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How Houston's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

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Wikimedia Commons

Houston is a city that prides itself on having no official zoning, and Houston neighborhoods have a decidedly freewheelin' feel. Management districts butt up against municipalities and unincorporated areas, which overlap with wards, which are part of super-neighborhoods, which are often referenced by other names.

Looking at the origins of those names gives a glimpse at the movers and shakers (and Quakers) of Houston's past. It's a past populated with farmers, industrialists, ministers, soldiers and philanthropists, not to mention a postmistress, a murderer, and a saloon-owning Prohibitionist.

This list is extensive but incomplete. The origins of some neighborhood names are long forgotten, and with others it's probably safe to assume a developer just mashed a few bucolic words together for marketing purposes. (Here's looking at you, Glenbrook Valley and Woodland Trails.)

I've included some communities outside of Houston proper, because a sprawl city doesn't have borders so much as subtle transitions into ruralness. And we all know everyone in Katy claims Houston anyway.

Marks Hinton's Historic Houston Streets: The Stories Behind the Names was a big help, as was The Handbook of Texas, and I'd definitely recommend both for further reading.

ACRES HOMES

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Originally marketed as country life with city access, Acres Homes was often divided by the acre instead of the plot, giving homeowners enough room for a garden and maybe even a few chickens.

ALDINE

Aldine was a stop on International-Great Northern Railroad in the 1890s. It was named after a family who owned a nearby farm, although not much information about that family is known.

ALIEF

In 1894 this community was surveyed and named Dairy, Texas. But there already was another town in Texas named Dairy, so the postal service started calling the town Alief in honor of its first postmistress, Alief Ozella Magee.

ALVIN

In 1872, the Santa Fe Railroad hired Alvin Morgan to supervise its cattle operations in the area, and he built the community's first house. The town originally was called Morgan, but Texas already had a Morgan, so Alvin was the next best thing.

ATASCOCITA

This area is named for what is probably the oldest road in the Houston area, a military highway laid out in the 1700s.  Even though the name is old, construction didn’t begin in the area until the 1970s.

BAYTOWN

Baytown is home to Burnet Bay, Crystal Bay, Scott Bay, Mitchell Bay, Black Duck Bay, San Jacinto Bay, Tabbs Bay, and Galveston Bay. That's a lot of bays.

BELLAIRE

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Burlington Railroad executive William Wright Baldwin founded Bellaire after purchasing the Rice Ranch in 1908. Promotional materials in 1909 claimed Baldwin named the community for its fresh breezes, although it might've just been named for Bellaire, Ohio, a town on his railroad.

BRAESWOOD PLACE

The word "Braes" is commonly seen on signs around Houston, and Marks Hinton notes in Historic Houston Streets that it's the Scottish word for hillside. Scotland's hills are significantly steeper than Houston's, but accuracy isn't as important as aspiration when it comes to naming subdivisions. This spelling is sometimes confused with that of Brays Bayou, which is named for James Bray, a surveyor for the Mexican government who was one of the area's first Anglo settlers.

CHANNELVIEW

Channelview is located on the northern side of the Houston Ship Channel.

DENVER HARBOR

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Denver Harbor's original subdivisions were Denver, Harbor, Harbordale, and Liberty Heights, and the name "Denver Harbor" was used to describe the whole community. The place is also known as Podunk, in reference to that word being written on a local water tower in 1939. Authorities repeatedly covered the graffito, but it would usually reappear after a few days.

FRIENDSWOOD

At the turn of the last century, a group of Quakers bought 1,500 acres of land along the county line between Harris and Galveston. For 60 years they called this wooded area home. Quakers are also known as the Society of Friends.

FREEDMEN’S TOWN

Freedmen's Town is Houston's oldest black community. It was established after the Civil War when 1000 freed slaves settled on inexpensive swampy land along Buffalo Bayou.

FIRST WARD, SECOND WARD, ETC.

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After John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen founded Houston in 1836, they divided it into four geographic territories called wards. These wards were divided without regard to population, using geographic boundaries such as streets and the bayou. The first four wards intersected at Congress Street and Main Street. As Houston's population grew, the Fifth Ward was carved out of parts of the First and Second in 1866, and the Sixth Ward was created a decade later from a cut of the Fourth. Each ward elected two aldermen, with the mayor receiving votes citywide. The ward system was abolished in 1915, but that hasn't stopped members of the community, including the Geto Boys, from using the designations.

