1. Martha’s Vineyard
© Walter Bibikow/JAI/Corbis
This island, a regular presidential vacation destination and home to the Kennedy family, owes its name to the prolific explorer Bartholomew Gosnold.
Gosnold did a number of extraordinary things in his short life. He gave both Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod their names. He pioneered the quickest way to sail from Great Britain to the northeastern seaboard of America. It was Gosnold who recruited John Smith for his Jamestown expedition. And a published account of his voyage in 1602 was responsible for popularizing the colonization of New England.
Martha's Vineyard is named after a daughter of Gosnold who died in infancy. Originally the name was applied to a much smaller island; a “place most pleasant” according to a contemporary source. The larger island was actually called Martin's Vineyard, after the captain of the ship Gosnold was sailing on, for much of its history. Eventually the feminine name came to stand for the larger island as well. Martha's Vineyard is the eighth-oldest surviving place name the United States.
You can visit the grave of little Martha in the churchyard of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England. But if you like your viewings to be more up close and personal, head to the National Museum of Natural History. A 2003 excavation found what they believe to be the remains of Gosnold at the Jamestown settlement, and his bones are currently on display through January 2013 in an exhibition entitled “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake.”
2. Beverly Hills
Sign image via Shutterstock
You’d be forgiven for thinking Beverly Hills was named after a woman named Beverly. In actuality, this exclusive area of Los Angeles has a long and strange etymology.
The area we now call Beverly Hills was a series of ranches until it was purchased in the 1880s by two men named Charles Denker and Henry Hammel. Their ultimate ambition was to turn the area into a “North-African themed subdivision called Morocco.” Severe drought and an economic collapse forced them to sell the land in 1900 to the Amalgamated Oil Company. After the company failed to find oil under the land, they changed their name to Rodeo Land and Water Company and called the area Beverly Hills, after Beverly Farms in Massachusetts.
Beverly Farms itself is named after the town of Beverly, which it skirts. The town was once a popular tourist resort; President Taft had a summer house there. It also claims to be the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, although this is debated. In 1668, English settlers named the town after the village of Beverley in Yorkshire, England.
So why was this English town called Beverley? Because in the 700s, a bishop named John founded a monastery in the town of Inderawuda and called it Beverlac, possibly after a colony of beavers in a nearby river. Eventually a slightly altered version of the name came to stand for the whole town, and Bishop John became known as St. John of Beverley after his canonization in 1037.
There you have it: Beverly Hills is actually named after some medieval English beavers.
3. Fisher Island
Aerial view via Shutterstock
This elite island just off the Florida mainland had the highest per capita income in America in 2010 and is home to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Julia Roberts, and Andre Agassi. The island is named after Carl G. Fisher, who owned it from 1919-1925. Fisher was an entrepreneur, and as wealthy and interesting as any of the people who now inhabit his island.
Fisher was a larger than life character. He married one woman while engaged to another. He set up and participated in many crazy automotive and bicycle stunts, often injuring himself. He was played a key role in starting the Indianapolis 500. He palled around with Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison. And for most of his life he was filthy stinking rich.
Born in 1874, Fisher suffered from a severe astigmatism, which greatly limited his sight. Despite this, he went into business, opening a small bicycle shop with his brother. His interest soon moved from bikes to cars and his first big break came when he bought a share in the patent of the first car headlights in 1904. When he sold his share nine years later he made $9 million.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Fisher went on to open the first car lot in America, advance various areas of motor racing, and conceived and developed the Lincoln Highway, the first interstate highway that stretched 3,400 miles across the whole country.
Having tired of automobiles, he turned to real estate. Miami as we know it would not exist without Fisher, who was instrumental in the development of the area. To draw national attention to Miami, he set up a photo op of then-President Warren Harding using an elephant as a caddy on a Miami golf course.
The Florida real estate bubble burst in 1925, so Fisher moved his interests to Long Island. Since he no longer had need for his private island, he traded it to William Vanderbilt for an expensive yacht.
Fisher lost most of his money in the stock market crash of 1929 and considered himself a failure. His opinion was unfounded though, and in 1998 a panel of historians voted him one of the 50 most influential people in Florida’s history.
4. Nob Hill
© Morton Beebe/CORBIS
This neighborhood in San Francisco has always been affluent. Its expansive views and central location meant that land on the hill was in high demand as San Francisco boomed in the late 1800s. Once cable car tracks were laid up the hill, it became more accessible and thus attracted newly minted railroad and gold rush barons. Some of the most important people in California built mansions on the hill, including the founder and president of Stanford University.
The present-day walking tour “Hobnobbing with Gobs of Snobs” gives insight into some of these characters. Most of them made their money through illicit means like insider trading, illegal monopolies, and money laundering. They used their ill-gotten gains to build some of the biggest houses in America at the time; huge Victorian structures where no marble was too expensive, no ballroom too large. The daughters of some of these men married into the English aristocracy, thereby cementing Nob Hill’s worldwide prestige.
After the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed most of these great homes, the plutocrats moved away and exclusive hotels took their places.
These days Nob Hill is also known as Snob Hill, but that portmanteau is unnecessary since the 19th-century locals got there first. The “Nob” in Nob Hill was slang for someone who is “wealthy and distinguished.” Some etymologists theorize that it came from the word nabob, which was an old English term for a snob. So not only is Nob Hill an affluent neighborhood, it even owes its name to that fact.
5. The Hamptons
Hamptons image via Shutterstock
According to legend, this posh area of Long Island is named after the even posher Earl of Southampton. Thomas Wriothesley, the 4th Earl when Southampton was founded in 1640, was a Cambridge-educated aristocrat. He eventually rose to one of the most powerful political offices in Britain, that of Lord High Treasurer. Wriothesley managed to support both sides during the English Civil War, but kept his head. Since the town of Southampton was the first to be settled in that area, and since the other Hamptons (Bridgehampton, East Hampton, etc.) take their names from that town, all of them can claim to owe their name to the Earl.
However, according to the Easthampton Historical Society, that just isn’t true. “19th century snobbishness” may have resulted in locals spreading that story around, since being connected, however tangentially, to aristocracy was a big deal in late-1800s America. According to their records, Southampton was more likely named because it resembled the town of Southampton in England (no connection to the Earl), with “hamp” meaning pasture. The Native Americans had deforested much of Long Island and farmed it, so the open, flat land bordered by a coarse, brown sandy beach probably evoked memories of the south coast of England.