Chatham is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area was inhabited by several hundred members of a tribe known as the Monomoyicks. The first European to visit the area was the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain in 1605, but after difficulty with the natives he ultimately departed and founded Quebec City in 1608. He gave the region its first European name, “Port Fortune”.
The first English colonist, William Nickerson, arrived in 1656 after purchasing land off of the local Monomoyicks chief. Unfortunately, he did not have approval for the purchase from the court at Plymouth, and was ensnarled in a 10-12 year legal battle over his purchase. He was finally allowed to settle in 1664 and general settlement began the following year. At that time, the land belonged to the towns of Yarmouth and Eastham, but in 1696 the area formed the constablewick of Monamoy (also spelled Monomoit). A “constablewick” was a type of town that did not yet have its own church. In 1712, it was incorporated as a town and renamed “Chatham”.
In the 1890 “Massachusetts Gazetteer”, the origin of the name Chatham was given as being in honor of the Earl of Chatham, in England. However, this could not have been the case as William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham, was not given the peerage until 1766 – well after the town had been named. This reference may have meant the Baron Chatham instead, a title that had been created in 1705 and would have been relatively recent news for the colonists. The Baron Chatham at the time was John Campbell (1678 – 1743), a Scottish nobleman and Duke of Argyll, in recognition to his support of the Act of Union of 1707– the act that merged England, Scotland, and Wales into Great Britain. If the colonists had intended to honor Mr. Campbell, it is likely that they would have selected the name Argyll instead as “duke” is a superior title to “baron” in English peerage.
Regardless of whether John Campbell was honored, Chatham was named for the town in south-east England. The town first appeared in history as “Cetham” and it may be a mixing of the Latin-root “catu” meaning “valley” and the Old English “ham” for “settlement”. It is possible that a town in south-east England was selected to honor as this town was in the south-east corner of the Plymouth colony as well as Cape Cod.