How Marfa, Texas Got Its Name
Editors note: This article appeared in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, 2001, published by Sul Ross State University. It was written by Thomas Wilson, an Alpine native who holds a Ph.D. from Rice University. We are reprinting here, in an abridged, or condensed version. We are deeply indebted to Mr. Wilson for his research into one of the more enduring tales of the Big Bend.
A glance at a map of the Trans-Pecos region in West Texas has an element of surprise. Hidden amongst all of the Spanish and Anglo-Saxon names for towns you can find two that are Russian. The Spanish names are often religious ones and are expected, since the entire region was part of Mexcio for hundreds of years with settlements that predate the landing of the Pilgrims in America by a century. The Anglo-Saxon examples usually derive from names of enterprising or popular individuals, sprinkled with military commanders, the surnames of a few famous poets and sometimes a keen sense of humor. But where did the two Russian names come from?
One possible answer to that question began 22 years ago as a rumor started by this author. While in Marfa on ranching business, he stopped at the Marfa Public Library. In an excerpt of records of the Southern Pacific Railroad that gave the origin of towns named along the route was this citation: "Marfa, named for the heroine of a Russian novel. Wife of Chief Engineer who was reading the novel suggested the name."
The novel must surely have been The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoyevsky, where Marfa appears as the housekeeper and surrogate mother of the four Karamazov boys.
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?
After 22 years of on-again, off-again research, what emerges is not only fascinating, but involves Marfa and the story of the woman on the train.
Who was Marfa?
"Marfa" is actually the Russian equivalent of the English name, "Martha." Dostoyevsky created nine different characters named Marfa in six of his novels over the last 21 years of his life.
The first Marfa to appear in a Dostoyevsky novel is in The Village of Stepanchikovo (1859). The next Marfa appears in Crime and Punishment. A character named Marfa would appear in his next works, The Idiot, The Gambler, The Possessed and finally in The Brothers Karamazov.
More Evidence in Feodora
When you look along the route of the railroad track from Marfa past Alpine and Marathon, you see just east of Sanderson, the name Feodora. Feodora is Dostoyevskys first name with an "a" on the end of it. Why is the "a" important? Unlike English, the Russian author of a novel is written in the genitive case. Genetive is also used for possessive. Therefore, the title page of Dostoyevskys novel reads, "Feodora," or, translated, "Feodors novel."
Feodora means "Feodors place." It seems to indicate that the person on the train, naming these stops along the route, was reading one of Dostoyevskys novels, not someone elses. The use of Feodora means that the novel she was reading was in Russian, because no English translation would have used the "a." It also bolsters the case for The Brothers Karamazov, because the novel, published in its original Russian, could easily have been in the hands of anyone in the world 13 months after publication. The existence of Feodora suggests that the woman on the train, or someone she knew, could read Russian.
Who was the woman on the train?
The person naming the stops was clearly an educated individual. Besides Feodora, we find names like Longfellow, Emerson and Dryden, all famous writers and poets. Marathon comes from Lord Byron and Greece.
The railroad was in control of the naming conventions. The track right-of-way, by order of the Texas Legislature, belonged to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway Company GHS&A), which subcontracted the work to the Southern Pacific proceeding from California. The names occasionally changed later, but only the superintendent of railroad construction could bestow the original name. We know who that was. Between Sierra Blanca and the Pecos River, we also know he gave the job to his wife.
While the construction of the trans-continental railroad is well documented, the record of the Southern Pacific is sketchy. The headquarters building of the Southern Pacific in San Francisco was destroyed by fire, and all of its records, in the earthquake of 1906.
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.
The existence of Feodora convincingly singles out Dostoyevsky as the choice for the Russian author involved, and that Marfa was almost certainly named for the heroine of The Brothers Karamazov because the name "Feodora" was taken directly from the title page of the Russian novel, indicating that it was not translated into English at the time Marfa was named.
What we have is a rich, delightful story involving some of the warmest small towns in West Texas. Marathon, Marfa and Feodora all owe their names to Hanna Maria Strobridge.
Editors note: Thomas Wilson holds a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics from Rice University. An Alpine native, he is currently working at NASA in Houston, Texas.