The city of Marfa in West Texas had long thought to have been named by a railroad executive’s wife after reading a Russian novel. ("Marfa" is Russian for the woman’s name “Martha.")
It had been assumed that Marfa was named after a character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but there are many reasons to doubt this assumption. The Brothers Karamazov was first serialized in Russian in November 1880; the novel wasn’t translated into English until 1912. It is extremely unlikely that a Russian serialization appeared in West Texas by 1882, and neither the railroad executive nor his wife were Russian speakers.
The Galveston (TX) Daily News of December 17, 1882, stated that the city of Marfa was named after Jules Verne’s Russian novel, Michael Strogoff (1876). Not only was this novel available in English at this time period, but it was made into a popular play that toured the country. The digitization of the Galveston Daily News newspaper archive has made this information newly available.
Wikipedia: Marfa, Texas
Marfa is a city located in the high desert of far West Texas in the Southwestern United States. The population was 2,121 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Presidio County. Its ZIP code is 79843.
Marfa was founded in the early 1880s as a railroad water stop, and grew quickly through the 1920s. Marfa Army Air Field (Fort D.A. Russell) was located east of the town during World War II and trained several thousand pilots before closing in 1945 (the abandoned site is still visible ten miles east of the city). The base was also used as the training ground for many of the U.S. Army’s Chemical mortar battalions.
Today Marfa is a tourist destination, located between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park. Attractions include the historical architecture and classic Texas town square, modern art, soaring, and the Marfa Lights.
Amateur etymologist Barry Popik has shown that Marfa is named after Marfa Strogoff, a character in the Jules Verne novel Michael Strogoff and its theatrical adaptation; the origin was reported in the Galveston Daily News on December 17, 1882, after the Marfa railroad station was established but before Marfa received a post office in 1883.
The Handbook of Texas states that the wife of a railroad executive “reportedly” suggested the name “Marfa” after a name in the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov, which she read.
Wikipedia: The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov (Russian: Братья Карамазовы; /’bratʲjə karə’mazəvɨ/) is the final novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, and is generally considered the culmination of his life’s work. Dostoevsky spent nearly two years writing The Brothers Karamazov, which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger and completed in November 1880. Dostoevsky intended it to be the first part in an epic story titled The Life of a Great Sinner, but he died less than four months after its publication.
Author: Constance Garnett
An English translator whose translations of nineteenth-century Russian classics first introduced them on a wide basis to the English public.
The Brothers Karamazov (1912, Dostoyevsky)
Big Bend Quarterly
How Marfa, Texas Got Its Name
Called one of the ten greatest novels ever written, The Brothers Karamazov was published in December 1880. Dostoyevsky died January 28, 1881, and the town of Marfa was named on January 16, 1882, nearly a year later. The rumor made sense. It spread like the wind and was soon seen in print. However, within a month or so of that 1977 encounter in Marfa, the author had doubts. There was something wrong with this story. How could a woman sitting on an unfinished railroad track in West Texas in 1882 be reading an English translation of a novel only 13 months following its publication in Russian?
Who was the woman on the train?
However, we do know that the team that built the trans-continental railroad in 1869 came out of retirement to build the Southern Pacific: One of them was the husband and wife team of James Harvey Strobridge and Hanna Maria Strobridge. She can be seen in the infamous historical photo of the driving of the “golden spike” at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869. She is the woman in the light-colored, or pale dress, with stripes on her skirt.
Strobridge took his entire family with him during the construction, in a special rail car that served as their home. However, when the Southern Pacific was built, his children were grown and he was now 51 years old.
It is not known for a certainty if Hanna Maria Strobridge was on the train when it first saw what is now Marfa, Feodora and Marathon. What we do know is that her husband, James, had given her the right to name the different stops in the region, which she did.
Wikipedia: Michael Strogoff
Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar (French: Michel Strogoff) is a novel written by Jules Verne in 1876. It is considered one of Verne’s best books by critics. Unlike some of Verne’s other famous novels, it is not science fiction, but a scientific phenomenon is a plot device.
