Notorious namesakes

King County isn't the only local place name with an unsavory past.

King County Council member Larry Gossett's proposal to change our county logo has rightfully seized the public imagination. Last week's packed committee meeting again related the shameful secret of how our county—then part of the Oregon Territory—was named for 1852 Vice President-elect William King, a gay Alabama senator and slave owner who died without serving a single day in office.

Granted, this is not the first time—not by a long shot—that the phrase "gay slave owner" has been read in these pages (particularly in the personals), but we decided to launch our own exclusive Seattle Weekly investigation into the matter. While we naturally endorse Gossett's idea to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the county's official namesake, our research into the origins of other local place names has shown this nomenclature confusion to be sadly typical of our headlong pioneer rush towards territorial respectability. The surprising discoveries below may convince you that it's more than King County that needs rechristening.

Seattle: Contrary to popular opinion, this name does not refer to noble Chief Sealth, but instead to his ne'er-do-well Tacoma cousin, Billy Joe Sealth, an itinerant fishmonger and arsonist. Apparently he bribed local authorities for the honor by offering them a canoe full of "fresh" salmon, which later turned out to be canned. In a letter to his cousin, eventually sentenced to prison for mail fraud and tax evasion, Chief Sealth wrote, "You have brought disrepute to our entire family and all of Puget Sound. My only regret is that I must share this once-proud name with you."

Kent: Not named for the pastoral English countryside, but instead for one Nigel Kent, a deported English convict and seller of patent cures, snake oil, and smallpox-infected blankets. Also a part-time extortionist and usurious moneylender, he managed to obtain title to most of Kent's present-day expanse—hence the name—before being tarred and feathered by enraged settlers.

Roanoke: Not derived from any particular place or person (as commonly thought), but instead from the local Native American term we'd roughly translate as "vision quest." However, over the centuries, the actual ceremony became debased and misused by rowdy Indian youths—who essentially used the once-sacred rite of passage as an excuse for going on a bender. Disappointed village elders would shake their heads in disgust, muttering, "Those damn kids are going off to the Roey again."

Medina: This appellation apparently owes nothing to the storied Arabian city, instead honoring Madame Betty Cahill's famous lakefront Medina brothel—the largest and most notorious cathouse in the Oregon Territory. A red-light district before there were electric lights, Medina was a constant irritant to local preachers, one of whom declared, "Henceforth, when people think of sin, syphilis, and wanton fornication, they shall think of Medina and burn with shame."

Walla Walla: Folklore has it that 18th-century French-Canadian trappers exclaimed "VoilࡠVoilࡢ—literally, "There it is!"—upon glimpsing the bucolic river valley. In fact, closer linguistic analysis of surviving buckskin pioneer journals has shown that the actual utterance was, "C'est un oignon dans vos pantalons ou vous 괥s content de me voir?" which loosely translates as, "Jacques, I think I've been shot by an arrow! I thought you said these natives were friendly. . . ." followed by a nonsensical death rattle erroneously recorded as "Voil஢

Bellevue: The upscale Eastside community would doubtless prefer to think its name comes from the French transliteration—"good view." Alas, the dictionary definition of the term doesn't fully communicate the pioneer spirit of irony that was so prevalent during our region's settlement. In fact, in the pre-indoor plumbing era, the term "Bellevue" was commonly employed by our forefathers to refer to the open pit cesspools in back of most primitive homes. Hence, the vernacular expression of "Get a good view?" became "Take a look?" which in turn became the more polite commonplace expression "take a leak."

Denny Street: Along with the former Denny Regrade, these and numerous other Seattle landmarks are erroneously presumed to honor pioneer settler Arthur Denny. In fact, it was his bastard son Chet Denny who managed to accrue this enduring, ill-gotten legacy. The unacknowledged spawn of the illustrious Denny and a common streetwalker (rumored to be insane), Chet was given a sinecure in the city clerk's office, where he proceeded to doctor and forge documents, deeds, and zoning regulations until half of Seattle bore his name. His misdeeds were finally discovered almost 100 years later during the Royer administration—which was too embarrassed to correct them.

Vancouver: Yes, Capt. George Vancouver did in fact visit this region during his pioneering voyages of 1792, but it was to honor his own personal manservant and adopted "son" Desmond, a strapping, winsome lad of 22 years, that so many local place names were bestowed. It seemed that Capt. Vancouver, a lifelong bachelor and man of the sea, became so enamored of his "comely young deckhand that I decided to make him my first mate" according to his own logs. The historical record is ambiguous as to whether it was the captain's subsequent "ceremony of betrothal upon the Hawaiian strand" that resulted in his slaying by intolerant natives.

Mercer Island: Completely unrelated to the honorable first citizen of Seattle, Asa Mercer. In fact, the exclusive island suburb coincidentally owes its name to a completely different, unrelated Mercer—Ezra, who initially staked his claim upon the island as a bizarre nudist colony and religious commune that based its creed upon morning enemas and nature worship. "Going to Mercer Island" became a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for going loony.

Tacoma: Oddly enough, the exact etymology of Tacoma remains unclear. Some academics translate it as "mountain," while others linguists prefer "people of the mountain god." What is known is that the actual indigenous peoples of Puget Sound typically employed the term in a phrase like, "Hey, I stepped in a real pile of Tacoma here!" in reference to its majestic, conical shape.

 
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