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[Detail] Discovery of the Mississippi: By Ferdinand De Soto

Place Names and the Language of Empire

Analyzing place names provides clues to the imperial powers that explored and claimed various sections of the Americas. Examine a contemporary map of North America and the Caribbean, looking particularly at place names. Identify place names that you think come from English, Spanish, and French. Using any patterns you discern, identify on a blank map of North and South America the areas that you think were explored and claimed by the British, Spanish, and French. Check your map against one of the maps in the collection that shows land claims by the European nations.

Research the meaning of state and city names such as: California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Cape Canaveral, Las Cruces, Santa Fe. Explain how and why the names were chosen. Investigate names in your local community that are of Spanish origin.

Many place names also reflect the language of an area’s original inhabitants, in this case, Native Americans. Look at the map in the areas claimed by the British, French, and Spanish for places named using Native American words.

Imagine that you have been asked to propose three names for a new city in your area. One name should represent the indigenous people of the area, one the European power that claimed the area in the Age of Exploration, and one the people who currently live in the area. Select three names and write a paragraph explaining the significance of each.