There are many examples of renowned places. A dorm in my alma mater used to be called Confederate Hall; now it’s Memorial Hall. I once skied at Squaw Valley Resort in California, now known as Palisades Tahoe. The tallest mountain in the United States, once officially known as Mount McKinley, is now Denali.
I know that stuff drives some people crazy, and I understand that. But I want to point out that this has been happening for longer than you might think.
Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton was one of the heroes of the South in the 1830s. An ally of President Andrew Jackson and a strong supporter of Manifest Destiny, Benton was one of the great orators of his day.
Many people thought Benton would be president one day. This is one of the reasons why 10 states gave it counties in the 1830s and 1840s: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, l Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.
However, Benton’s views on slavery changed drastically in the 1840s. A slave owner who supported pro-slavery policies early in his career, Benton found himself increasingly ill at comfortable with the institution as he grew older.
In 1849 Benton publicly declared his opposition to the spread of slavery in the West. “My personal feelings are against the institution of slavery and against its introduction into places where it does not exist,” he said.
Speaking out against slavery was not tolerated in the antebellum South. Overnight, Southern newspapers branded him a “traitor”, “demogogue” and “petty tyrant”.
“He [Benton] now leads a band of abolitionists, factionists and disunionists, of course hostile to the best interests of the country,” said the Daily Nashville Union in May 1850.
Benton’s stance on slavery cost him re-election to the U.S. Senate in the fall of 1850, and it also cost him namesakes. Less than a year after Benton took a stand on slavery, the Florida state legislature changed the name of its county from Benton to Hernando County.
The Alabama legislature would later do something similar, voting unanimously to rename its county Benton in honor of the late John C. Calhoun. “He [the sponsor of the measure] asked for yeses and noes, and that homage be paid to the illustrious dead; and rebuked merit administered to living traitors,” reported the Montgomery Weekly Advertiser.
What happened in Tennessee is a bit similar, a bit different.
Benton County, Tennessee was originally named after Thomas Hart Benton. But according to a local story written by a county resident (which you can read at www.tngenweb.com), the story is a bit convoluted.
There was, you see, a prominent resident of this part of West Tennessee named David Benton, and there was originally talk of naming the county after him. However, local history maintains, another group of residents wanted the county named after landowner Ephraim Perkins.
“To preserve local unity, David agreed to a compromise by adopting ‘Benton’ after his second cousin, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.”
After Senator Benton voiced his opposition to slavery, leading citizens of Benton County, Tennessee, and some members of the legislature were not happy with it. But instead of renaming the county, they took a different approach. In February 1852, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a resolution declaring Benton County to bear the name of David Benton.
Southern newspapers understood the implication. “We assume this was done to dispel suspicion that it was named after free soil in Missouri,” the Spirit of the South newspaper in Eufala, Alabama said.
Officially, at least, Thomas Hart Benton remains separate from the county of Tennessee that bears his original name. Next to Camden Courthouse is a small gravestone shaped marker with details of the life of David Benton: that he was born in 1779, died in 1860, served in the War of 1812 and was member of Benton County First Court.
The marker also claims that David Benton is the man “for whom Benton County was named”, which sounds interesting to me. David Benton may, after all, be the man who gave Benton County its name, but he is not the man who gave Benton County its name.
The whole history of Benton County makes you wonder.
Lincoln County, Tennessee is named after Benjamin Lincoln. If the legislature passes a resolution, will future generations abide by the mistaken assumption that he is named after Abraham? Jackson County is named after Andrew Jackson. If a legislative body – in the name of tourism development – proclaims that it bears the name of country star Alan Jackson, are we going to put up a historical marker that reflects that view?
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit that helps teachers cover social studies.