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Column: Origins of significant names not easy to come by
by Thornton Kennedy
April 02, 2014 01:18 PM | 2617 views | 0 0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Thornton Kennedy
Thornton Kennedy
The name Atlanta is described as “strange and alien” by Richard Peters, the superintendent of the Georgia Railroad who initiated the name change from Marthasville when the city was still in its infancy.

That makes a certain amount of sense considering it is a made-up word.

The city had been known by a few names before the Georgia Legislature formerly changed it in 1845. It was Thrasherville, Terminus, Whitehall and finally Marthasville, named for the daughter of then-Gov. Wilson Lumpkin. But Peters, who was responsible for arranging the freight lists, didn’t like the name.

He appealed to a man who never lived here to come up with a more suitable alternative. J. Edgar Thomson, the chief engineer of Georgia Railroad, coined Atlanta, saying it was the feminine of Atlantic, as in the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The terminus of the Western & Atlantic would become Atlanta.

Several newspapers ran the story of the new name spelled “Atalanta,” with an extra “a.” Nearly 30 years after the name was changed, Peters wrote the story of how the name came about in a letter, blaming the erroneous “Atalanta” on overzealous and classically minded newspaper editors, who knew Atalanta to be a figure from Greek mythology representing strength and fleetness.

The early newspaper errors were chalked up to editors and reporters correcting what they thought was a misspelled word. That could be, but it is hard to imagine several newspapers jumping to the same conclusion and making the same correction. Given the etymology, Atalanta would have worked well. But Atlanta was formerly adopted and the rest is lost to history.

How Fulton County got its name is equally convoluted. The state Legislature incorporated the county in 1853, but why that particular name was chosen is not recorded. Jonathan Norcross mentions a man named Dr. D.L. Angier as the source of the name without any explanation as to who it honors.

The educated guess, according to author Franklin Garrett in “Atlanta and Environs,” is Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, for whom many places are named. Fulton had no connection to Georgia or Atlanta. A steamboat named the Savannah did sail from the city of the same name and was the first to cross the Atlantic in 1819. Perhaps that was enough.

Hamilton Fulton is a more appropriate figure. The British civil engineer served as the chief engineer of the state of Georgia in 1826. He surveyed a route for either a canal or a railroad from the Tennessee River to the Chattahoochee River. This survey would become the route of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Hamilton Fulton’s tenure in Georgia was short, as he left the employ of the state in 1827 having spent just one year here.

One would be hard pressed to identify an individual who played a more significant role in the future city and county than the man who planned the route through the untamed wilderness. Garrett notes Angier, who was from the Northeast and was not in Atlanta at the time Hamilton Fulton was here, would have known of the inventor of the steamboat but not the civil engineer.

I must offer a tip of the cap to author and historian James M. Ottley. Both of these stories are in his book, “Atlanta History for Cocktail Parties.” Judging by the fact that no one seems to have recorded the origins of the most important names in the city and county when those decisions were made, it is fair to suggest our early journalists may have enjoyed a few cocktails themselves.

Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can reached at

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