HOW MARFA, TEXAS CAME BY ITS RUSSIAN NAME: Some Afterthoughts and Informed Updates

A copy of the 19th century novel Marfa Posadnitsa by Nikolai Karamzin. Marfa appears as the character in the red cloak. The author’s name is at the very top of the novel, followed by the book title in Cyrillic letters. Scan courtesy of Peter Fischer.


Some Afterthoughts and Informed Updates

By Peter A. Fischer, Ph.D.

With introduction by Mary Cantrell

MARFA — No one can say with total certainty how the Far West Texas town of Marfa, established in 1883 as a water stop along the newly-extended Southern Pacific Railroad, got its name. 

Recently, one scholar was motivated to develop his own theory, as the existing tales he found dominating the narrative just didn’t ring true to him, he said. 

“I had for a long time intended to really get to the bottom of it, because I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I had been given for the origin of the name,” said Peter Fischer in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel. 

Fischer is indeed uniquely situated to research the topic. He attended Indiana University in the 1950s and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Russian language and literature before attending Harvard to obtain his doctorate. Now retired, during his career Fischer worked as a university professor at a number of colleges including Amherst and Georgetown. He accompanied student groups on trips to Russia and worked as a professional tour guide in the country. 

He first traveled to Texas in 1973 to work at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. After 15 years in that role, Fischer got a job at the American Embassy in Moscow, where he worked as an assistant to the ambassador until 1996. He now lives in North Carolina and was recently re-inspired to delve into the history of Marfa’s name after a trip to the area. 

Fischer’s findings, detailed in an essay titled “How Marfa, Texas came by its Russian name: Some Afterthoughts and Informed Updates,” which follows this introduction, describe a new, alternative Marfa name theory. Fischer agrees with part of the most popular existing theory — that the wife of a railroad executive was inspired by a Russian novel she was reading at the time of the railroad construction and establishment of the town and suggested the name to her husband. Yet his theory differs when it comes to specifics; in Fischer’s theory, the novel being read was a fictionalized account of the life and legacy of a historic Russian figure by the name of Marfa Posadnitsa.

Fischer is unconvinced that the big Russian novels, such as The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which has been believed to have inspired the town’s name, contained any memorable Marfa characters. “It had to have been something that really stood out, not some secondary or tertiary character,” he said. 

He felt with his deep knowledge of Russian history and literature he might be able to discover the true origin of the name. Marfa Posadnitsa, a well-known figure in Russian history, who lived in the 1400s, would have stood out to the wife of the railroad executive, Fisher thought, for she was unusually involved in politics for a woman of that time and a primary character in the novel. 

For this and other reasons explained in the below essay, Fischer is convinced he’s cracked the real story behind the small Texas town’s Russian name. 

“You can say it’s speculation, but what I would say is, it’s definitely informed speculation that’s borne out by a number of contextual things around this story,” said Fischer. 


When I first heard the name Marfa –– it might have been on “The Eyes of Texas” TV program –– and got intrigued and curious about it, I looked it up on the map of Texas. Seeing its remote location, out in Big Bend country, I was further fascinated, and spoke to an aficionado of Texan lore and legends, who told me the basic story of Marfa’s founding. I was told that it got its start in the early 1880s, during the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad across Texas and all the way to California; that the railroad planners chose the site to build a watering station to allow the steam locomotives to refill their water tanks as they chuffed across the vastness of West Texas. 

And to top it off, as I was even more excited to learn, the water stop was named Marfa at the request of the wife of an executive of the Southern Pacific.

That mysterious executive was in all likelihood Charles Crocker, one of the famous “Big Four” railroad pioneers and tycoons responsible for the Southern Pacific and other connecting rail systems. The other three were Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins — all prominent personalities in Gilded Age America. Of the four, Crocker was the most “hands on” type, and probably the “executive” managing construction of the railroad across Texas and beyond. And since at his time the sonorous title of “executive” was not yet in use in the business world, Crocker more likely would have been known as the “Big Boss” on his massive construction project. And it would have been the Big Boss’s wife, Mrs. Crocker, who should take credit for the initiative to give Marfa its name. 