GARDEN OAKS

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Developer Edward Lillo Crain Sr. loved gardens. True story.

HARRISBURG

Harrisburg is older than Houston. It was given its name in 1826 by a New York entrepreneur named John Richardson Harris. He didn't look far for inspiration.

HEDWIG VILLAGE

In 1906, Hedwig Jankowski joined her sister and other German immigrants in what is now the Spring Branch Memorial area. She met and married Henry Schroeder, and the two set up a farm in what would become Hedwig Village.

HOUSTON HEIGHTS

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The Heights is 23 feet higher than downtown.

HUMBLE

Humble was founded by Pleasant Smith Humble, a ferryboat operator on the San Jacinto River who arrived before the Civil War.

JERSEY VILLAGE

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Jersey Village began in 1953 when a dairy farmer named Clark W. Henry decided to develop the area. One story is that he named the neighborhood after his Jersey cows.

KATY

There are two theories: Either Katy was named for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, which was called the KT by railroad officials, or it was named for a barkeeper's wife. Which theory you choose to believe probably says something about you.

KINGWOOD

Kingwood was created by the Friendswood Development Company in 1971. The land was previously held by the King Ranch, which lent its name to one delicious chicken casserole recipe and owns enough acreage to cover Rhode Island. Take "King Ranch" and add "Friendswood," and you've got "Kingwood."

MEMORIAL

Camp Logan Development outside the Interstate 610 loop began in the 1950s along Memorial Drive. That arterial road was named in honor of the men who served in Camp Logan, a WW1 emergency training center, which is now the site of Memorial Park.

MEYERLAND

Meyerland was developed by George Meyer.

MIDTOWN

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In 1995, the City of Houston established the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. The area is located between downtown and the Museum District, and before revitalization it showed serious signs of urban blight. The name "Midtown" was no doubt seen as a better lure for young urban professionals than "that sketchy area around the Greyhound station."

MONTROSE

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Montrose was named after a historic town in Scotland by J.W. Link of the Houston Land Corporation.

MUSEUM DISTRICT

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The Museum District is home to the Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum, the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Contemporary Art Museum, among others.

OAK FOREST

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Frank W. Sharp developed this community after World War II, presumably inspired by its trees. Sharp is also the man behind Jacinto City, Royden Oaks, Lamar Weslayan, and Sharpstown.

PASADENA

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Pasadena, California is named for the Chippewa Indian word for "valley." The Texas town's pre-industrial lushness apparently reminded early developers of the California community.

PEARLAND

This community was originally established as Mark Belt in 1893, but within a year the name was changed to account for the pear trees in the region (which was probably a good call).

RICE MILITARY

The Rice family owned a section of land near Camp Logan. Put those two together and you've got Rice Military.

RICE VILLAGE

Speaking of the Rice family, its most famous son was William Marshall Rice, a Massachusetts-born businessman who endowed Rice University in 1891 before being murdered nine years later in New York City by his butler and attorney. His ashes are underneath a statue on the campus, and the adjacent neighborhood also bears his name.

RIVER OAKS

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River Oaks is named for the trees that line the banks of Buffalo Bayou.

SHARPSTOWN

Sharpstown was developer Frank W. Sharp's biggest project, so he went ahead and gave this one his own name.

STAFFORD

William Stafford was among the first settlers to receive land grants in Stephen F. Austin's colony. In 1835 he killed a man and fled to the United States, but three years later was granted clemency on the grounds that the man he killed was "destitute of character" and "much addicted to brawls." Stafford returned to his plantation and died two years later.

SOUTH PARK

South Park is south of MacGregor Park.

SPRING BRANCH

This community is named for the creek that intersected Buffalo Bayou at the spot where German farmers began settling in 1830. How that creek came to be called Spring Branch is unknown.

SUGAR LAND

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This community has been home to sugar mills since at least 1843, and it became a company town of the Imperial Sugar Company in the early 1900s.

TANGLEWOOD

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Tanglewood was developed by William Giddings Farrington. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales for Boys and Girls was one of his daughter's favorite books.

TOMBALL

Originally called Peck, Tomball was renamed in honor of Thomas Henry Ball, a big supporter of the Houston Ship Channel. In 1914, Ball ran for governor on the Prohibitionist ticket, but his quest was sidelined by his opponent who hired people to take photos of him in saloons and turned Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of Ball into Washington interfering in Texas.

