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

By John Kelly
Thursday, April 26, 2007

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

Washington, D.C.

That's an easy one. The capital is named after our first president, George Washington. Every schoolchild knows about him, though much of what we know is wrong. He didn't chop down a cherry tree. (That myth was invented by an early biographer, door-to-door Bible salesman Mason Locke Weems.) He didn't have wooden teeth. (His dentures were made of hippopotamus teeth, among other materials.) He didn't throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. (It was a stone, and it was the much narrower Rappahannock.)

But Washington was 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.

Montgomery County

Killed in a raging snowstorm on New Year's Eve 1775, while leading an assault on the British-held city of Quebec, the Irish-born Richard Montgomery became the country's first national hero. At least 18 U.S. counties and towns are named for him.

Prince George's County

An overweight, alcoholic asthmatic who never shed his thick Scandinavian accent, Prince George of Denmark didn't make much of an impression on those who met him. But he was extremely loyal to his wife, Britain's Queen Anne. "I am her majesty's subject," he once said modestly.

Howard County

Lt. Col. John Eager Howard was the son of a wealthy Baltimore County planter who rose through the ranks of the Continental Army. At the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina in 1781, he ordered his men to make a bayonet charge that routed the enemy. Howard's bravery earned him a silver medal from Congress. He went on to serve as a delegate to the Continental Congress, governor of Maryland and U.S. senator.

Frederick County

What can you say about a man accused of having his own harem and who was the central character in a notorious London rape case? Why, you can say that Frederick County is named after him. Frederick Calvert was the sixth and, as it turned out, last Lord Baltimore. In 1768, he was accused of "feloniously ravishing" a milliner named Sarah Woodcock, after luring her to his Epsom estate with the promise of work. Amazingly, Frederick was acquitted.

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 earl of Arlington. During England's Civil War, Bennet took a saber in the face, a blow that cut right down to the bone. For the rest of his life, he wore a black bandage across his nose to cover the unsightly scar.


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 gave 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 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.

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, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com.

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