Friday, August 19, 2011

The First Name of the First Town in MCH

Main Street in Stanton, courtesy Ken Copeland
 There are, of course, countless unknowns and mysteries surrounding many aspects of the history of Mill Creek Hundred. There are plenty of names, dates, and places that are either lost to time, or frustratingly unclear in the historical record. One of these mysteries though, in my mind stands out above the rest. It dates back to the very beginnings of MCH, and has been frustrating historians for at least 120-some years, and I would imagine probably a good bit longer than that. It has to do with the early history of the first community established in what would become Mill Creek Hundred -- Stanton. More specifically, it has to do with the origins of the odd-sounding name by which Stanton was known before it was renamed "Stanton".

It is well-documented in the historical record (and recently brought up by a commenter on another post) that in the 18th Century, the village near the confluence of the Red Clay and White Clay Creeks was known as "Cuckoldstown". Not surprisingly, this indelicate moniker has raised quite a few questions over the years, but no answers -- until now. After a surprisingly brief bit of research, I believe I have finally figured out where the name came from, and in the process discovered another surprising fact -- Cuckoldstown was not the village's original name. Now, after at least two and a quarter centuries, we can finally restore to MCH's first town, its first name.

The discovery of an earlier name for Stanton is actually not just an interesting side-note to the story, it's the reason that no one was ever able to determine the origin of "Cuckoldstown" before. Everyone got too held-up on the oddness and salaciousness of the name, and kept looking for a juicy story to explain it. (For anyone unfamiliar with the word, a cuckold is "A man whose wife has committed adultery, often regarded as an object of scorn".) Because of this, I think people were expecting to find some tale about an early family in the area, or possibly the existence of a local inn with a less-than-upstanding reputation. My theory holds that none of these things ever existed, and that the name's origin is much less soap opera-y than that (which does make me a little sad -- I like a good story as much as anyone).

The key to unlocking this particular mystery came when I discovered that in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, there was at least one other village in the colonies with the name of "Cuckoldstown". It was located on Staten Island in New York, and was later renamed Richmondtown. Unlike with Stanton, the origin of Richmondtown's early name has been preserved, and I think there is a very good chance that our village came upon its name in the same way. The trick is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the word "cuckold", except that over time, the original pronunciation of the name changed to sound like it.

And now for the unveiling .... I believe that, like Richmondtown, NY, Stanton's real original name was Cocclestown (or, Cocklestown). And like the Staten Island town, the name was likely derived from the presence in the area of an abundance of cockles, a type of clam. With several creeks and a large marshy area nearby, it's reasonable to think that the early settlers in the region would have harvested clams in the area (they may or may not have been actual cockles, but that's what they would have been familiar with from back home in Great Britain). Another possibility hinted at in New York is that the first Europeans here may have seen evidence of cockle shells discarded previously by Native American inhabitants (there are several known Native American settlements in the Stanton area).

The First Namesake of Stanton?
Whatever the exact reason was for initially choosing Cocclestown as the name for the settlement near the grist mill erected in the 1670's on Red Clay Creek, the name slowly began to change. Over the course of a few decades, through a linguistic process called "corruption", the name of "Cocclestown" slowly became "Cuckoldstown". It's surprising sometimes how quickly a name can change and the old one can be lost, and I believe that this is what happened here. By the time the first generation or two of European settlers had passed, the name had become Cuckoldstown and the original form had been forgotten. It's possible that by the time the name was changed to "Stanton" in the late 1700's (in honor of Stephen Stanton, a large landowner in the area), there may have been very few people who remembered the original name of their settlement.

Now, I admit that at this point, this is all speculation. Just because this happened in another location doesn't necessarily mean that that's what happened here. Probably the only way to verify this theory would be to find some written record from the period that refers to "Cocclestown". Or at the very least, we'd need to find the earliest reference we can to "Cuckoldstown". I don't think there has been anything produced so far dating from before the 1740's showing a name for the village. As tenuous as this theory is, it sounds to me to be much more plausible than people naming their town after after someone with a "friendly" wife. I hope that someday we're able to definitively prove or disprove the Cocclestown theory, and finally know for certain the first name of the first town in Mill Creek Hundred.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • I should note that there seems to have been one other, closer Cuckoldstown/Cocklestown, with a slightly different story attached to its name. An area near Berwyn, PA was once known by those names, but the people there think the name came from the corncockle plant, once a common weed in wheat fields. While it's possible this is accurate for Berwyn, I still think the bivalve cockle is the more likely inspiration for MCH's Cocclestown.