UPPER KIRBY

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This district is named for its location on Kirby Drive, which in turn is named for John Henry Kirby, a businessman whose lumber company dominated more than 300,000 acres of East Texas pines.

WEST UNIVERSITY PLACE

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This place is west of Rice University.

THE WOODLANDS

In 1972, the Mitchell Energy & Development Corporation created this community among the pines north of Houston. The area had been the site of timber mills for years.

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Why Swaziland Was Just Renamed eSwatini
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With the arrival of a new African nation, mapmakers just got a little bit busier. The king of Swaziland surprised foreign powers and compatriots alike when he recently announced that the country’s official name would revert to eSwatini, the name it went by prior to British colonialism.

King Mswati III, one of the few remaining absolute monarchs in the world, announced the name-change decision during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country declaring independence from Britain.

"African countries on getting independence reverted to their ancient names before they were colonized. So from now on the country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini,” Mswati announced to a crowd in the city of Manzini, located about 23 miles from the capital Mbabane.

The king said there was another motivation for the name change: to avoid being regularly mistaken for Switzerland. "Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland," Mswati said.

While some consider the name change to be a patriotic move, others were critical of the decision, arguing that the small country in southern Africa has more pressing issues to tackle, including poverty, hunger, and the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS.

The name eSwatini essentially means “land of the Swati” in siSwati, the local language. Editor and author James Hall took to twitter to break down the etymology of the name:

Several African nations have opted to shed the names given to them by colonial powers, including Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland), and others.

How hard is it for a country to change its name, though? According to eSwatini’s Ministry of Home Affairs, it “won’t happen overnight.” The country will also need to register its new name with international agencies like the UN and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Adopting a new internet domain could end up being one of the more time-consuming steps, according to the BBC. But fortunately, citizens of the country might not need to run out to get a new passport, as eSwatini is already included on the document in a smaller font.

[h/t CNN]

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Excerpt
How a Scottish Swindler Lured His Countrymen to a Fake City of Untold Riches
Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

Mythological mountain ranges, illusory oceans, and apocryphal islands crowded the maps of early navigators. Some imaginary features, though, remained on charts well after satellite imagery and GPS should have confirmed their nonexistence. As Edward Brooke-Hitching writes in his new book, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (Chronicle Books), some fake places made a lasting impression simply because their promoters were so brazen. In this excerpt, Brooke-Hitching describes one scoundrel's scheme to lure settlers to a fictional Central American city of untold riches—with disastrous results.

There are shameless liars, there are bold-as-brass fraudsters, and then there is a level of mendacity so magnificent it is inhabited by one man alone: ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor. In 1822, South American nations such as Colombia, Chile, and Peru were a new vogue in a sluggish investor’s market, being lands of opportunity, offering bonds with rates of interest too profitable to pass up. And so, when the charismatic ‘Cazique of Poyais’ sauntered into London, resplendent in medals and honors bestowed on him by George Frederic Augustus, king of the Mosquito Coast, and waving a land grant from said monarch that endowed him his own kingdom, he was met with an almost salivary welcome.

Perhaps if he had been a total stranger there might have been more wariness, but this was a man of reputation: Sir Gregor MacGregor of the clan MacGregor, great-great-nephew of Rob Roy, was famous from overseas dispatches for his service with the ‘Die-Hards,’ the 57th Foot regiment that had fought so valiantly at the Battle of Albuera in 1811. As a soldier of fortune, he had bled for Francisco de Miranda and for Simón Bolívar against the Spanish; the man was a hero. And now here he was in London, fresh from adventure, with the glamorous Princess Josefa of Poyais on his arm, looking for investment in his inchoate nation.

And the tales he told of his new homeland! Some 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of abundant natural resources and exquisite beauty; rich soil crying out for skilled farming; seas alive with fish and turtles, and countryside crowded with game; rivers choked with ‘native Globules of pure Gold.’ A promotional guide to the region was published, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore: Including the Territory of Poyais (1822), featuring the utopian vista below and further details of ‘many very rich Gold Mines in the Country, particularly that of Albrapoyer, which might be wrought to great benefit.’ Best of all, for a modest sum you too could claim your own piece of paradise.

