NEWPORT NEWS.

Another tidbit from George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (p. 58):

Also two brothers named Newce came there [to Virginia] to make a plantation. Once before, in Ireland, they had founded a town, naming it Newcetown, where it still stands. So now to their second settlement they gave the name New, and since it had an anchorage, they called it Port, and it became New Port Newce. The brothers were unfortunate, and men forgot them soon; but men remembered Captain Newport, who had done much to found Virginia. So they began to think and write Newport’s Newce, perhaps even to confuse the second part with Neuse River. Then in trying to make sense they wrote Newport News, and so it remained. Thus with men and names, as with fishes in the sea, the greater often swallow up the smaller.

According to the Wikipedia article, the etymology is disputed, but with what brio Stewart tells the story!
Addendum. A query by AJP in the comment thread prompted me to check the endnotes done for the 1958 edition, where I find an extended discussion which I reproduce below:

Newport News: My account is chiefly based upon Alexander Brown, First Republic in America (1898), p. 459. Work appearing since 1944 throws doubt upon this explanation. See C.W. Evans, “Newport News: What’s in a Name?” in Newport News’ 325 years, A.C. Brown, ed. (1946), and P.B. Rogers ["Place Names on the Virginia Peninsula," American Speech, 29 (1954):241-56]. Both these writers end in doubt, and Rogers concludes: “It is now time for all to admit freely that . . . nobody today really knows how the city got its name.” I certainly agree, as far as absolute knowledge is concerned. I cannot see, however, that these later writers have wholly negated Brown, especially since in his statements that the last word is spelled Newce, Newse, and Nuce he seems to be using documents to which they have not had access. Moreover, their argument that the name cannot be connected with Thomas Newce because he arrived in Virginia only a few days before its first recorded appearance seems to me reversible. May not this almost simultaneous appearance actually indicate a connection with the Newces? In fact, if it were known that they were to make a settlement there, the place might have been named for them even before their arrival.

Comments

  1. I’d always wondered about that rather posh-sounding name.
    You mention the Wikipedia dispute; the book sounds so authoritative. Does he cite sources and mention when etymologies aren’t that rock-solid?

  2. I don’t know this particular book, but I read and was greatly impressed by another book by Stewart many years ago — too long ago to remember how good he is at referencing things, but he is (was?) clearly the authority on his subject.
    The great advantage of US place names over (say) European place names is that there is often a historical record saying who gave a place a name and why, whereas in Europe it is mostly a matter of guessing, and, according to Stewart, usually guessing wrongly. One of his central points (clearly supported by documentary data for the US) is that places tend to get named for something unexpected, not for something routine. A creek in the Rockies where wolves frequently congregated in the time of settlers will almost certainly not get called “Wolf Creek”, whereas if one wolf was once seen in a place where no wolf had ever been seen before the place might easily get called “Wolf Creek”.

  3. The book originally came out in 1944 and due to wartime restrictions had no references; he added a Notes and References section at the end for the 1958 edition, saying “references and citations are given when the source of information is not clear from the text and when it is to be found in some out-of-the-way document, or when a debatable question is involved,” and it turns out there is a note to this passage, which I will add to the post—thanks for prompting me to find it!

  4. Thanks, both of you.

  5. SnowLeopard says:

    “Wartime restrictions” precluded the use of notes and references? You mean a paper shortage?

  6. Yes, his full phrase is “wartime restrictions on paper.”

  7. Bill Walderman says:

    From the city’s website:
    ‘No one knows for sure where Newport News got its name, but “Newportes Newes” first appears in the Virginia Company records in 1619, making it one of the oldest place names in the New World. The most widely accepted folktale is that our city is the namesake of Captain Christopher Newport, commander of Susan Constant, flagship of the three ship English fleet that landed on Jamestown Island in 1607. He made several voyages to Newport News in the early days of the Jamestown Colony, bringing “good news” of supplies and settlers.’
    http://www.newport-news.org/

  8. It sounds like the city ought to buy a copy of Names on the Land.

  9. Gannett seems to say that it’s named for both Capt. Newce and Capt. Newport.
    Off topic: a recent copy of the BU alumni magazine that we picked up free in the library’s swap bin has an article on teaching Ajami there as part of African Studies. Note the note left by Austin, whose book came up in an earlier discussion here.

  10. mollymooly says:

    I am disappointed to find that that local newspaper in Newport News is called the “Daily Press”.

  11. Note the note left by Austin, whose book came up in an earlier discussion here.
    Thanks for the great BU link, but I don’t see a reference to Austin’s book in the earlier discussion (which was splendid).

  12. I agree, Molly. What a missed opportunity.

  13. I don’t see a reference to Austin’s book in the earlier discussion
    Oh, sorry. Indirect reference. Follow the very last link (in second to last post) to this Boston Phoenix article from July ’98. (Which means it would have been when we had The Weekly Week, although that was deliberate, of course.)

  14. Oh, and Roger’s paper, which seems to be the latest of citation above, is available in JSTOR. It cites Evans, which also appears to be the source for the latest reference in the ANS’s journal, Names.

  15. ‘….first appears in the Virginia Company records in 1619, making it one of the oldest place names in the New World. ”
    One of the oldest *English* place names in the New World. There are loads of much older names all over the US, not to mention the rest of the New World.

  16. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says:

    According to logainm.ie, there’s no Newcetown anywhere in Ireland, but there is a townland called Newstown in Co. Carlow.

  17. There is a Newcestown in Co. Cork.

Speak Your Mind

*