  1. An insightful and refreshing theory! Pronunciation and spelling were remarkably different things in that era, and 19th century historians made their share of mistakes. Hope someone can find more clues.

  2. Great article Scott. I do like the photo of early Stanton. Do you where abouts it was taken?

  3. I too find the old photo of Stanton fascinating. I never knew a trolley line ran through town,

  4. Walt -- My dream is that someday someone finds a reference to Cocclestown somewhere, and we can tie it to Stanton. All we need is someone who digs through old records...

    Denis and Bill -- I thought the photo was neat, too. As for location, the only clue I might be able to see is that the second building on the right looks large and brick. Maybe it's the old Stanton Methodist Church, where the Church of Christ (I think that's what it is) is now. Somewhere I think I have a postcard with a slightly different view of Main St (a little further up). I also have a trolley book I can dig out to re-remember which line ran that way.

  5. The picture was taken in front of Mary's Restaurant facing west. The building on the right was on the west corner of Argonne Avenue (torn down circa 1960?). The large building on the left (on the west corner of Elm Street which is an extension of Argonne Avenue) was a used furniture store (Hubbard's) at one time and was torn down when the Alert station was built. The line of houses on right still exists. Though the trees on the left were taken out along with their front yards during the widening of Main Street, those houses still stand, too. The original United Methodist church was on the right side just behind the photographer. Originally built in 1877, it burned in 1949 and was replaced by the red brick church. In 1962, that congregation moved to it's present site at the corner of Limestone Road and Main Street.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. If I ever find that other picture, I'll put it up. It's a postcard from about 1910 with a very similar shot, but I remember seeing the houses on the left more clearly. If anyone else ever finds it, let me know. (I mean, find it online, not in my house. I can't recall if I own the pc or saw it online.)

  7. If this is looking west ......would it mean the old Rising Son Tavern be on the left?

  8. Yes, the tavern sat either beside or just beyond where the trolley sits in that picture (depending on how good my depth perception is). The furniture store just to the left of center in the photo(with an apartment above) was at the east end of the block and the tavern at the west end with a few small houses in between.

  9. Great article, and picture is good to. I also never knew trolley ran down main street. Wonder if any other pictures from this time exist?

  10. For those interested in the trolley in the picture, I have found a modicum (I love that word) of information about it. With any luck, I can pad it out into a short post later this week.

  11. Margaritifera margaritifera doesn't look much like a cockle-shell.

    M. Margaritifera is the freshwater mollusc that formed one leg of the mutually co-dependent trout-beaver-mussel ecosystem in the red & white clay creeks that was destroyed by the European colonists' beaver-hunting, creek-damming, and mill pollution. It was extremely abundant around here.

    Paradoxically, the only way to restore a native trout population in those creeks today would be to construct *more* dams - not the dangerous, fish-blocking dams of the old millers, but instead something that could functionally substitute for beaver dams. We can't support real beaver in most of our streams because we don't have enough riparian buffer trees and because of giardia lambda. The White Clay creek preserve is one of the few places available for beaver re-colonization, so don't drink the water from downstream without boiling it - giardia is not generally fatal, but it's no fun at all!

    1. Picking up on the bread crumb trail by Anonymous... Where did you find your info on M. margaritifera? I'm working on a historical review of freshwater mussels in White and Red Clay creeks. Any info you have on this species or others (e.g. E. complanata) would be extremely helpful. Thanks!

  12. Even if that was the only mollusc in the area (and I don't know one way or the other), the early colonists weren't biologists or toxonomists. Things were often refered to "incorrectly" (eg. -- bison aren't buffaloes, and Native Americans aren't from India). It might not help the theory, but I don't think it discounts it.

    As for the dams and trout (which would make a great band name, btw), there was a related article in the News Journal today that I'll bring up when I get a chance. Also, I now have an odd urge for a margarita...