The reason we can reasonably implicate Mr. and Mrs. Charles Crocker in the naming of Marfa is that farther down the Southern Pacific’s track, in New Mexico, another facility or settlement established by the railroad was named “Deming,” which was Mrs. Crocker’s maiden name. We can’t say whether this naming was at Mrs. Crocker’s behest, as was Marfa, or if Charles Crocker did it on his own, out of regard for his wife’s family. In any case, Deming has since become a fair-sized city and an important crossroads on I-10, the 20th century super highway, much of its way paralleling the 19th century railroad tracks laid by Crocker’s Southern Pacific crews.

Identifying Mr. and Mrs. Crocker as the central actors in the establishment and naming of Marfa adds significant, and quite likely factual, information to the town’s hand-me-down history. With that on the books, so to speak, we must now embark on the second, more problematic search: namely how and where Mrs. Crocker came across the Russian name Marfa (the equivalent of our Martha) and what made that Marfa so memorable that she chose to commemorate her by putting her name on the map of Texas. We can assume that a woman of Mrs. Crocker’s social and economic position would have been well-educated, well- traveled, and in her case, widely read, because the source for her Marfa had to be Russian literature, not newspaper society pages. In the 19th century, Russian writers had become internationally famous, and many of their works had begun to be translated into French, German and English, and were readily available to interested readers. So it stands to reason that Mrs. Crocker’s reading extended to books by Russian authors, and our task is to find the author and the book that ended up giving us Marfa, Texas.

So far, most people interested in tracing Marfa’s literary ancestry have posited that she must be a memorable character from one of Dostoevsky’s big novels, maybe Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov. (Alpine native Thomas Wilson posited in the Journal of Big Bend Studies that the name came from The Brothers Karamazov, noting another stop along the route held the name Feodora, which is Dostoyevsky’s first name with an “a” on the end of it.)

But a check of these and other Russian classics that often appear on college reading lists shows them to be devoid of prominent, memorable Marfas; if any do show up, it is in minor roles as household servants or villagers. Someone who decided to dig deeper in where Marfa originated from proposed his alternative to Dostoevsky in a blurb on Wikipedia. He claims she comes from a novel by the French writer Jules Verne, entitled Michael Strogoff. Like other books by Verne, it is replete with fantasy rather than reality, and is Russian only insofar as he employs Russian names (many mangled) for his characters, and a plot that features the czar’s courier, who takes off in a surreal gallop across Russia’s geography, from Petersburg to the far reaches of Siberia. Among the book’s characters there is a Marfa, but she doesn’t show up until Chapter 14, and maybe twice after that, as a secondary character at best. Most likely Mrs. Crocker would not have bothered to read Michael Strogoff as far as Chapter 2, much less Chapter 14, and even if she had, this is not the Marfa whose name she would have remembered.

Having reviewed what looks like well-intended guesses at finding Mrs. Crocker’s Marfa and coming up empty, it is now time to get down to serious business by delving more deeply into Russian history and literature for real answers. In so doing we are quickly drawn to a well-known historical Marfa who, moreover, appears also in Russian literature as the heroine of a short novel (or long short story) by Nikolai Karamzin (pr. karamZEEN) which, soon after its Russian publication in 1802, was translated into English and published under the title Marfa the Mayoress, or the Fall of Novgorod. Karamzin (1766-1826) was both an eminent historian and a writer of fiction – of the Sentimentalist school – who became popular with Western readers for his Letters of a Russian Traveler and Poor Liza, often published together with Marfa the Mayoress, both about tragic heroines suffering a cruel fate.

Before turning our attention to Karamzin’s fictionalized Marfa, we need to get acquainted with the real historical Marfa, the time in which she lived, and the documented events she took part in. In her lifetime, the 1400s, Russia was not yet a unified country, but a patchwork of separate principalities that tended to squabble and feud with one another. Two of them, Moscow and Novgorod, are at the heart of the conflict in which Marfa made her mark on history. The rulers of Moscow, grand princes who traced their ancestry to the founders of the original Russian state in Kiev, had made it their historical mission to unify the disparate Russian principalities under Muscovite rule to become a state capable of confronting more powerful neighbors to the east, west and south. In that drive to gain control over more territory, Moscow’s principal target was Novgorod, the westernmost Russian principality, bordering on Lithuania and with access to the Baltic Sea. Thanks to its strategic location on long-established trade routes extending south as far as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and to Germany and Scandinavia through its association with the Hanseatic League, Novgorod had become both prosperous and very proud of its independence. In addition, it was unique among the Russian principalities for having developed a republican form of government.

