jon Campbell and Lou Yost

Looking across a bountiful American landscape at Thanksgiving, we can see — in a virtual sense with  the help of computers and a massive database of geographic names — that the names of many places around the nation remind us of key themes in the Thanksgiving tradition.

Surprisingly, the word “Thanksgiving” itself is found in only a handful of U.S. placenames.

Turkeys, Pilgrims, and Cranberries

The word “Turkey” appears on maps of Virginia 83 times; in Missouri 118 times. Oklahoma maps show the name 150 times.  Texas is the state with the most “Turkey” placenames at nearly 190.

The word “Pilgrim” is associated with 34 features or structures in Massachusetts, as may seem historically appropriate. But, there are more “Pilgrim” names in Mississippi, 134.  Alabama has 112.

“Cranberry” is part of almost 70 water-related feature names in Wisconsin. Maine has 54 placename references to the little red berry; Pennsylvania, 49. California only has one.

“Thanksgiving” in geographic names is comparatively rare. There are two streams in Alaska named Thanksgiving Creek. Their name origins are both tied to prospector discoveries. Only one U.S. lake has the name: Thanksgiving Pond in Piscataquis County, Maine. Thanksgiving Gorge is the name of a valley in Moffat County, Colorado. No towns or cities are named Thanksgiving. (Left: Historical placard indicating Plymouth Rock, Landing Place of the Pilgrims.)

Keeping Track of Place Names

These statistics and locations are the results of queries submitted to the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), a national database maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. The GNIS collection of over 2.5 million records provides name and location data that uniquely identifies each of the Nation’s communities, rivers, hills, lakes, and other geographic features. Individually, these names can range from predictably generic to amusingly peculiar. Collectively, they mirror the American experience across history and the land. (Right: GNIS screenshot)

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, created in 1890, has authorized the GNIS as the official repository of U.S. geographic names data. The Board, working together with the Secretary of the Interior, has the responsibility for establishing standard geographic names throughout the federal government.

Standardized spellings and locations for geographic names promote greater efficiency throughout government agencies and in the private sector by enabling higher levels of precision in geographically-based databases and computer-driven mapping. You might imagine the difficulty your car’s navigation system would have in untangling different names or different spellings for the same place.

A Sense of Place

“The GNIS contains map-relevant information about every physical and cultural geographic feature that has a name in the United States,” said Lou Yost, a USGS geographer who serves as the Executive Secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. “At first thought, standard geographic names might appear to be entirely obvious. But through time and over so many names, there are quite a few discrepancies, and occasionally major controversies, that need to be straightened out.”

“Beyond the practicalities of maps and databases, geographic names are important to every citizen’s sense of place,” Yost observed. “That’s why the Board’s most important consideration in a geographic name controversy is ‘established local usage.’ The Board’s goal, within very broad limits of name standardization, is to have the official name reflect the name that the local community actually uses.”


So now, after enjoying a holiday dinner, you can learn more about places that might fit with a Thanksgiving theme. Or, with your relatives gathered, you might want to search the Geographic Names Information System for places across the country that match your family name. (Left: Welcome sign to Cranberry Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania.)

Reprinted from the USGS Blog.

Published Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Written by Mark Newel, Jon Campbell and Lou Yost

Published in


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