DG MARTIN COLUMN: Mighty Mecklenburg

“Why do you Mecklenburgers always act so high and mighty?”

D.G. Martin

I still get this question every now and then even though I moved away years ago.

Last week I remembered the best answer to that question.
On March 4, in downtown Charlotte, members of the Mecklenburg County Commission hosted political officials and community leaders from the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Their purpose was to renew and celebrate a partnership between these two Mecklenburgs formed 30 years ago to encourage connections and an appreciation of their common history.

Also present were several Charlotte-based German business leaders and Catherine Hansen, the county’s chief protocol officer and the person most responsible for the formation of the partnership.

What about folks in Mecklenburg? Can they be proud of their county’s name, too?

“Mecklenburg” is not a common name for people or places. It has a foreign ring to it, unlike most other North Carolina counties that have Indian names or were named to honor prominent Englishmen or early North Carolinians.

Many North Carolinians who studied the state’s history in the eighth grade can tell you that the state’s largest county’s name came from Charlotte of Mecklenburg, the wife of English King George III who reigned from 1760 to 1820.

Those who paid close attention in history class can give you more specifics: In 1762, soon after the youthful George III married the teenage princess from the Mecklenburg royal family, the settlers on the frontier of the English colony of North Carolina wanted to form a new county and have their own courthouse. It is not clear whether the settlers picked the names Mecklenburg and Charlotte simply to honor the new queen, or that their purpose was really to encourage prompt approval of the proposed new units of government.

So, if you are ever asked where Mecklenburg County got its name, you can correctly answer “from Mecklenburg in Germany.” But your answer only leads to another question. Where did the German Mecklenburg name come from?

To answer that question, we have to go back more than a thousand years, back to a time when the area of present-day Northern Germany along the Baltic Sea, now known as Mecklenburg, was not German at all.

Slavic peoples controlled it. About this time German peoples were moving in from the west, colonizing and conquering.
In the year 995, a German scouting party in the region sent a written report about a Slavic stronghold that the native peoples called “Wiligrad.” The term meant something like strong (or big and mighty) fortress. The scouting party’s report translated “Wiligrad’ into the German of the day. “Wili” (big, strong or mighty) became Michelen.
“Grad” (fortress) became “burg.” “Michelenburg” later came to be spelled “Mecklenburg,” and, as the Germans established their dominance over the area, the name came to be identified with the entire surrounding area.

Now you know how and when the Mecklenburg name was first used — and what it meant.

A fortress, one that is big, strong and mighty.

In 1995, a thousand years after the first use of the name that his county bears, then Mecklenburg County Commission Chair, the late Parks Helms, went to Germany and climbed the hill where Wiligrad, the “strong fortress” of the original Michelenburg, once stood.

After somebody explained to him the historic origin of the Mecklenburg name, he cleared his throat and said, “I don’t know about the fortress part, but I think the ‘big, strong and mighty’ words fit our Mecklenburg County pretty well.”

If Helms was right, then maybe Mecklenburg County residents ought to be “mighty” proud of their county’s name.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”