ST. GEORGE — First-time visitors or newcomers to the region may sometimes wonder how the towns and communities in Southern Utah got their names.
For Southern Utah natives and long-time residents, the unique names for places like Hurricane, Toquerville or LaVerkin are not so much mysterious as they are disputed.
Even locale names like St. George and Washington City have an inconsistent explanation, with stories handed down from generation to generation that sometimes contradict or downright reject the accepted history.
St. George, for example, is commonly believed to be named for the Apostle George A. Smith, an early leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although Smith did not personally participate in settling the area, he did select many of the pioneers that ended up making the region their home.
“The official version given that Smith was known as the ‘Potato Saint’ and Brigham Young had the town named before anyone was here,” said Heber Jones, a local historian. “There are other theories. One is that Brigham Young went on a mission to England to a place named St. George.”
While several stories explaining St. George’s origin do exist, historians generally agree that it was named for Smith, he said. Jones was born and raised in the area in the first half of the 20th century. He went on to earn a master’s degree in American history and then teach history in local schools for more than 25 years.
Hurricane may strike outsiders as particularly strange, as the idea of a hurricane making it about 360 miles inland is absurd. However, the town does owe its name to strong winds, said Steve Gifford, a guide at the Hurricane Pioneer Museum.
“Erastus Snow was up on a hill, a big wind came up, blew the top off his wagon and the first thing he said was, ‘Boy, that was a hurricane,’” Gifford said. “So this hill became Hurricane Hill before it was a community.”
Snow was also an early apostle and settler of Southern Utah. As the city website points out, Hurricane does experience significant wind speeds – up to 50 mph – especially in the winter.
LaVerkin is an enduring mystery. There are several theories explaining the name’s origin, though each seems flawed after intense scrutiny.
“I’ll tell you the honest truth – nobody really knows,” Gifford said. “Some people say that it sounds like ‘beaver skin,’ and some of them say it sounds like ‘la virgin.’ The only problem with that is if you’re a Spanish-speaker at all, you would have called it Rio Virgin instead of ‘La’ or ‘the’ Virgin.”
Regarding the possible connection to “beaver skin,” some historians speculate that the local creek was so-called due to an earlier abundance of the large, amphibious rodent. The theory goes that the trappers’ poor handwriting and spelling skills caused map labels to deteriorate to LeaverSkin and Lavinskind and finally to LaVerkin.
It has also been claimed that LaVerkin means “beautiful valley” in a Native American dialect.
Washington City is usually said to be named for the first president of the United States, George Washington, though that might be more true of the county than the city.
Washington County was among the first counties designated and named by the state of Utah, Jones said. Named for the nation’s most beloved Washington, the county may have given the city its name as the town grew and became a hub for the region.
Veyo may owe its unique name to a group of creative teen girls living in the area.
“The town was originally named Glen Cove,” Jones said. “In 1917, they applied for a post office. The post office people told them there was just too many Glen Coves, so they turned it over to the young girls in the LDS church.”
The girls, who by some accounts may have been as young as 12 or 13, came up with two words: verdure, implying growth and lush greenery, and youth. As the story goes, the townspeople took the first part of each word and combined them to create “Veyo,” Jones said.
As with most historical accounts, there are a number of competing narratives or stories that offer alternative origins. Some say Veyo is an acronym for Virtue Enterprise Youth and Order.
Beryl is a small community in west-central Iron County. Named for the semi-precious mineral that produces emerald, aquamarine and heliodor, Beryl was given its name in 1901 after its establishment.
The type of beryl that might have been discovered by the region’s early settlers is particularly rare. While beryl’s stunning emerald and aquamarine varieties are more well known, it’s red variety is far more rare.
According to the Gemological Institute of America, the only known mine in the world to ever produce gem-quality red beryl is located in the Wah Wah Mountains of Beaver County, just north of modern-day Beryl.
Toquerville was named for Chief Toquer, an early Paiute Chief. Toquer led his community of Native Americans when settlers arrived to the Ash Creek area south of Black Ridge in 1858.
Gifford said that initial interactions with the Paiutes were quite friendly, but the relationship soured after disputes arose.
“Toquer” may be a transliteration of a Native American word meaning “black.” If so, the moniker would aptly describe a region known for its volcanic geology and the dark-hued rock that peppers the hills and fields of the area.
The common thread uniting the names of these places is the stories of their first peoples. It’s important to consider the lives of early LDS settlers as well as the Native Americans who preceded them, Jones said.
Washington County continues to grow in population and in renown, according to census data and visitation figures. Remembering its history can connect past to present and prepare everyone for its future.
“I often wonder if people stop to think about what went into all this,” Jones said. “If you want to try something out, go out and work eight hours in the sun and see how you feel. They had to have pretty staunch character and bodies and will. It was a tough row to hoe, but look what’s come out of it.”
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