Since Joseph Smith originated the place name Nauvoo in 1839 for the Illinois headquarters of the Church, it has struck the fancy of people in at least six other states.
The name itself is derived from one or both of two Hebrew roots—nawaw and nawvaw (or a varient nawveh), both of which mean something becoming, pleasant, suitable, beautiful, a pasture, a place of rest and beauty. These two roots are used often in the Old Testament. See, for example, Prov. 17:7 (becometh), Prov. 19:10 (seemly), Ps. 33:1 (comely), and Jer. 25:37 (peaceable habitations). Perhaps the most lovely use, however, is in reference to the green pastures in Ps. 23:2.
That Joseph Smith should have named Nauvoo after a Hebrew root so unknown generally is not surprising. He had much greater acquaintance with Hebrew than is generally recognized. He had, for example, made an “inspired revision” of the Old and New Testaments during the period 1831–33. Furthermore, he and others had studied Hebrew in Kirtland, Ohio, with Professor Joshua Seixas for two hours a day from January 26 through March 26, 1836. During that period they did much translating from the Old Testament, including Genesis 17 and 22, Exodus 3, and perhaps Psalms 1 and 2. It is highly probable that the class also translated or at least read other beautiful passages in which nawaw or nawvaw may have appeared in some form. It is hard to believe that the class was not exposed to the beauty of the twenty-third Psalm.
Three years later in Illinois, as he stood on the bluffs above what was first known as Commerce, he was impressed with the charm of that particular bend in the Mississippi (a beauty that many travelers of the west later pointed out), and was moved to give his future city not only a beautiful but a unique name.
Another little known fact is that the Hebrew grammar by Seixas that Joseph Smith and his fellows used (A Manual of Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners, 2nd ed., Andover, Mass., 1834) gave the word nauvoo (a third person plural form). It is found on page 111 in a list of “Peculiar and Anamalous Forms Found in the Hebrew Bible.” There seems to be little question that this then is the source of the name for Nauvoo, Illinois. (In 1841 Parley P. Pratt discovered another source for the name—J. S. Frey’s Hebrew and English Dictionary, London, 1839, page 225, where the word is translated as “they were beautiful, adorned.” Pratt cites Frey in the May 1841 issue of the Millennial Star to refute the claim of the Edinburgh Intelligencer that Nauvoo was not Hebrew.) It is both ironic and tragic that this site, so beautiful in name and nature, should have become the place of so much unrest and persecution.
Just when the name of Commerce was changed to Nauvoo is not recorded, but it must have been sometime between the conference at Commerce, October 6–8, 1839, and a meeting of the Nauvoo high council, less than two weeks later, on October 20. The following April the Post Office Department in Washington, D.C., officially changed the name of the Commerce post office to Nauvoo. Still later, in “A Proclamation of the First Presidency” dated January 8, 1841, Joseph Smith explained that “the name of our city is Hebrew origin, and signifies a beautiful situation or place, carrying with it, also, the idea of rest.”
The first reference to the name Nauvoo in the Times and Seasons (the official Church organ at that time) was in the December 1839 issue, which stated that “it derives its name from the Hebrew, which signifies fair, very beautiful. …” The Times and Seasons, however, did not change its masthead from Commerce to Nauvoo until the May 1840 issue—that is, until after the name change had been recognized by the post office department. 1
How it was that the name came to be used in other states is not so well known. We do know, however, that by 1899 the Nauvoo Independent of October 27 published the bare fact that Nauvoos were located in Alabama, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Unfortunately, this knowledge was generally lost sight of and had to be rediscovered recently.
It is entirely possible that other students of Hebrew could have originated the name Nauvoo and used it in other areas. I have, however, found no evidence to support this contention. There are those who consider that the name is Indian (an erroneous but not bad guess), a varient or corruption of real Indian names such as Nowe, Noewe, Nuanha, Niowe, etc.
The most likely explanation, however, for the diffusion of this peculiar place name is through the travels of Mormon missionaries, including Joseph Smith and the Twelve Apostles. By 1832, missionaries were fanning out through the land. Between 1839 (after Nauvoo, Illinois, was named) and 1848, hundreds of elders had been assigned to the two great mission fields of that day, the Southern States and Eastern States missions.
