Many towns have undergone name changes at some point in their history. Usually it's because the land the town is on has come under new rule, or has outgrown its old designation. Because of the military overseeing westward expansion, there are scores of towns in the U.S. that used to be named “Fort __,” and for centuries most of Europe bore Roman names in honor of their conquerors. But some towns have had more unique reasons for changing their names. Scandal, shame, confusion, or just because the name sounds wrong can all be reasons to spur a community toward a new name. Here are five examples of towns that felt it necessary to present a fresh identity to the world.
1. Berlin, Ontario, Canada, became Kitchener
A lot of German immigrants settled in Southern Ontario in the 19th century, and the town of Berlin was named as homage to their motherland. Then the motherland started bombing allies of their current homeland. That, combined with the large population of pacifist Mennonites in Berlin, spelled trouble for the town. All the pacifists meant that men from Berlin weren’t signing up for the war effort, and other towns began to look at the heavily German populated Berlin with suspicion.
Soon there was a referendum (not supported by the majority) to change the name of the town. Citizens were given many options of new names, but there was no space on the ballot to keep Berlin “Berlin.” Anyone who supported the status quo was, according to National Archives of Canada, “immediately perceived, by those who wanted change, as being unpatriotic and sympathizers with the enemy.”
Violence, riots, and intimidation followed. Only 892 people out of a population of 15,000 voted on the referendum, and only 346 votes in favor were enough to change Berlin to Kitchener, named after Britain’s Minister of War. A petition with 2000 signatures was not enough to stop the change.
2. Pile-Of-Bones, Saskatchewan, Canada became Regina
Today, Regina is a city 200,000 people strong. In the 1880s, it was barren grassland frequented only by buffalo and the Cree Indians who hunted them. The old adage that Indians used all parts of the buffalo appears to have been true, except for the bones. These they piled about 2 meters high and 12 meters in diameter, in hope that the buffalo would return to visit the bones. The first settlers and trappers kept the obvious name.
Then, in 1882, the wife of Canada’s governor general, Princess Louise, suggested they change the name to honor her own mother, Queen Victoria. Regina is Latin for “Queen,” and all female monarchs sign their name using it. Thus Saskatchewan was elevated out of the boneyard to royal heights.
3. Wineville, California became Mira Loma
Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie made a movie called Changeling, about a mother who is sure the kidnapped son returned to her is not actually her boy. It was based on true events, and those events are why the town of Wineville, California has been called Mira Loma for the last 80 years. The real-life kidnapped boy, Walter Collins, was likely murdered in Wineville, along with at least three other boys, by Gordon Stewart Northcott. The case became known as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, as that is the area of Northcott’s ranch where the partial remains of his victims were uncovered. Northcott was hanged in 1930, and the town sought to escape its appalling notoriety by changing its name in 1931.
4. Staines, Surrey, became Staines-Upon-Thames
Americans have come to loathe or love Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat or Bruno. In his native UK, he was first known as the character Ali G, an obnoxious wanna-be white boy British rapper. Part of Ali G’s background is that he grew up in the mean ghettos of Staines (in actuality a lovely little middle-class town in Surrey). His fame was such in the UK that the people of Staines didn’t appreciate being associated with his image, and changed their name to the more elegant Staines-upon-Thames—partly to distance themselves from Ali G’s obnoxious antics, and partly to advertise their proximity to the river Thames to encourage tourism. Says town Councilor Colin Davis describing the change, "I regard Ali G as someone who put Staines on the map, we're just telling people where it is."
5. Gay Head, Massachusetts, became Aquinnah
On the western edge of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there is an outcropping of craggy, brightly tinted rock. The white settlers of the 1600s wrote of them as the “gaily colored cliffs,” and the name soon stuck to the settlement that grew near them. The town of Gay Head was born. It was laid to rest 400 years later, when the town of Gay Head successfully voted to change its name to Aquinnah in 1997. As many of the town’s residents are in some way related to the original holders of the land, the Wampanoag tribe, the name change was meant to reflect its Native American heritage.
Although many people might hear of this change and think, “Well yeah, no wonder. That name makes me think of a sex act,” the people behind the name change want the world to know their decision had nothing to do with homosexual connotations. Said the tribesman who started the petition in 1991, Carl Widdiss, "I guess it's simple. An Indian place should have an Indian name."