The citizens of Novgorod had a well-defined, medieval urban society: tradesmen and merchants organized in “guilds,” clerks and officials, and the upper class “boyars,” i.e. the nobility. The representatives of all groups, with the boyars in the lead, met and elected the official “chief executive” of the city and surrounding territory. His Russian title was “posadnik,” a word unique to Novgorod’s governmental structure. It derives from the Russian verb “to seat,” so that “posadnik” means literally “seated man,” leading logically to “the man put in the seat of power,” as distinguished from a dynastic ruler who assumes the throne through heredity. The most fitting English equivalent for “posadnik” would be mayor (or possibly governor), but given the historical context, “lord mayor” sounds most appropriate. 

At this stage let us look again at Marfa the Mayoress –– the title of the English translation of Karamzin’s historical novel. In the Russian original she is “Marfa Posadnitsa”; you can probably guess, at this point, that “posadnitsa” is the feminine form of “posadnik,” and that is why the English translator made up the word “mayoress” as Marfa’s title. The problem is that in Russian “posadnitsa” means the mayor’s wife, not madam mayor, but we won’t fault the translator for taking a small liberty with the book’s title. Allowing ourselves much greater liberty, leaping across centuries and continents, we could describe Marfa as “the first lady” of Novgorod.

That makes clear that the historical Marfa was the wife of Isaac Boretsky, who had been elected posadnik or lord mayor of Novgorod more than once, a highly respected leader, champion of the republic and categorically opposed to the designs of Moscow’s Grand Prince to bring Novgorod under his autocratic rule. Boretsky died while in office, and on his deathbed had his wife make a vow to step up and carry on his fight to preserve Novgorod’s freedom and independence. Without holding an official position, Marfa rose to the challenge and became a passionate and influential public opponent of Ivan III and his efforts to annex Novgorod to Muscovy. But in the end Novgorod was defeated, losing its independence in 1478, and Marfa, having in addition lost two sons in the war, was exiled to a convent, spending the remainder of her life among nuns.

Such is the historical background and the known facts about Marfa Boretskaya. But what Mrs. Crocker read in Marfa the Mayoress was historical fiction. Building on the facts he knew, Karamzin reimagined them as a novelist, dramatizing, embellishing and creating events to make his tale more entertaining and gripping, and his heroine as admirable, her tragic fate as heart-rending, as he could. This is what happens in the novel: An envoy of Ivan III comes to Novgorod with an official message from the Grand Prince. He delivers it to Novgorod’s leadership and citizens, assembled in the square where town meetings are held. He accuses Novgorod of violating the terms of a treaty it had concluded with Moscow and conveyed the Grand Prince’s demand that Novgorod surrender its independence and submit to his autocratic rule or face the consequences. The crowd reacts with jeers and clamors for Marfa to speak for the people of Novgorod in response to Moscow’s imperious behavior. She rises and delivers a fiery, defiant oration, defending Novgorod’s freedom and independence and scorning the Grand Prince’s promise of benevolence and good will if Novgorod accepts his demands willingly. The crowd cheers and roars as she throws down the gauntlet, pledging that Novgorod will not surrender, but fight to preserve what it lives by and prides itself on, its republican freedom and independence. Inevitably, both sides subsequently prepare for war and Marfa is in the midst of things as chief morale builder, encouraging and supporting the citizenry. But in the end the Novgorodians are defeated by the Muscovites, and Ivan III makes a triumphant entry into Novgorod, where now the leading citizens have to appear and prostrate themselves before the Grand Prince, pledging allegiance to him. Marfa, known to have been a vocal proponent of armed resistance and belonging to a leading Boyar family, defies Ivan’s order to appear and kneel before him and is sentenced to death. The next morning Karamzin’s heroine is beheaded in the public square as townspeople look on in silent defeat. 

I believe Mrs. Crocker must have been deeply touched by Karamzin’s novelistic portrayal of the strength and spirit of a medieval Russian woman who chose death over surrender, an intrepid freedom fighter, something near and dear to every American patriot’s heart. And I am confident that this was the Marfa that moved Mrs. Crocker to ask her husband to put the name on the map of Texas.