The itinerant elders themselves probably did not give any community the name Nauvoo, and most of their converts left as quickly as possible for church headquarters in Illinois. (There was in 1842, however, a Nauvoo Branch in Wythe County, Virginia, but it was apparently of short duration and never developed into a community.) The names, therefore, must have been given to certain communities later because Mormons had lived and worked in those areas, or because the name interested the local inhabitants, or because they too thought their place was beautiful and wanted a name that said so.
Probably the next use of the name Nauvoo was in Liberty Township, Tioga County, Pennsylvania. This community dates from the early 1840s and may have been named in 1844 because “a Mormon elder,” Daniel W. Canfield, lived in the area. There is good evidence that the christening was instigated by Mrs. Lydia Jane Peirson (1802–62), a poet and early settler of the area. Such a name would surely have struck the fancy of a poet. A post office was established in this Nauvoo in August 1850, and the same D. W. Canfield was the first postmaster. (The Journal History lists a Daniel Canfield as a member of the Church in Chicago in 1847, but he was most likely not this D. W. Canfield.)
The Pennsylvania Folklore Society has recorded an interesting tale about this “once flourishing Mormon settlement,” titled “The Fleeing Nauvoo Bride.” It seems a young maiden of Nauvoo, Pennsylvania, was once selected by lot to be sent as a bride to Nauvoo, Illinois, and fled the community rather than submit. So much for folklore.
There are also stories regarding Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Sidney Rigdon having visited this Nauvoo. Rigdon may very well have done so. After he left Nauvoo in 1844 he returned to the Pittsburgh area (where he had from 1821–24 been a Baptist minister) and lived there for nearly 30 years, until his death in 1876. This Nauvoo exists today and has a population of about 50. It is located on Zimmerman Creek, near highway 414, 11 miles southwest of Blossburg. 3
Next in point of time seems to be Nauvoo, Walker County, Alabama, which was established around 1855 and given its name by a Mr. Carroll, who may have thought the name Indian. A post office was established there in 1879. Today the community has a population of 265 and is located on the Southern Railroad line, on highway 5 about 40 miles northwest of Birmingham. 4
Nauvoo, Dyers County, Tennessee, was apparently named by a Mr. Belus Whit in the 1890s. Mr. Whit was a schoolteacher in the area who, though not a Mormon, was alleged to have been sympathetic with the Church. When a post office was established there in 1898, he gave it the name Nauvoo. (Perhaps the name was brought into that area by Elders F. D. Wilson and G. W. Branson, who in 1843 were assigned as missionaries to Montgomery and Dyer counties, Tennessee.) So little is known of this Nauvoo that the Tennessee State Library and Archives could find no references to it at all. Nauvoo, Tennessee, is a rural area on highway 78 approximately four miles north of Dyersburg. 5
There is (or was) also a Nauvoo, Stone County, Missouri, named about the same time and for about the same reason as Nauvoo, Tennessee. This Nauvoo does not appear in any Missouri gazetteers prior to 1898, and no historical societies in Missouri have been able to locate any further information. There is a local story, however, to the effect that in the 1890s a James Lawrence visited Nauvoo, Illinois, and upon his return home, named the new post office in his area after Nauvoo, Illinois. This tradition is confirmed by postal documents in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which show that a post office was established here December 20, 1895, and that the first postmaster was James J. Lawrence.
Even though some road maps still show this community, it is now deserted and only two buildings stand. It is located one-half mile north of the Arkansas border, on a county road three and a half miles south of highway 86, about five miles southwest of Lampe. 6
The earliest non-Mormon use of Nauvoo is in reference to a small fishing village of about 50 men and boys in Monmouth County on the New Jersey shore (now a part of Sea Bright). Although direct evidence is thus far lacking, this Nauvoo was most likely the result of a missionary trip by Joseph Smith and Orson Pratt into Monmouth County from Philadelphia during January 1840. Joseph Smith reports succinctly, “I left Philadelphia with Brother Orson Pratt, and visited a branch of the Church in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where I spent several days, and returned to Philadelphia.” There is probably much more to be known about this particular missionary trip, but it was never recorded, for as Joseph Smith wrote, “I depended on Dr. Foster to keep my daily journal during this journey, but he has failed me.”
