Upper New York Bay

Name That American Island

The following article is from the new book Uncle John’s Uncanny Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Ken Curtis)

Did you know that there are 18,617 named islands in the U.S. and its territories? Neither did we! Here are some interesting stories behind the names of some of those islands.


In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson, sailing under a Dutch flag, sailed into New York Bay. (He wasn’t the first European to explore the region; that honor goes to Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered it in 1524.) Hudson named the large island on the southwest side of the bay Staaten Eylandt, literally “States Island,” after the Dutch parliament, known as the Staaten-Generaal. When the English took over the region in 1667, and made it part of their New York Colony, the name was anglicized to Staten Island.

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Bonus fact: Staten Island wasn’t its official name until 1975. In 1683, the British divided the New York Colony into ten counties, and designated Staten Island as Richmond County, after Charles Lennox, the son of England’s King Charles II, and first Duke of Richmond. When Staten Island was incorporated into New York City in 1898 as one of its five boroughs, its official name was the Borough of Richmond—and that remained its name until 1975, when the city council finally changed it to the Borough of Staten Island.


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Just east of Staten Island, across a channel known as the Narrows that separates Lower New York Bay from Upper New York Bay (where the Statue of Liberty is located), lies Long Island. Like Staten Island, it was named by the Dutch in the early 17th century. They called it Lange Eylandt, meaning, of course, “Long Island.” It’s 118 miles long by 23 miles wide at its widest point, making it the longest (and largest) island in the contiguous United States. It’s also the most populous island in any state or territory, with more than 7.8 million residents.


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Kodiak Island is about 250 miles southeast of Anchorage, off the east coast of Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula. It’s been home to the Alutiiq people for more than 3,000 years. And it’s huge. At 3,595 square miles, Kodiak is the second-largest island in the United States (after Hawaii), and the 80th largest in the world. The island was first encountered by Europeans in 1763, when Russian fur trader Stephan Glotov arrived there. He called it Kad’yak, a derivation of kikhtak, the native Aleut word for “island.” The island became the center of the Russian fur trade, but the name didn’t spread beyond the Russian trading community until 1778, when English explorer Captain James Cook arrived and made the first known written notation of the word “Kodiak.”


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According to traditional folklore, the largest of the Hawaiian islands was named after Hawai’iloa, a legendary seafaring hero who discovered and then colonized them. (He was from a land called Ka-aina-kaimelemele-a-Kane, meaning “the land of the yellow sea of Kane.”) According to the same folklore, the names of the next three largest islands in the Hawaiian chain—Kauai, Oahu, and Maui—come from the names of Hawai’iloa’s sons. But according to linguists, “Hawaii” is similar to words found in other Polynesian languages—including Maori and Samoan—that mean something along the lines of “homeland,” and “Hawaii” probably once had that same meaning.

Bonus Fact: The Hawaiian word lulu means “calm,” and the name of Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu, means “calm port.”


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