How Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's tallest mountain, got its name: Kosciuszko Museum, Philadelphia

Ann Relf's boarding house is a handsome but unshowy kind of place. It has a clean, red brick worthiness that looks proudly maintained without dressing up in unnecessary gaudiness. It is also more than 16,000 kilometres away from the place I'm trying to find out about.

Australia's highest mountain, and premier spelling bee nightmare, is Mount Kosciuszko. It seemingly defies most other Australian naming conventions – which usually borrow from British colonialism, Aboriginal terms or near-cartoonish literalism.

It is named in honour of a man who never even visited Australia, let alone climbed the mountain. And it's fair to say that most Australians know nothing about Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Which is why discovering the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (the Americans anglicised his first name) in Philadelphia's historic centre comes as a bit of a surprise. The memorial takes over Ann Relf's boarding house – where Tad stayed between November 1797 and May 1798 – turning it into a small museum about a curious character who became a war hero on two continents.

It was the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia, that drew Kosciuszko to the States. He was the first of several highly trained European military officers who were quite taken by the lofty ideals of liberty, and sailed out to fight the impending Revolutionary War.

In that war Kosciuszko made quite a name for himself, his military engineering skills coming to the fore in the victory at Saratoga and the defence of geographically critical West Point. A few of his drawings for defensive positions are on show, but most were destroyed so that the British couldn't get their hands on them.

After the war, he returned to Poland, where he soon turned a 5000-strong excuse for an army into a force of 150,000 that included peasants armed with scythes.

This new war of independence against Russia was unsuccessful, and he ended up seriously wounded and imprisoned. The Russians offered to free him if he would agree an oath of loyalty, and he held firm until 12,000 other Polish captives were freed.

The boarding house comes into play after this, when Kosciuszko not unreasonably decided he wanted his wages for fighting the Revolutionary War.

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He got a hero's welcome in Philadelphia, and future president Thomas Jefferson – who later called Kosciuszko "as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known" – signed on as his lawyer. He got his cash, and an extensive land grant before returning to Europe and dying in exile in Switzerland.

The legend, though, is almost more interesting than the man. The memorial shows off his bedroom and tells his story, but otherwise has very little belonging to him – partly because his birthplace is now in Belarus and the Belarussians want Kosciuszko recognised as Belarussian before releasing artefacts.

So the most interesting part of the museum ends up being a touchscreen, which shows just how many monuments, streets and landmarks have been named after Kosciuszko.

They're mapped – an island in Alaska, a road in Belgrade, a horseback statue at Wawel Castle in Krakow, a street in Rio De Janeiro, the town in Mississippi where Oprah Winfrey was born ...

And, of course, the highest mountain in Australia.

For this, we have to thank fellow Pole Pawel Strzelecki, who came out to Australia, surveyed Gippsland in Victoria, then set out for the Australian Alps. He was the first to climb Kosciuszko, and he decided to name it after his heroic compatriot.

But, as the memorial in Philadelphia shows, Kosciuszko doesn't really belong to Australia. He doesn't really belong to the US or Poland, either – he's a man whose rather romantic legend and principles have led to him being indistinctly remembered all over the world.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

discoverphl.com

visitphilly.com

FLY

Qatar Airways flies to Philadelphia from Sydney and Melbourne via Doha. See qatarairways.com

STAY

The new, music-themed Cambria Hotel has speakers in the bathroom mirrors that hook up to your phone via Bluetooth, plus bold decor that makes the room look like a freeze-frame in a light show. Doubles cost from $US287.60. See Cambriaphiladelphia.com 

TOUR

The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial is part of the US National Parks service, and free to enter. It is only open for limited hours at weekends. See nps.gov/thko

The writer was a guest of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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