What’s in a Name?

The city of Davenport was named after Colonel George Davenport.  This is fairly well known—at least to most residents of the Quad-Cities—although every once in a while, we still receive a question concerning the invention and manufacturing of long, squared-off couches.*

Very rarely does someone pause to ask why an Iowa city was named after a man who never lived on that side of the Mississippi—George Davenport lived near where Fort Armstrong once stood, on the Mississippi Island that is now known as Arsenal Island.  Or, for that matter, why the town wasn’t named after Antoine.**

The answer is threefold: 

Because of Antoine LeClaire’s genealogy. 

Because Antoine and Col. Davenport were friends.

 And because Col. Davenport was not universally liked.

 Antoine LeClaire was the son of a French-Canadian father and a Pottawatomie mother, which at the time meant that he was at a disadvantage, socially speaking.  While he owned the land on which the new town would be built, he didn’t have a lot of ready cash, and feared that investors wouldn’t be interested in a project headed by someone with his parentage—perhaps especially so soon after the Black Hawk War.  So he formed an initial company of men with English-sounding surnames, and decided to give his town an English name as well.

And what better name that that of his good friend Col. George Davenport?  George Davenport had been in the area since roughly 1816, when he was hired to run supplies from St. Louis to Fort Armstrong.  He established several trading posts as he went and had become friendly with the local tribes. Ironically, he received his rank when he was appointed quartermaster officer in the Illinois militia—even though he was so opposed to the War that he had traveled to Washington, DC, to speak to President Andrew Jackson on the behalf of the Sac-Fox tribes.   During his transactions with the Fort, he met and befriended Antoine, who, having grown up speaking at least half a dozen Native American dialects, was employed by the Army as a translator.  One could suppose that Antoine might have been especially pleased to name a town after a man who evidenced favoritism toward Native Americans.

This all seems straightforward enough.  But there was one small problem.

At this time, on the opposite side of the Mississippi, there was a proposal to expand the Illinois settlement of Farnhamsburg and rename it after George Davenport—and this honor most likely would have forced Antoine into choosing another name, just to avoid confusion.***  Luckily, not everyone held George Davenport in high esteem.   Col. Davenport had not been particularly quiet about his opinion of one Colonel Stroud, whom he thought was largely responsible for the worst of the violence of the War . . . and the fuming Colonel Stroud had just become a member of the Illinois legislature.  Stroud put his foot down and the Illinois town was named Stephenson, after Colonel James Stephenson.^

So that is how our city was named after an Englishman who never lived here. 

Would it be too confusing at this point to mention  that his real name was George King?


*For the record, no, the davenport was not invented here and as far as we know, they were not manufactured here, at least by that name.

**There is a LeClaire, Iowa, in Scott County, but it’s just a tad younger.  Besides, Antoine was fond of naming things after his wife . . . Margueritaville?

***Kansas City, anyone?

^ Six years later, Stephenson, Illinois changed its name again, to Rock Island, which was the original name of the Mississippi River island where George Davenport lived—that’s probably a coincidence, but still . . .

(posted by Sarah)

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