A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who or what is Chevy Chase?

October 5, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

I've got a question for you that has befuddled me for quite some time: Who, or what, is Chevy Chase? There is a Chevy Chase bank, city, a bad comedic actor (except in Fletch), numerous streets, lakes, etc. Why does this person/thing gets such attention and national recognition?

Who or what is Chevy Chase, you ask? Let's put it this way: You're not.

A chase in this context is an unenclosed tract of land, generally used as a game preserve. It's akin to naming an area "So-and-So Park." The name itself appears to come from the Ballad of Chevy Chase, which recounts a bloody battle between English and Scottish forces sparked by a hunting expedition. The ballad may be based on one or more events that occurred during English-Scottish border warfare in the 14th and 15th centuries:

This ballad was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1624. The title is alternatively spelled Chevy Chace. The ballad is generally thought to describe the Battle of Otterburn. Some of the verses correspond to that battle, but not all. The Battle of Otterburn took place in 1388. At that Battle Henry Percy (Hotspur) was captured, not killed. He was killed in 1403 in an uprising against Henry IV.

According to Child another possibility is the border warfare between a Percy and a Douglas in 1435 or 1436. Henry Percy of Northumberland made a raid into Scotland with 4,000 men. He was met by William Douglas, Earl of Angus at Piperden. There were great losses on each side, but the Scots prevailed.

Whatever its factual basis, the story of Chevy Chase became a cherished part of Scottish folklore, and people of Scottish ancestry applied the name to various places in America. The best known example is Chevy Chase, Maryland, a planned community established as a green refuge from Washington DC. It's one of the priciest residential areas on the east coast (location, location, location) and still fairly green and park-like. Here's how it got started:

Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada founded The Chevy Chase Land Company of Montgomery County, Maryland in 1890. Senator Newlands came to Washington DC with the dream of building a planned settlement outside of the nation's capital. Over several years, he purchased more than 1,700 acres of land from Dupont Circle to Jones Bridge Road, along what is now Connecticut Avenue. He named the area Chevy Chase after the Cheviot Hills, his ancestral homeland. Senator Newlands also established Rock Creek Railway to serve the new village, graded Connecticut Avenue and built the first local schoolhouse. 

The Cheviot Hills form a portion of the border between England and Scotland and were the scene of much of the aforementioned border warfare. A more detailed version of the name's origin comes from the Website for Chevy Chase Village:

Newlands' key early purchase was Chevy Chase, a 305-acre plot of land straddling the line between Maryland and the District of Columbia. The name, which he subsequently adopted for the entire new subdivision, can be traced to the larger tract of land called "Cheivy Chace" that was patented to Colonel Joseph Belt from Lord Baltimore on July 10, 1725. It has historic associations to a 1388 battle between Lord Percy of England and Earl Douglas of Scotland. At issue in this "chevauchee" (a Scottish word describing a border raid) were hunting grounds or a "chace" in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland and Otterburn. Part of the land patented in 1725 to Colonel Belt was sold in 1815 to Assistant Postmaster General Abraham Bradley. It was later acquired by businessmen and speculators, and then sold to the Chevy Chase Land Company. 

The birth name of the actor Chevy Chase is Cornelius Crane Chase. From the Internet Movie Database:

Chevy was actually a childhood nickname, possibly based on the Maryland suburb - bestowed by his grandmother. Chase family was affluent and distinguished and Chevy was listed in Social Register at early age. His paternal grandfather was painter/teacher Frank Swift Chase, his father, Ned Chase, was a prominent Manhattan book editor and magazine writer. Mother was descended from the Crane plumbing-fixture family.

So if he's literate, it's from his father's side, and if his career's in the toilet, well, he gets that from mom.

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