Discovering Atlanta: What’s In A Name?

by Sara Logue, Research and Public Services Archivist, MARBL

Discovering AtlantaWhen it was determined by the people of Georgia that a railroad was needed to connect them to the west, the Western and Atlantic Railroad was born and its terminating point became the city of Atlanta. Originally referred to as Terminus, this swiftly growing city soon took on the name of Marthasville after former Governor Wilson Lumpkin's daughter, Martha. There are conflicting tales about how the name eventually changed from Marthasville to Atlanta. Some believed it was derived from the goddess Atalanta, and others came to believe that it was the middle name of Martha Lumpkin Compton. The reality is much less mythical.


J. Edgar Thomson J. Edgar Thomson, Image fromHistory of Philadelphia by John T. Scharfand Thompson Westscott, publishedby L.H. Everts & co, Philadelphia, 1884

In Atlanta and its Builders, (F293.3 .M37) Thomas H. Martin writes “The citizens were so full of their dreams of future greatness and prosperity that a general desire was felt to shake off the name of Marthasville. They wanted a name with a bigger sound, and Atlanta was suggested by J. Edgar Thomson, chief engineer of the Georgia railroad.” (Martin, p.38)

According to an 1871 letter, which can be found in its entirety in Franklin Garrett's Atlanta and Environs (F293 .G37), written by Richard Peters, the superintendent of the Georgia railroad, J. Edgar Thomson was asked to come up with a new name. Thomson's response was “Eureka—Atlanta, the terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad—Atlantic masculine, Atlanta feminine—a coined word, and if you think it will suit, adopt it.” (Garrett, p.225)

Peters went ahead and ran the name in the railroad circulars. Originally just supposed to be the name of the train depot, the town quickly absorbed its new moniker after the post office moved forward with it prior to any legislative change.

So how did it come to be that Atlanta's citizens continued to believe the myth instead of the fact? Probably due to how most myths come to be the more popular tale, they're just more interesting. Peters goes on to write a decade later, “There were editors and writers then who were addicts of classic mythology. When they first encountered the name Atlanta, some of them jumped to the conclusion that it was a misprint, or typographical error, and supposed they had corrected it by printing 'Atalanta' instead. There were others who volunteered to explain the new name as a derivitive from Atalanta, the goddess of fleetness and strength, and to applaud her as 'the fit prototype of a worthy name-sake!' All of which, of course, was very amusing to those of us who had knowledge of the framing of the name by Mr. Thomson and had engineered its adoption in lieu of Marthasville.” (Garrett, p.225-226)

Martha Lumpkin Compton Scrapbook Scrapbook of Martha Lumpkin Compton from her personal papers, Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University(Click for Detail)

While it's not clear how Martha Lumpkin Compton felt about the loss of Marthasville, she does address the confusion about the origins of Atlanta and her connection to it in our collection of her personal papers, which include a number of diaries and scrapbooks. Mostly consisting of newspaper clippings and quotes from books, there is one section in which a newspaper article proclaiming “Martha Atalanta Lumpkin Compton” as the original namesake of Atlanta is refuted with a hand-written explanation by Mrs. Compton herself.

Martha begins by stating that “Like all newspaper pieces their (sic) are a good many mistakes in Miss Olivers.” She then goes on to talk about how her name has always been Martha Wilson, and the confusion might lie in the fact that her father gave her the middle initial “A” and her servant, Puss, never called her anything but Miss Attie, while it seems that most everyone else called her Mattie.

Excerpt from Martha Lumpkin Compton's Scrapbook

Martha Lumpkin Compton's papers also consist of recipes, account books and even the cut out signatures from various letters of family members. Come up to MARBL to visit with Martha Lumpkin Compton and her scrapbooks which are a fascinating glimpse into the life of a young woman in the 19th Century in Georgia.

So do you have any insight into the tale of changing Marthasville to Atlanta? Are there any other theories lurking about in the oral history of this city that aren't mentioned here? Tell me about it in the comments below.

ReferencesGarrett, F. (1954). Atlanta and environs: A chronicle of its people and events, vol. 1. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc.Martin, T. (1902). Atlanta and its builders: A comprehensive history of the gate city of the south. Atlanta: Century Memorial Pub. Co.