Why Does It Have That Name?

The origins of the names of the Forest, Ranger Districts, and some of the features on the Monongahela are interesting to many folks, but are frequently somewhat hazy or subject to a variety of interpretations.  Most of the following is based on a book entitled, “West Virginia Place Names” by Hammill Kenney.

The names of the Forest and the Cheat, Gauley, Greenbrier and Potomac Districts were derived from major rivers, reflecting the emphasis placed on river and water protection when establishing the National Forests.

Although none of the Forest is on the main stem of the Monongahela River, much of the original purchase unit and of the area actually designated as National Forest in 1920 was within the Monongahela Basin.  Major flood damage on this river, particularly in Pittsburgh, contributed greatly to passage of the Weeks Act of 1911, which authorized purchase of lands for National Forest purposes.  “Monongahela” reportedly came from one of several interpretations or spellings of one or more American Indian (presumably Delaware) words such as “Mehmannauwinggelan”, “Menaungehilla”, or “Meh-non-ge-heh-lal” which have been translated into phrases such as “many landslides”, “high banks or bluffs, breaking off and falling down in places”, or “places of caving or falling banks” which may have originally referred to the point of the junction between the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Rivers at McKeesport, PA (near Pittsburgh) or to the river in general.  The most commonly quoted meaning appears to be “the river of falling banks.”

The Cheat River is variously reported to have been named for a French explorer (or an Indian) named Cheat or Chaet; from an abundance of cheat grass along its banks (possibly a misidentification of frost-killed wheat); or from deceptively deep pools that presumably cheated men of their lives by drowning them.  None of these theories appears to be very satisfactory, but the one referring to deep pools and drowning is most often mentioned.  (One article has stated that Cheat Mountain got its name because so many loggers had been cheated of their lives while working on it, an apparent variation of the river story.)  The Delaware Indian name was reportedly “Ach-sin-ha-nac” meaning stony river.

“Gauley” apparently reflects the early French presence in the Ohio River area during the 1700s.  Much of western Europe, including France, was once called Gaul and the name has been applied to France itself.  The Delaware Indian name for the river is reported to have been “To-ke-bel-lo-ke” meaning “falling creek.”

The Greenbrier River was evidently named first by the French as “Ronce Verte” (literally “brier green”) which the English translated to Greenbrier.  The name apparently referred to an abundance of greenbrier vines along the river, but the French word “ronce” is also translated as “bramble”, so it might be argued that the name referred to blackberry bushes or some other plant.

“Potomac” reportedly came from an Indian name variously interpreted as “place of burning pine”, “they are coming by water”, or “something brought.”  (Translation of Indian names is apparently not an expert science.)  The portion above the mouth of the Shenandoah was presumably known to the Indians as “Cohongoronto” meaning “wild goose”, while the South Branch (which includes much of the Potomac District) was called “Wappocomo” or “Wappatomaka.”  One source suggests that the “wap” portion is an Algonquin word meaning “white”, but it doesn’t give a further translation.

The White Sulphur District, established in 1934, was mostly in the Greenbrier drainage, but the name “Greenbrier” was already taken.  We don’t know just why the name “White Sulphur” was selected, since the headquarters were in Marlinton.  There may have been plans to eventually move to White Sulphur Springs, but the District was apparently never officially called the “White Sulphur Springs District.”

The Marlinton District, which was established from parts of the Gauley and White Sulphur Districts in 1957, naturally took its name from the town.  Marlinton, originally called Marlin’s Bottom, was named for Jacob Marlin, who lived in a cabin there in 1750-51.  He and Stephen Sewell, the first settlers in the area, lived together in a cabin until they had a falling out, presumably over religion, and Sewell moved into a hollow sycamore.  Residents apparently didn’t think “Marlin’s Bottom” was an appropriate name for a growing town and changed it to Marlinton in 1887.