Our forefathers were improvisational spellers, and the past is the land of variable names.
In the years immediately after the American Revolution there was a tavern on the road to Frederick (Wisconsin Avenue), just above River Road. The tavern keeper’s name was––depending on the document you choose––either John Tennely, John Tennoly, John Tennally, John Tenally, John Tennerly, John Tennelly, John Tenerley, or John Tenalley. The man himself could not have told you how to spell it, as he signed with an X. In short, there was no correct spelling of it, and those doing the writing were entirely free to improvise.
The village that grew around the tavern took its name from from the tavern keeper, and like its namesake, it too was subject to variable orthography. In 1814, when American troops defeated at Bladensburg camped here, Mrs. William Thornton wrote Tennely Town, and Colonel Beall, Tenly Town. When it needed to be abbreviated, it was T.T. During the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote Ten Alley Town, apparently having heard it pronounced that way by fellow soldiers, who were under the impression that the town consisted of ten alleys.
One thing is clear: the earliest renditions of the tavern keeper’s surname––Tennely, Tennelly, Tenalley, Tenerley, Tennerly, and Tennoly––were all in agreement that the name had three syllables. Over the course of time, however, the tavern keeper’s descendants ––who preferred to remember him as a blacksmith––also came to prefer two syllables, and the spelling Tenley. This inspired the editor of the Washington Star to propose that the surname might also serve as the name of the locality, and that Tenleytown would gain in refinement by being shortened to Tenley. Residents were not persuaded, however, and although the local postmaster had originally concurred with the Star, he gave up on the genteel Tenley, and declared Tenleytown to be correct.
“Tennallytown road will remain Tennallytown road for the immediate future, but it will be spelled officially “Tenleytown.” Such was the decision of the District Commissioners yesterday, taken upon the recommendation of Engineer Commissioner Biddle, who recently moved to designate the thoroughfare “Wisconsin avenue.” The reconsideration is to give people living along the road opportunity to be heard.
When Col. Biddle first moved to designate the thoroughfare Wisconsin avenue, he though he was meeting a popular demand, but numerous protests convinced him of his mistake. What the ultimate preference of the people will be is a much mooted question. Names varying widely in some instances and in others distinguished only by a single letter have been suggested, and applied to the thoroughfare. Among the entries are Georgetown and Rockville road, Tennallytown road, Tenallytown road, Tenleytown road, Tenley road, High street, Thirty-second street, and Wisconsin avenue. In favor of each name there are staunch supporters. On only one point is there recognized to be an authority, and that is the board of geographic names, which held that the name of the town is “Tenley” and not Tennallytown.”
(Washington Post, June 3, 1904, with thanks to Ghosts of DC)
This would have settled the matter, had not a new contender walked upon the scene. Friendship was a tract of land, patented in 1711, that extended from McLean Gardens to Bethesda; in 1900 its name was revived for the subdivision of Friendship Heights, and it was not long before the Tennallytown streetcars began to be Friendship Heights streetcars, and the post office became Friendship Station.
In 1927, when a traffic circle was proposed for the junction of Nebraska and Wisconsin Avenues, there were those who wanted it called Friendship Circle. The Commissioners, however, favored a descendant of the original tavern keeper, who urged that it be named Tenley Circle. In 1979, in response to local preference, the Metro station that had been designated to be Tenley Circle became Tenleytown. (Since the purchase of the old Immaculata College by American University, it has been Tenleytown-AU.)
Judith Beck Helm, Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village into City Neighborhood, 1981
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