Map of the imaginary Territory of Poyais
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

For a mere 2 shillings and 3 pence, MacGregor told his rapt audience, 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of Poyais land would be theirs. This meant that, if you were able to scrape together just over £11, you could own a plot of 100 acres (40 hectares). Poyais was in need of skilled labor—the plentiful timber had great commercial potential; the fields could yield great bounty if worked properly. A man could live like a king for a fraction of the British cost of living. For those too ‘noble’ for manual labor, there were positions with prestigious titles available to the highest bidder. A city financier named Mauger was thrilled to receive the appointment of manager of the Bank of Poyais; a cobbler rushed home to tell his wife of his new role as official shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais. Families keen to secure an advantage for their young men purchased commissions in Poyais’s army and navy.

MacGregor himself had got his start this way in the British Army at the age of 16, when his family purchased for him a commission as ensign in 1803, at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. Within a year he was promoted to lieutenant, and began to develop an obsession with rank and dress. He retired from the army in 1810 after an argument with a superior officer ‘of a trivial nature,’ and it was at this point that his imagination began to take a more dominant role in his behavior. He awarded himself the rank of colonel and the badge of a Knight of the Portuguese Order of Christ. Rejected from Edinburgh high society, in London he polished his credentials by presenting himself as ‘Sir Gregor MacGregor.’ He decided to head for South America, to add some New World spice to his reputation and return a hero. Arriving in Venezuela, by way of Jamaica, he was greeted warmly by Francisco de Miranda and given a battalion to help fight the Spanish in the Venezuelan War of Independence. He then fought for Simón Bolívar when Miranda was imprisoned. Operations extended to Florida, where he devised a nascent form of what he was later to orchestrate in London, raising $160,000 by selling ‘scripts’ to investors representing parcels of Floridian territory. As Spanish forces closed in, he bid farewell to his men and fled to the Bahamas, never repaying the money.

MacGregor was intelligent, persuasive, charisma personified, with a craving for popularity, wealth, and acceptance of the elite. This was the man to whom the prospective Poyais colonists were faithfully handing their every penny. Every detail of his scheme was planned to perfection. They never stood a chance.

On September 10, 1822, the Honduras Packet left London docks, bound for the territory of Poyais, carrying 70 excited passengers, plenty of supplies and a chest full of Poyais dollars made by the official printer to the Bank of Scotland, for which the emigrants happily traded their gold and legal tender.

Having waved off the Honduras, MacGregor headed to Edinburgh and Glasgow to make the same offer to the Scots. The dramatic failure of the Darien scheme in the late 17th century (in which the kingdom of Scotland had attempted to establish a colony on the Isthmus of Panama) had virtually bankrupted the country, and any indication of history repeating itself would have been met with extreme caution. But MacGregor was a Scotsman himself, a patriot and soldier. Unfortunately, he was also in possession of a tongue of pure silver. A second swath of Poyais real estate was sold off, and a second passenger ship filled. Under the captaincy of Henry Crouch, the Kennersley Castle left the port of Leith, Scotland on January 14, 1823, carrying 200 future citizens of Poyais, eager to join the Honduras Packet travelers in their new home.

Phantom Atlas book jacket cover
Courtesy of Chronicle Books

To their utter confusion, when the colonists arrived at their destination, they found only malarial swampland and thick vegetation with no trace of civilization. There was no Poyais, no land of plenty, no capital city. They had been fooled by a conniving fantasist. Unable to afford the journey home, they had no choice but to unload their supplies and set up camp on the shore. By April, nothing had changed. No town had been found, no help had arrived, and the camp was in total despair. Disease was rife and claimed the lives of eight colonists that month. The cobbler who had been promised the role of ‘Shoemaker to the Princess’ gave up hope of ever seeing his family again, and shot himself in the head.

At this lowest point, a vessel appeared on the horizon—what’s more, it flew a British flag. The Mexican Eagle from Belize had been passing nearby on a diplomatic mission when it had caught sight of the camp. The weak settlers were brought aboard and began their slow and awful journey back to London, via the hospitals of Belize. Of the 270 or so men and women who had set out for Poyais, fewer than 50 made it back to Britain. By this time MacGregor had high-tailed it to France, where he tried and failed to run the scam again. (He was foiled when the French government noticed the rush of applications for visas to a country that didn’t exist.) He was eventually forced to flee to Venezuela, where he later died in 1845, never properly brought to answer for his extraordinary and terrible crime.

From The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books.

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