Creeks and brooks

Some years ago I made a series of maps showing patterns in place names in the United States. The most striking one shows the strong regional pattern of naming streams “creek” or “brook”. I used the USGS’s GNIS database of place names, and ArcGIS to make queries and map the results. This brook-creek map shows a point at the mouth of every stream whose name ends with either brook or creek. In the GNIS database “stream” is a class that includes all “linear bodies of water flowing on the Earth’s surface”. So, creeks, brooks, rivers, bayous, forks, sloughs, and so on. This map shows only those named brook and creek. That is why there is a large empty area along the lower Mississippi River, where streams tend to have names like bayou. I’ll post some of the other GNIS maps later. The map is also online at Flickr, where I wrote a bit more about it.

Map showing streams in the US named brook and creek.

The creek-brook geographic pattern is explained in the classic book about place naming in the United States, “Names on the Land”, by George R. Stewart. It goes back to the earliest colonial times in New England and Virginia. People from England coming to America explored and settled coastal areas first, and began to establish place names for natural features like streams. Large streams were naturally called rivers, as they are in England. In Virginia there are many streams that broaden into tidal estuaries as they near Chesapeake Bay. The larger ones were called rivers. The smaller ones, which from the sea looked like small inlets washed by tidal currents, were called creeks. In England the word creek was mainly used for just that: not a stream per se, but a small inlet of the sea were tides flow in and out (see Wikipedia’s page Creek (tidal)). As they explored inland they came to the tidal limit and found the rivers and creeks flowing always one way, no longer effected by tides. And, as Stewart puts it, “since it seemed the same, they kept the same name for it. Thus a creek came to mean a flowing stream, although in England it meant, and still means, a tidal channel.” This way of naming large streams “river” and small ones “creek” spread from Virginia across most of the country.

New England was colonized nearly as early as Virginia, and it developed different patterns of place naming. A key difference was the land itself. Virginians were a “river people”, living in a land dominated by rivers and estuaries, while New Englanders were a “salt-water people”. In New England the coast rises more sharply from the sea and there are few long tidal channels that English people might call creeks. As in Virginia, large streams were called rivers, but small ones were most often called brooks, as in eastern England. The use of brook instead of creek spread throughout New England and west into New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania—all areas that were settled by New Englanders in colonial times. But beyond this region the Virginian style of using the word creek came to dominate. There are only a few scattered areas where the word brook is used, most notably in Minnesota.

There are other regional patterns for stream names such as run, branch, stream, bayou, and coulee. I’ll post maps of those later.

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3 Comments on “Creeks and brooks”

  1. I noticed the small blank spot near where I live and I remembered that “run” is commonly used in my home area instead of creek or brook. I’m looking forward to when you get a chance to post the maps of other regional patterns. I find these types of maps simply fascinating.

  2. […] Toponymia « Creeks and brooks […]

  3. Jan-Pavel Kovar Says:

    just looking for property having a good, pleasing and perfect brook, stream, or river through it.

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