What's in a Name? A Lot of History.

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By John Kelly
Thursday, April 26, 2007

How do you get a county named after you? Well, it helps if you're a noble. That's what I discovered when I looked into where our local names came from. I discovered a lot of other things, too.

Loudoun County

John Campbell, the fourth Earl of Loudoun, was really more of a farmer than a fighter. That would have been perfectly fine, except that King George II sent him to the American colonies to wage war. The Scottish nobleman was born in 1705 and came to America in July 1756 as commander in chief of British forces during the French and Indian War.

Lord Loudoun didn't exactly inspire confidence with his leadership. He'd already botched things back home, losing nearly all his regiment during one battle and later letting a valued prisoner escape. But he knew how to party, and when he came to America he brought copious amounts of wine, plates and silverware, and an eight-member personal staff that included his mistress.

His superiors hoped Loudoun would attack the French fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. But he dithered. He was, critics complained, someone who liked to write out his plans but never executed them.

Even though he had been named acting governor of Virginia, Loudoun never made it farther south than Philadelphia. He was relieved of his command just a year and a half after arriving and returned to his Scottish estate, where he enjoyed his first love, farming. He died in 1782. The Loudoun family motto, by the way, is "I Byde My Time."

Arlington County

The county takes its name from George Washington Parke Custis's estate. As for Custis's estate, it took its name from an English nobleman named Henry Bennet, later Lord Arlington. During England's Civil War, Bennet took a saber in the face, a blow that cut down to the bone. For the rest of his life, he wore a black bandage across his nose to cover the unsightly scar.

Alexandria

We know whom Alexandria is named after. We just don't know much about the guy. John Alexander was a Scottish planter who in 1669 paid an English ship captain named Robert Howson 6,000 pounds of tobacco for the land that would eventually take his family's name.

Fairfax County

Thomas, Lord Fairfax, didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. After inheriting enormous holdings in Virginia's Northern Neck from his mother, he twice traveled to America. The second time he stayed for good, even hiring a young man named George Washington to survey some of his land.

Prince William County

Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was George II's second son. A natural soldier, William was in command during the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1746 against forces loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie. That battle earned William the nickname "the Butcher," after English troops under his command rampaged across the countryside, shooting and bayoneting thousands of Highlanders, burning their farms and stealing their cattle.

Fauquier County

No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson once called Francis Fauquier "the ablest governor who had ever served in Williamsburg." Fauquier technically never was governor. From 1758 to 1768 he was lieutenant governor, but he filled in regularly for his absent superiors.

Washington, D.C.

That's an easy one. The capital is named after our first president, George Washington, a onetime surveyor, a successful planter, a slave owner and the young nation's consummate soldier/politician. As for the "District of Columbia" portion, that's named after the Italian who "discovered" the New World: Christopher Columbus, who, it is said, sunburned easily.

Julia Feldmeier helped research this essay. "John Kelly's Washington" appears Sunday through Thursday in the Metro section.

To learn about whom other Washington area counties are named for, visithttp://www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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