The book has been adapted several times for films and cartoon series.
Michael Strogoff is a courier for the czar Alexander II of Russia. When the Tatar king Feofar Khan invades Russia, Strogoff is sent to Irkutsk to warn the governor, who is the brother of the czar, against the traitor Ivan Ogareff. On his way he meets Nadia Fedor (in some translations, Nadia) and the war reporters Harry Blount—reporting for an English paper—and Alcide Jolivet, a Frenchman—reporting for his ‘cousin Madelaine’. Blount and Jolivet tend to follow the same route as Michael, separating and meeting again all the way through Siberia. Michael, his mother and Nadia are eventually taken prisoner by the Tartar forces. Ivan Ogareff says that Michael is a spy. Feofar, after consulting the Koran, decides that Michael will be blinded in the Tartar fashion, with a hot blade. Michael and Nadia escape, and travel to Irkutsk with a friendly peasant. They are delayed by fire and the frozen river. However, they eventually reach Irkutsk, and warn the Czar’s brother in time of Ivan Ogareff. Michael’s mother joins them and Michael and Nadia are married.
20 August 1882, Atlanta (GA) Constitution, pg. 5, col. 4:
Death of a Well Known Actress.
DETROIT, August 29.—Mrs. James L. Carhart, wife of a veteran actor, died last evening at a hospital in the city, from cancer of the breast. When she married Carhart, fourteen years ago, she was a well known actress, under her maiden name, Cadilla Capel. Since marriage she had been on the stage most of the time, traveling last season with the Kiralfy’s, playing Marfa in “Michael Strogoff.” Her last public appearance was in Chicago last March.
17 December 1882, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 7, col. 5:
The fort is twenty-two miles north of the Southern Pacific railroad. The nearest station is at Marfa, so named after one of the characters in the play of Michael Strogoff, and two or three other stations derive their names from Jules Verne’s story.
The Portal to Texas History
October 1944, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, pg. 296:
MARFA: County seat of Presidio on the Texas & New Orleans Ry., 190 miles southeast of El Paso. On highways 67 and 90. Elevation 4688 ft. Latitude 30 degrees 19’, Longitude 104 degreees 1’. Named by the wife of the Chief Engineer of the Southern Pacific Ry. on tour of inspection in 1881 as railroad construction reached this spot, from the heroine of the Russian novel Michael Strogoff which she was reading at the time.
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • Marfa (city name etymology) • (2) Comments • Friday, October 03, 2008 • Permalink
Correction: Fort Marfa/Fort D.A. Russell is in Marfa city limits, home of the Chinati Foundation. Some brown nosing son-in-law had the base name changed to honor his father-in-law D.A. Russell, I think in ‘39.
Marfa Army Air Field is the now just a ghost 9 miles east of Marfa.
I was extremely interested in the information concerning the source of Marfa, Texas’s name. You certainly have good evidence to back up your conclusion that the town was named for a character in Verne’s _Michael Strogoff_ rather than Dostoevsky’s _The Brothers Karamazov_. However, I think that the fort referred to in the December 17, 1882 Galveston News article is not Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, which was not established until 1911, but Fort Davis, which was established in 1854 and is exactly 22 miles north of Marfa. Fort Davis was the major military post in the region until it was closed by the army in 1891.
Lo Lo is slightly confused about the name of Fort D.A. Russell. The post at Marfa was called Camp Marfa from 1911 to 1930, when the name was changed to Fort D.A. Russell. There had been an earlier Fort D.A. Russell in Wyoming, named after Civil War general David A. Russell. In 1929 the name of that post was changed to Fort Francis E. Warren in honor of the recently-deceased senator from Wyoming, who was General John J. Pershing’s father-in-law. See my article on Fort D.A. Russell in _Chinati Foundation Newsletter_ 16 (2011).