Names of Virginia Places

the Pentagon, designed originally for a site bordered by five roads, was named for its geometric shape
the Pentagon, designed originally for a site bordered by five roads, was named for its geometric shape
Source: US Department of Defense, 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About the Pentagon

A sure way to distinguish a tourist in Staunton is to hear them pronounce the city's name as STAWN-ton. If someone refers to the town of Matchipongo on the Eastern Shore as MAY-shi-pong-oh rather than match-uh-PUNG-oh, they were not "Shoreborn." Locals on the Eastern Shore know to pronounce Onley as OWN-lee, Onancock as uh-NAN-kok, Chincoteague as SHINK-uh-tig or SHINK-uh-teeg, Quinby as KWIM-bee, and Wachapreague as WATCH-uh-prig.

If a newly-arrived teacher in Fairfax County refers to the POT-oh-mack River rather than the Poh-TOE-mack or Poh-TOE-muck, the teacher's "I know stuff, listen to me" credibility with the students will be affected. However, John Smith originally spelled the river as the Patawomeke, suggesting a pair of syllables have been dropped. The modern, "correct" pronunciation may be inconsistent with the 1607 pronunciation in the Algonquian language.1

Place names not only distinguish one place from another, they also reflect the heritage of Virginia.

Most of the names used by Native Americans before European colonization have been lost, but some remain. The English interpretation of those names may be incorrect, reflecting cultural misunderstandings and confusion. In the case of Shenandoah, an advertising executive created a complete myth after the Civil War that the word meant "daughter of the stars."2

Some of the remaining places names inherited from the Native Americans include:

often described as meaning "great shellfish bay," but perhaps meaning instead "great water"3
meaning "beautiful land across the water." In 1671, it was spelled Jungoteague, and later in the 1800's it was also spelled Gingoteag.4
When John Smith arrived, the Patawomeke people lived in a town on the edge of the river in what today is Stafford County. In the Algonquian, "Patowmeck" or "Patawomeke" apparently meant "something brought" or "river of traveling traders." The possibility that the name meant "the place to which tribute is brought" has spawned jokes about how the Internal Revenue Service is now headquartered in Washington, DC on the banks of the Potomac River. A variant name for the river above Great Falls was "Cohongarooton." When the English arrived, Algonquian-speaking tribes controlled the mouth and lower portion of the Potomac River. Iroquoian-speaking and Siouian-speaking tribes had more control of the river's watershed above the Fall Line, which may be a factor in the different name there. Cohongarooton referred to "river of swans" or "honking geese," presumably referring to migrating waterfowl.5
the English sailed upstream from the Chesapeake Bay into the Rappahannock River, starting in 1608. The river is tidal nearly all the way to the Fall Line, though the line between salt and fresh water is downstream of that boundary. John Smith, the first English ethnographer to study Native American culture, reported that "Rappahannock" meant " rise and fall of the water" in the local Algonquian dialect.6
John Smith recorded visiting a Native American town on the Rappahannock River in 1608, whose name meant "town on the rise and fall of the water." In the 1600's the first English settlers chose to call the town they developed on the site "Hobbs His Hole," because captain Richard Hobbs found a deep spot in the river where he could anchor his sailing ship.7

Renaming US Army Bases Originally Named After Confederate Generals

River Names in Virginia



1. "Eastern Shore Language: There's only one real way to pronounce 'Onley'," Eastern Shore Post, September 23, 2023,; "What's in a Name? The Potomac River," Boundary Stones, WETA, June 26, 2020, (last checked November 5, 2023)
2. exhibit, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley
3. "Defining the Chesapeake," Chesapeake Bay Foundation, (last checked November 4, 2023)
4. "How do you pronounce Chincoteague?," DelmarvaNOW, August 11, 2016, (last checked November 4, 2023)
5. "Potomac," Online Etymological Dictionary,; "What's in a Name? The Potomac River," Boundary Stones, WETA, June 26, 2020,; "The Potomac Watershed," The Historical Market Database, (last checked November 4, 2023)
6. "Tappahannock," Middle Peninsula Alliance, (last checked November 4, 2023)
7. "History," Essex County Museum and Historical Society, (last checked November 4, 2023)

Parks, Forests, Tourism in Virginia
Virginia Places