For the past three weeks, national attention has been turned toward East Palestine (pronounced pale-STEEN), where a train carrying toxic chemicals was derailed. Some have wondered why a village of 5,000 in northeastern Ohio has a name that once referred to what is now Jordan. But, as Rafael Medoff explains, there is nothing unusual about this particular toponym:
Elsewhere in Ohio, there are towns named Hebron, Gilboa, Canaan, and Shiloh (two of them, in fact). There’s even a Sodom, which was given its name after a prohibition advocate, disappointed at the small turnout for his lecture in 1840, jokingly compared the locale to that infamous biblical center of sin.
In Texas, in addition to Palestine, there are towns named Hebbronville and Joshua. There is a Hebron in North Dakota and a Sinai in South Dakota, a Jerusalem in Arkansas, a Jericho in Vermont, a Bethlehem as well as a Nazareth in Pennsylvania, and a Zion in Maryland. Nearly every state has one or more towns named after biblical sites or individuals. Altogether, there are more than 1,000 biblically named towns from coast to coast.
Towns such as East Palestine, Ohio were established by 19th-century religious Christian settlers. They chose those names to express their spiritual attachment to the land and people of the Bible. . . . The area that became East Palestine was originally known as Mechanicsburg. . . . “Mechanicsburg” was changed in 1836 because—according to an early history of the region—“the wife of Dr. Robert Chamberlin desired a more euphonious appellation and desired it [be] called ‘Palestine,’ the quiet beauty of the little town, and the earnest, virtuous, simple life of its people suggesting to her a name recalling holy memories.”
Since there already was a town named “Palestine” in the western part of the state—likewise founded by religious Christians who wanted to infuse their town with “holy memories”—government officials, in assigning the new post office, added the prefix “East.”