Orson Pratt, however, adds to our knowledge. He records, “I stayed with Brother Smith, in Philadelphia, about eight days; we then took the railroad and went some 35 or 40 miles, to a large branch of the Church in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which numbers ninety members.” According to Sharon Pugsley, reference librarian of the New Jersey Historical Society (a member of the Church who has done exhaustive research regarding the Church in New Jersey), this was probably the Cream Ridge Branch, a community at least 35 miles from the New Jersey Nauvoo. It is quite possible, however, that Joseph or Orson or both also preached elsewhere in Monmouth County. Perhaps they visited the Shrewsbury Branch, which had been organized at least by August 1839. This branch was less than eight miles from the fishing village. Some of the fisherfolk may have joined the Church and given the name to their area, or some may have simply heard the name and its meaning and applied it to their beautiful place by the sea.
In any event it was so named about 1840 and known by that name until the little community was eventually swallowed up by the expansion of Sea Bright, a resort founded in 1869 a few hundred yards north of the fishing village. Nauvoo, New Jersey, must have been attractive in its day, for Harper’s Weekly thought it of sufficient interest to write it up and print an engraving of the place in the August 22, 1868, issue. 2
Until 1950 part of West Portsmouth, Scioto County, Ohio (80 miles east of Cincinnati, on the Ohio River), was known, colloquially at least, as Nauvoo. Apparently it was so named by some Mormons who settled there at one time. No documentation for this has turned up, but on May 8, 1895, the area was platted as the Davis-Nauvoo Tract. 7
Also in Ohio are two “Nauvoo Roads.” In Geauga County, there is a Nauvoo Road about 20 miles southwest of Kirtland. It is located one mile north of Middlefield and runs in an east-west direction for about three and one-half miles—from highway 608 eastward to the county line.
In Clinton County, there is another Nauvoo Road. It is located in Vernon Township, about four miles north of Blanchester, and runs in a northeast direction from the Clinton County line for about two and one-half miles to the East Fork of Todd Creek. Blanchester is about 30 miles northeast of Cincinnati. 8
Perhaps there are other places named Nauvoo. It would be of interest to locate as many as possible.
There must have been some confusion among the Saints in Nauvoo about the origin of the name, for the December 5, 1839, issue of the St. Louis Daily Evening Gazette published a letter from Nauvoo suggesting the name was Egyptian.
This information was gleaned from John L. Sexton et al, History of Tioga County, Penn, (New York, 1883), p. 191; History of Tioga County, Penn. (n.p., 1897), pp. 249–50, 488, 639–49; An Outline History of Tioga and Bradford Counties in Pennsylvania … (Elmira, New York, 1895), pp, 39–40; and correspondence with Mrs. Earl Heyler, Morris, Pennsylvania, and Mrs. Dorothy D. Jones, chief deputy, County of Tioga, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.
John Martin Dombart, History of Walker County: Its Towns and People (n.p. [?], 1937), p. 69.
Correspondence with E T. Palmer, attorney at law, Dyersburg, Tennessee.
The Missouri Gazetteer, 1898, and correspondence with Mrs. Bryan McCarty, Nauvoo, Illinois; W. Dallas Long, county clerk, Stone County, Missouri; and George Hammers, Lampe, Missouri. According to the Missouri State Historical Society, part of Memphis, Scotland County, Missouri, used to be known as Nauvoo. There is, however, no documentation for this, and neither the Scotland County Public Library nor the Memphis post office can verify this story.
See also George H. Moss, Jr., Nauvoo to the Hook (Locust, New Jersey, 1964) and the same author’s The Early History of Sea Bright (Sea Bright, New Jersey, 1972).
Correspondence with Miss Henrietta Montavon, reference librarian, Portsmouth Public Library. The name Nauvoo lives on, however, through the Nauvoo United Methodist Church and a Nauvoo elementary school.
I am indebted to Miss Dorothy A. Babbs of the Cincinnati Public Library and Professor Frederick Buchanan of the University of Utah for putting me on the track of these two roads.