Answered By: Staff Archives and Special Collections
Last Updated: Mar 28, 2022     Views: 185

For a quick introduction to the history of place names in Alaska, an easy to use resource for finding out the history of an Alaska place name is an online database is called the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) provided by the U.S. Geographical Survey's Board on Geographic Names. You can keyword search by parts of the name or even names that are no longer current. The results list tells you the census area or borough in Alaska in which the place is located. This can be helpful with more common names: did you know 17 places in Alaska have Ophir in the name or did once? Each listing also has links to the history of the name and to several online mapping sources so be sure to click on the "feature name" to see the place name history, the sources for names and variant names, and links to maps.

Heads up! When you first pull up the search page, you may have to hit the search button twice to get any results.

The database also includes the other 49 states, plus American Samoa, the District of Columbia, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the Republic of Palau, and the Virgin Islands.

Much of the older history for Alaska place names in the database came from a 1967 USGS publication by Donald J. Orth called the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. A lot of librarians in Alaska just call it "Orth" for short. Many of the libraries in Alaska have copies.

For more specialized information, such as place names within a city or Alaska Native place names, also be sure to search the library catalog with keywords like "place names" and locations or language names.

The Alaska Native Place Names website is also a great resource for seeing the Alaska Native name as well as the Alaska Native language associated with that place. 

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