This was in the e-newsletter from the Division of Local Services of the DOR -
What’s in a Name?
Tony Rassias – Deputy Director, Bureau of Accounts
Massachusetts has 351 cities and towns and each one required a name at the time of its incorporation. But where did those names come from?
Historians often agree on the origin of a name, but sometimes no one, even those in the city or town, are really sure. The following is a brief compendium of those names, compiled through a number of sources, including those who have written about the history of their community.
I’ve divided the names into five categories based on their presumed origins. Here they are along with some examples of each:
Names and places from jolly old England or elsewhere in Europe:
Prior to the American Revolution, it was fashionable to name new settlements after places in England or after English royalty. Amesbury, Boston, Falmouth and Tolland likely honor the settlers’ towns of origin. Granville, Holland, Methuen and Orange were the names of English royalty, potential benefactors or simply someone for whom the settlers wished to honor. Avon was named after the English river and Cambridge after the University. As for other names, Berlin is German, Colrain and Charlemont are Irish, Leyden is Dutch, Melrose is Scottish, Orleans and Savoy are French and Pembroke is Welsh.
Names, places and events from the New World:
Adams and North Adams were named after Samuel Adams and Monroe after James Monroe. Both Washington and Mount Washington were named after George Washington. Franklin, Hamilton, Hancock and Revere were American Patriots during the Revolution while Webster honored Daniel Webster who rose to prominence during the Civil War. Carver, Everett, Gill and Winthrop were Massachusetts Governors and Phillips (Phillipston) was a Lieutenant Governor. Warren, Lee and Montgomery were Generals. Norwell and Huntington were benefactors, Palmer and Stoughton were Chief Justices and Alford, Brewster, Dennis and Princeton were preachers.
As for places and events, Belmont was the estate of the town’s largest donor and Ashland was Henry Clay’s Kentucky estate. Monterey was named after the Mexican War Battle of Monterrey that helped propel General Zachary Taylor to the Presidency, Greenfield after the Green River, and Arlington changed its name from West Cambridge to honor the heroes buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Names that are in some way descriptive:
If the land separated from the north, south, east or west, that direction many times became part of the incorporated name. Northampton could have dual origins, either from its geography or as the namesake of Northampton, England. Middlefield was incorporated from surrounding lands. If the community’s name begins with “new,” it is probably because a community of that same name was already given within the Commonwealth such as New Marlborough (Marlborough) and New Braintree (Braintree). Newton was the “new town” at the time of its incorporation, Rehoboth and Salem were scriptural from the Hebrew and Sharon was named for Israel’s Sharon plain. Oak Bluffs was named for the oak groves along the bluffs and Marblehead because the first settlers mistook its granite ledge for marble. Concord was named for its “peaceful acquisition” and Somerville was just a “fanciful” name.
If the community’s name begins with “rock” or “stone” that was probably a prominent feature such as in Rockland or Stoneham. Rockport was named for the nautical shipping of high quality granite from its port, Buckland was said to have ample good hunting, Marshfield had its salt marshes and the amenable natural properties of Fairhaven brought about its name. When Goshen separated from Chesterfield, it took its name from the Land of Goshen, considered the best land in Egypt, because it was thought by some to be the best land in Chesterfield.
Names of Native American Tribes or descriptive names from the indigenous Tribal language:
In Wampanoag, Aquinnah means “land under the hill,” Mattapoisett means “a place of resting,” Seekonk means “black goose,” Scituate means “cold brook,” and Mashpee means “great pond” or “land near great cove.” In Algonquin, Nantucket means “faraway land or island” and Cohasset means “long rocky place.” In Nipmuc, Chicopee means “violent waters.” Swampscott means “land of the red rock” and Merrimac was the Tribal name and in their language meant “swift water place.”
Names with unknown or obscure origin:
For these, a call to the municipality’s historical society was necessary in order to find out what’s been embraced locally. Deerfield was named for all the deer sightings, Boxborough was cut out like a box, Spanish Florida was the topic of conversation in 1805 when the town of Florida was named and Plainfield was named for the plain fields in the center of town.
Here are a few more names of particular interest.
The last town to be separated from the west side of Dedham was to be incorporated as Nahatan. When the elected representative from Nahant objected to the name due to its similarity, it name was changed and in 1897 the town was subsequently incorporated as Westwood.
In 1778, the Town of Ward was incorporated honoring American Revolution General Artemis Ward. After the United States Post Office objected because it was too difficult to distinguish Ward from nearby Ware, Ward changed its name to Auburn in 1837 after an area along the Charles River that Harvard College students referred to as “sweet auburn.”
Erastus Bigelow and his brother Horatio reportedly loved to visit the DeWitt Clinton Hotel in Albany, New York. The hotel was named after a former New York Governor who was instrumental in the building of the Erie Canal and whose uncle George Clinton was Vice President under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The Bigelow brothers founded a town in 1850 which they named Clinton. Wikipedia notes that many places around the country have been named after the Clintons.
Whether it was because Oliver Partridge was a suspected tory and an absentee proprietor as some said or that the name was just too long, in 1805 there was a petition to change the name of what was once known as Partridgefield to Troy. Instead, Reverend John Leland, an outspoken Baptist minister who in 1802 delivered by sleigh a 1,234 pound block of cheese as a gift to President Jefferson from the people of nearby Cheshire, suggested an alternative. A high mountain deserved a name mirrored its lofty status not just locally, but internationally. As a result, in 1806, Partridgefield was re-named Peru.
Similar Revolutionary War political embers were stoked when the people of Murrayfield discovered that one of their founders and the town’s namesake was actually a tory. Angered by the news, they petitioned the Legislature to change the name on the basis of the similarity of the name Murrayfield to that of Myrifield (now known as Rowe). The names of Mountfair and Fairfield were presented, but in 1783 the Legislature chose the name Chester.
Canton’s influential citizen, Elijah Dunbar, believed that the geographic opposite to the town on the other side of the world must be China. This rationale may be that China trade was becoming important or simply that no one else had any better suggestions, but in 1797 the people eagerly voted the name of Canton for incorporation. Had anyone in the parish at the time had access to Google Maps, it can be theorized that Dunbar’s “antipodal” belief may have suffered in the final vote!
The author would also like to thank Bob Bliss, Regional Offices Manager, Division of Local Services, for his assistance.