Someone whose surname had been Chariton before marriage called the museum the other day to arrange a tour and asked if any of us knew the source of the name. The answer is, “well, sort of.”
The easy answer --- the one you hope people will settle for --- is that the city of Chariton is named for the river of Chariton, which flows just to the south.
Historically, this place was called Chariton Point because the river, which rises to the southwest in Clarke County, comes to its most northerly point here before turning abruptly southeast and nicking Wayne County before flowing through Appanoose (mostly under Lake Rathbun now) and into Missouri.
Chances are, Chariton Point had been a named landmark long before permanent non-native settlers arrived since the broad ridge dividing the Mississippi and Missouri river drainages at the crest of which Chariton (the town) now is parked, had long been the easiest route west through these southern hills.
The South Chariton is another matter. Confined mostly to Wayne County, it meanders easterly and once joined the main Chariton northeast of Promise City. That junction, too, is now somewhere under the Rathbun Reservoir.
If you’re going to track “Chariton” to anything resembling a source, however, a trip to its mouth in Chariton County, north central Missouri, will be required. That’s where the Chariton enters the Missouri River.
The most popular legend holds that a French fur trader named Jean, or John, Chariton had a trading post near the Missouri mouth of the Chariton in the late 18th century --- and that the River was named for him.
That’s plausible, but no trace of an historic Jean/John Chariton ever has turned up. Fur traders were, however, an elusive bunch. Still, this is my favorite explanation.
Drive into the Keytesville, the Chariton County seat, however, and you’ll find an official state historic marker that adds to the confusion by stating, among other things, that “the county name was probably derived from Joseph Charette, who drowned in what is now Chariton River, 1795.”
There doesn’t seem to be an historic Joseph Charette either, so it is entirely possible that this information, although “official,” was pulled from a hat to confuse those of us who live upstream.
The earliest specific reference to our river's name that I know of is George H.V. Collot’s 1796 “General Map of North America.” On that map, the river is labeled “R. Cheraton.”
It took quite a while to prepare and publish a map in the 18th century, so it seems unlikely that Collot would have had time not only to name a river after someone who had drowned in it the previous year and misspell the name in the process.
So by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led their westbound expedition past the mouth of the Chariton/Cheraton on Sunday, June 10, 1804, it had certainly been named. Agreeing on how the name should be spelled, however, was another matter --- and keep in mind several members of the party were keeping journals or taking notes. And that spelling was more of a democratic process in those days.
Clark spelled it both “Chareton” and “Charleton” in entries dated the 10th. Lewis, whom everyone at least agrees shot a fine buck deer that day, spelled it “Charitton.” But Sergeant John Ordway spelled in “Charliton” as did Sergeant Charles Floyd, who kept his journal faithfully until a few days before his death on Aug. 20, 1804, near present-day Sioux City. Sergeant Patrick Gass, the longest-surviving member of the party, spelled it "Charlotte"; Private Joseph Whitehouse, "Charrotte, Charrottoe, Charotto" and "Charoto."
Of all these reporters, Lewis and Clark are the ones most likely to have seen a map on which the river’s name was printed or written I tend to think; therefore, the ones most likely to have gotten it nearly right.
Whatever the case, the spelling “Chariton” soon became the standard even though its source is vague.
It is possible to go farther afield than Missouri in search of some explanation for Chariton, but these lines of speculation don’t seem to have much of a future.
Wikipedia, source of all knowledge fit to post, identifies Chariton of Aphrodisias as the author of an ancient Greek novel probably entitled “Callirhoe,” perhaps written in the 1st century A.D.
And Orthodox Christians venerate St. Chariton the Confessor of Palestine (above), a citizen of Iconium (not the Appanoose County Iconium), who stood up for his faith during the reign of Emperor Aurelian, then set out for Palestine, where he founded three monasteries before his death during 350 A.D.
It seems highly unlikely, however, that either of these Charitons had anything to do with the name of our Charitons, river and city.
Now that’s about all I can tell you about from whence “Chariton” came. So far as whither it’s going --- you’re on your own.
We do ask that you pronounce it right. It's SHARE-a-ton, soft and gentle as a southern breeze; not CHAIR-a-ton, as in something you'd sit on. If you don't pronounce it our way, we'll know you're one of them danged furriners --- the types who pronounce another of our rivers DEZ MOINES rather than the gentle da-MOIN that it is.