Name That American Island

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Ken Curtis)

Did you know that there are 18,617 named islands in the U.S. and its territories? Neither did we! Here are some interesting stories behind the names of some of those islands.


In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson, sailing under a Dutch flag, sailed into New York Bay. (He wasn’t the first European to explore the region; that honor goes to Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered it in 1524.) Hudson named the large island on the southwest side of the bay Staaten Eylandt, literally “States Island,” after the Dutch parliament, known as the Staaten-Generaal. When the English took over the region in 1667, and made it part of their New York Colony, the name was anglicized to Staten Island.

(Image credit: Dan Dugan Sound Design)

Bonus fact: Staten Island wasn’t its official name until 1975. In 1683, the British divided the New York Colony into ten counties, and designated Staten Island as Richmond County, after Charles Lennox, the son of England’s King Charles II, and first Duke of Richmond. When Staten Island was incorporated into New York City in 1898 as one of its five boroughs, its official name was the Borough of Richmond—and that remained its name until 1975, when the city council finally changed it to the Borough of Staten Island.


(Image credit: Jsayre64)

Just east of Staten Island, across a channel known as the Narrows that separates Lower New York Bay from Upper New York Bay (where the Statue of Liberty is located), lies Long Island. Like Staten Island, it was named by the Dutch in the early 17th century. They called it Lange Eylandt, meaning, of course, “Long Island.” It’s 118 miles long by 23 miles wide at its widest point, making it the longest (and largest) island in the contiguous United States. It’s also the most populous island in any state or territory, with more than 7.8 million residents.


(Image credit: James Brooks)

Kodiak Island is about 250 miles southeast of Anchorage, off the east coast of Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula. It’s been home to the Alutiiq people for more than 3,000 years. And it’s huge. At 3,595 square miles, Kodiak is the second-largest island in the United States (after Hawaii), and the 80th largest in the world. The island was first encountered by Europeans in 1763, when Russian fur trader Stephan Glotov arrived there. He called it Kad’yak, a derivation of kikhtak, the native Aleut word for “island.” The island became the center of the Russian fur trade, but the name didn’t spread beyond the Russian trading community until 1778, when English explorer Captain James Cook arrived and made the first known written notation of the word “Kodiak.”


(Image credit: Diego Delso)

According to traditional folklore, the largest of the Hawaiian islands was named after Hawai’iloa, a legendary seafaring hero who discovered and then colonized them. (He was from a land called Ka-aina-kaimelemele-a-Kane, meaning “the land of the yellow sea of Kane.”) According to the same folklore, the names of the next three largest islands in the Hawaiian chain—Kauai, Oahu, and Maui—come from the names of Hawai’iloa’s sons. But according to linguists, “Hawaii” is similar to words found in other Polynesian languages—including Maori and Samoan—that mean something along the lines of “homeland,” and “Hawaii” probably once had that same meaning.

Bonus Fact: The Hawaiian word lulu means “calm,” and the name of Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, means “calm port.”


(Image credit: Arwcheek)

Martha’s Vineyard is a small island (25 miles long and 9 miles across at its widest point), just south of Cape Cod, about 7 miles off the Massachusetts coast. It may be best known as the vacation grounds of some of America’s most elite families, especially the Kennedys. Before Europeans arrived, it was the home of the Wampanoag people for millennia. The Wampanoag name for the island was Noepe, meaning “dry land amid the waters.” The curious route to its modern name:

• In 1524, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano made what many historians believe was the first sighting of this island by a European, while he was exploring the region for France. He recorded its unique triangular shape and named it Louise Island, after Louise of Savoy, the mother of the French king Frances I. That name was soon forgotten.

• In 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold made the first known landing by a European on the island. But he gave the name Martha’s Vineyard to another island—a smaller one just to the south. The “Vineyard” is believed to have been a reference to the wild grapes that grow on the islands. No one knows for sure who Martha was: she could have been Gosnold’s daughter, and maybe his mother, or his mother-in-law, or his sister, but none of these have been confirmed.

• A few decades later, the name Martha’s Vineyard was transferred to the larger island that’s still called that today. (The smaller island was renamed Nomans Land, possibly derived from Tequenoman, the name of a Wampanoag sachem, or chief, who lived there.)

• Martha’s Vineyard was also known as “Martin’s Vineyard.” This may have been a reference to Captain Martin Pring, another English seafarer who explored the island in 1605; or it may have referred to English sea captain John Martin, who served on Gosnold’s crew, and was later a councilman in the British colony at Jamestown, Virginia.

• In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison set up the Board on Geographic Names, to establish standards in the United States. Among the board’s rules: possessive apostrophes were no longer allowed in U.S. place names—so Martha’s Vineyard officially became Marthas Vineyard. (About 250,000 apostrophes were dropped from U.S. place names at the time.) In the early 20th century, the board allowed Marthas Vineyard to reinstate the apostrophe, and it became Martha’s Vineyard again. (It’s one of only five places granted permission to use a possessive apostrophe since then.)


(Image credit: Stan Shebs)

This Caribbean island was named San Juan Bautista in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, after the Catholic saint John the Baptist. The first permanent settlement was founded in 1508, actually on a small island just 100 yards or so off the north coast of the larger island, which formed the northern rim of a large protected harbor. The settlement moved to the larger island in 1509 and was dubbed Puerto Rico, or “rich port,” while the island was still called San Juan Bautista. In 1521, the name of the settlement, which had become a thriving town, was expanded to San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico. That created confusion among its residents, and they started referring to the town as San Juan Bautista, and the island as Puerto Rico. Officials eventually made the name swap official: the town of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico became San Juan, and the entire island, once known as San Juan Bautista, became Puerto Rico.

Bonus Fact: Puerto Ricans sometimes refer to the island as Borinquen, and to themselves as borincanos. Those terms come from Boriken, the name for the island used by the indigenous Taino people, whose culture dominated the island from around 1000 AD until the Spanish arrived. It means “land of the great lords.”


• Off the coast of Massachusetts, about ten miles from Martha’s Vineyard and just west of Nantucket Island, is Tuckernuck Island. Its name was derived from a Wampanoag word meaning “round loaf of

• Dauphin Island lies just off the southwest coast of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico. It was named Isle Du Massacre (Massacre Island) in 1699 by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who found a pile of human skeletons on the island. (Archaeologists say the bodies were probably not the result of a massacre—they were more likely the remains of a Native American burial ground that had been exposed by a hurricane.) D’Iberville changed the island’s name to Dauphin Island in 1707, in honor of King Louis XIV’s great-grandson and heir. Many people mistakenly call it “Dolphin Island”…but they’re actually right. “Dauphin” was the title given to the heir to the French throne—and it actually does mean “dolphin”—a reference to the dolphin symbol on the French king’s coat of arms.

• Joseph Whidbey mapped the islands of what is now Puget Sound (with his shipmate, Peter Puget) in 1792. Whidbey Island was named for him (and Puget Sound for Puget) that same year. By whom? By their captain: George Vancouver. (He has an island named after him, too— but it’s in Canada, and this article is about American islands.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's newest volume, Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader. The 29th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories, facts, and lists, and comes in both the Kindle version and paperback.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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