Whilst working on a different project, I kept coming across places called Georgetown. This led me to wonder how many different Georgetowns (or George Towns) there are. Despite the best efforts of Google and Wikipedia, I haven’t been able to come up with a definitive answer. However there are at least 50 scattered around the world. This includes over 35 in the USA alone. So why is this place name so popular?
In many cases it is down to British monarchs. From 1714, when George I came to the throne, until 1830, when George IV died, Britain had a King called George. During this period the country was rapidly expanding its Empire and setting up many new colonies. The main town of any new settlement was often named after the ruler at the time.
This explains, for example the Georgetown in Penang Malaysia. The city was founded in 1786 when the British East India Company did a deal with the local Sultan. The British would provide military protection in exchange for the island of Penang. Once the deal was agreed, construction of both a fort and the town started. The town grew rapidly and the adjoining port was soon one of the busiest in Southeast Asia.
In some cases the symbol of loyalty came a bit too late. Georgetown in the Bahamas was created about in 1783 when a group of plantation owners decided to leave the newly independent United States of America. They had supported Britain during the Revolutionary War and wanted nothing to do with the new nation. Loading both their goods and their slaves onto ships, they sailed to the island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas to start a new life. Their new settlement was named after the King, and for a few years (until the soil was exhausted) the island produced cotton. This was a big change, as for a hundred years or more before the arrival of the settlers Great Exuma had been popular as a base for pirates.
One of the last of the many Georgetowns named in honour of a King is in India. In 1644, when the British East India Company built a fortified warehouse in the city of Madras (now Chennai), they called it Fort St George. The English merchants lived inside the fort and a township grew up outside the walls. This was home to the Indians who worked at the fort and it had the not very politically correct name of ‘Black Town’. In 1911, after a visit by King George V the name was changed to Georgetown.
In the USA some of the early Georgetowns have the same colonial origins. Dating back to 1729, Georgetown is the third oldest city in South Carolina. It was built on the profits from plantations producing indigo (for blue dye) and rice. Large numbers of slaves worked in the fields around the town, and they made up about 85% of the population. By 1757 there were enough profits for the local ‘Indigo Society’ to pay for a new school; although this was for white children only. Despite the town being named after the British King, the residents soon began to feel the need to rule themselves. Two of the town’s planters, Thomas Lynch Senior and his son, signed the Declaration of Independence. Then, not surprisingly, given its economic dependence on slaves, the town went on to give strong support to the Confederate forces during the American Civil War.
Many of the American Georgetowns have a more practical reason for their name. A person with George as either a first or last name set up a trading post, river crossing or mine. Then from this small beginning a town grew.
A good example of this is Georgetown Colorado. In July 1858, William Green Russell led a small group of prospectors into the Rocky Mountains to look for gold. They found about 20 ounces of the precious metal in an area that is now a suburb of Denver. This small find started what became known as the ‘Pikes Peak Gold Rush’.
Over the next three years about 100,000 people moved into the area, all of them hoping to find a fortune in the ground. Many mining camps and towns were started. Some, like Denver, developed into cities and many others faded away into ghost towns. A few, including Georgetown, survived as small towns.
George Griffith and his brother David discovered gold in the Clear Creek Valley on 17th June 1859. The cabin they built on the site became the first building of Georgetown (presumably they decided this sounded better than ‘Davidtown’). The town peaked in 1877. It had a population of 5,000; a bank, five churches, two newspapers and a telegraph office. Today the town is popular with tourists attracted by the scenic location, the well-preserved historic buildings and a heritage narrow gauge railroad.
Then there is Georgetown Alaska. If you ever wanted to visit you would have to be a serious traveller. It is over 250 miles from the nearest road system and just 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It can only be accessed by boat or plane. In the winter you will need a snowmobile. The village is on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, and fishing (mainly salmon) is an important part of the local economy.
Until 1909 the area was known as Keledzhichagat, and was inhabited only by native Alaskans. Then gold was found on the banks of a nearby river and soon 300 prospectors had arrived. Conveniently all of the first three men to set up trading posts were called George (Fredericks, Morgan and Hoffman); so the new name was a foregone conclusion. Now Georgetown Alaska is a Native Village governed by a Tribal Council. A slightly bigger Georgetown, the one in Washington DC, has similar origins. It started in about 1745 when George Gordon set up a tobacco trading post on the banks of the Potomac.
This could turn into a very long post if I am not careful. After all there at least 45 other Georgetowns that I haven’t mentioned yet; but you have probably got the idea by now.
So wherever you go in the world, and particularly if you are in North America or somewhere that used to be part of the British Empire, there is likely to be a Georgetown not too far away. We have probably passed the peak of popularity, as quite a few former Georgetowns have been renamed. But then again there is a good chance that sometime in the 21st century there will be another King George, and who knows what will happen then?