Otter Place Names: You "Otter" Go There
By Paul J. Polechla Jr.
Often times, geographic localities are named after people, events, and even other localities. The most picturesque place names to me, however, are those that are named after plants and animals living in the area. Here in New Mexico and the "Wild West" names like Pinyon Hills, Bear Wallow, Wild Horse Mesa, Bug Scuffle Canyon, Buffalo Head, Coyote Arroyo, and Beaver Creek conjure up an image in our minds even though we may have never visited the place. Usually our predecessors named these places after animals that they commonly saw. If we have been there, the place names are indelibly etched in our minds. Some of the most exciting names to me are those referring to otters.
What pray tell can you learn from maps and toponymy that is useful to the study of otters or "otter-ology"? When you see place names that have otters in them, it usually means they are or once were common at this place. While I was researching otter ecology in Arkansas it was helpful to me to understand their past distribution and relative abundance. This historical approach requires reading old leather-bound books written by early pioneers and studying fragile parchment maps penned by early explorers. In this manner, I hoped to have a method of comparing the past with the present-day data. I wanted to gain a sense of how we've done as far as managing for otters, now versus then. They say that if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Well, my historical approach worked well; I was able to establish that otters originally occurred nearly statewide. Otters went through a drastic decline and then a big rebound.
While traveling around the country, I began to notice other places that were named after otters. I began to jot them down first as a curiosity and then as an obsession. Lately, the "bug" has been biting me so badly that I began a world-wide web search on the Geographic Names Information Service of the U.S.G.S. and Topozone.com. There were over 175 geographic places that had the word "otter" in them. Another 15 had "sea otter" in them and as expected these were all along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska. At least 33 states contain "otter" place names from Maine to California and from Florida to Alaska. Otter place names pretty much occur from "sea to shining sea." Overlaying these localities with the known original scientific distribution of river otters (from E. Raymond Hall's 1981 work) in the U.S., it is a fair match.
Most of the otter place names refer to geological places. There are "Otter" Creeks, Ponds (the most numerous otter place name), Lakes, Bays, Coves, Falls, Swamps, Sloughs, Springs, Straits, Rapids, and even Glaciers reminding us of their love for water. Artificial wetlands are not left out either: 'Otters' Water Well (in Spanish), 'The Otters Lateral' (in Spanish; a canal), Otter Pond Ditch, Otter Drain, and Otter Creek Reservoir. There are Otter Cliffs, Capes, Hollows, Islands, Points, Sinks, Bars (no, not that kind of bar!), Summits, Gaps, Mountains, and Forests to remind us of the upland areas that are adjacent to otter wetlands. There are many man-made features named after otters: Otter Trail, Peak of Otter Dam, Upper 'Otter' Limestone Pit (in Spanish), Otter Point Recreation Site (naturally!), Otter Slough State Wildlife Management Area (of course!), Otter Valley School, and even Otter Gap Church. There are towns and cities, cemeteries, camps, and schools named after otters. I have two English language favorites: "Otter Slide Creek" in Idaho and an "Otter Slide Rapids" in Wisconsin. You can just imagine a playful otter careening down a slippery bank to splash into the water. The "crème de la crème" has to be "Otter Tail Creek," "Otter Tail River," "Township of Otter Tail Peninsula," and "Otter Tail County," all in Minnesota. I can just see an ol' otter's tail snaking back and forth as it swims across the surface of one of Minnesota's ten thousand pot-hole lakes and numerous streams. Or perhaps a river's typical "S" shaped bend reminded the river's namer of an otter's tail in action.
Otter place names are not restricted to English. My foreign language favorites are in the romance languages. In Arkansas and Louisiana, where many French settlers colonized after the Native Americans, there is a "Bayou de Loutre" (pronounced "By-yew day Lay-oh-tray") meaning "Otter Slough." When I last checked, it was a lazy stream lined with stately bald cypress trees and peppered with otter scats and prints. "Pass a Loutre" is one of the many braided Louisiana "passes" or channels of the Mississippi River Delta, which wanders to the Gulf of Mexico.
In New Mexico, where the Spanish conquistadors roamed, you will find a village along the Rio Grande called "Las Nutrias" (pronounced "Lahs New-tree-ahs"). Looking up any standard Castilian Spanish/English dictionary you will find the translation to be simply "the otters." One might think that this name referred to the exotic, South American, large, semi-aquatic, round-and scaly-tailed rodent with a white-tipped nose; the coypu (Myocastor coypu). George H Lowery states that the common name "coypu" is derived from the Araucanian language of Chile. This critter today is commonly but improperly called "nutria" as well. According to old maps, the village of Los Nutrias has been around since 1682. This predates the introduction of the coypu into the United States considerably. Much later, in 1899, the first coypus were brought from South America to California for fur farming. In 1937, the New Mexico Game and Fish brought coypus from South America and stocked them onto Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, it appears that they did not really "take" there. The late E. A. McIlhenny, of Tabasco sauce fame, brought them from Argentina to Avery Island, Louisiana, in 1938. There and elsewhere they escaped from captivity, spreading like weeds to different regions of southern and western United States. Now, this exotic rodent is considered a nuisance in many places and may compete with our native muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus). Therefore, these early 1600's references to the Nutria could not have referred to the coypu.
A current dictionary of the Spanish dialect of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, written by Ruben Cobos, states that "nutria" means beaver, not otter. Castilian Spanish word for beaver is "castor." The Spanish then had a word for the European beaver (Castor fiber) and the European otter (Lutra lutra). Initially, when they came to the New World and they saw their American counterparts the American river otter (Lontra canadensis) and American beaver (Castor canadensis), they called them by their Old World names "castor" and "nutria" ("Lutra" and "Lontra" are Latin cognates for otter.) When overzealous trappers nearly wiped beaver out in early to late 1800's, they nearly wiped out otters too. Beavers, being herbivorous, are generally more abundant than the carnivorous otter, ecologically speaking. I think that as beaver populations dropped, castor and nutria were used interchangeably until nutria was used for the beaver. Juan Pablo Gallo and L. Rojas's review of colloquial names for Mexican mammals uses "nutria" for the closely related Neotropical otter (Lontra longicaudis). J.C. Winter and his collaborators, in their book on place names in the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation, translate nutria as otter also. They list both a village called "Nutria" and a "Nutria Creek." Arizona has a town in Apache County named "Nutrioso," an amalgamation of the word nutria and oso (Spanish for bear).
There are a few otter place names in the Swedish word for otter, which is "utter." However, this may refer to the mammary gland of a cow also. I'll leave it to a Swedish speaker to decode this one. There probably were a few places in Alaska that had Russian names with "vidra," until the Americans took over in 1867. When new regimes enter a land they replace many of the geographic names with their own language. Prior to that there were probably Native Alaskan and Native American names involving the word otter as well. An analysis of the languages of the Comanche, Navajo, Zuni Pueblo, and Taos Pueblo people show that each Southwestern tribe had a unique (different from other languages and different from other animals) word for the otter.
So anyhow, folks, if you are pouring over the maps and find an otter place name in your "neck of the woods," let me know. If you get a chance to, you "otter" go there also. See if there are otters still playing around. Happy trails.
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