The largest town named Decatur is in Illinois. Ruth and I went through it many times on our way to Champagne-Urbana and Chicago. There isn’t much to do in Decatur for the roughly 76,000 humans who live there. The only point of interest listed is Scovill Zoo. The 2nd largest Decatur appears to be in Alabama. It’s reported that about 55,000 people live there. Number 3 is Decatur, Georgia, with a population of about 20,000. it is near Atlanta. This seems to be the liveliest Decatur of all with, according to one travel-oriented website, 21 points of interest.
Depending on which source you believe, there are 17 towns named Decatur in the United States. Wikipedia adds Decatur, Wisconsin, to its list. The other Decaturs are much smaller than the 3 identified above. There are Decaturs in New York, Missouri, and Ohio. The most westerly town named Decatur is in Washington, my state. It is on Decatur Island and I have not been there. When a researcher tries to find out why there are so many Decaturs and asks the meaning of “Decatur”, he or she is told that they are towns in Illinois and Georgia. That’s it! So, who or what is Decatur?
Researching, I learned about Decatur Island in the San Juans. These are very scenic and diverse islands in Puget Sound near Canada’s Gulf Islands. There are 4 major streets named Decatur somewhere. There are several Decatur counties in the United States. There is even an asteroid named Decatur. He must have been important, but I still didn’t know who Decatur was.
But then I found out about Stephen Decatur, American naval hero and a force in the War of 1812 about the time that the American frontier was moving west. Since so many towns are named after political figures, it’s logical to assume that settlers moving toward the Mississippi River would establish towns and name them after a naval hero or national figure. There are, after all, 27 Madisons in the United States, and President James Madison, who was the President at the start of the War of 1812, wasn’t exactly a George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. To ensure credibility, I went back to find out why at least 17 towns are named Decatur, and the first 10 or so I checked were indeed named after Stephen Decatur. All 17 counties were named for him.
Who was Stephen Decatur, Jr? That’s him up top thanks to Wikipedia. He rose to the level of Commander in the U.S. Navy. Decatur served in the two Barbary Wars and captured a major ship named the USS President in the War of 1812. He commanded several famous ships like The Enterprise and The Constitution. He also supervised the construction of several vessels. He had an illustrious career and lived in Washington, DC but never went into politics because he died relatively young in a duel with James Barron. In his early 40s Stephen Decatur made some remarks about Barron’s conduct. Barron was facing a court-martial at the time. Barron challenged Decatur to a duel when this was a far more common way to settle a dispute. A good shot, Decatur expected to merely wound Barron, who survived the battle. Decatur was shot and died of his wound, had a major funeral, and had several towns named after him.