How Boston Got Its Name

The first defining moment in the history of a place is when it gets its name. When it was named, why it was named, and what it was named for all say something about the place itself and the thoughts of the early settlers. For someone in the seventeenth century, the adoption of “Old” English names for places in “New” England must have seemed somehow surreal. For example, at least five modern Massachusetts towns are named indirectly for rivers a continent away. These associations are very distant today, but settlers closer to Lincolnshire than Massachusetts Bay took these connections seriously. The naming of Boston was no exception.

(This is a reprint from a project that I worked on in 2009, but never published.) 

The name of “Boston” as a settlement in the Massachusetts Bay colony was carefully chosen. During this early period, Charlestown– not Boston– was the seat of government in the colony and has a name reflecting that. Both the town and the “Charles River” were named for King Charles I, in honor of his role in chartering the colony. (Plymouth and Jamestown were both chartered during the reign of James I.) The name for this settlement on the Shawmut Peninsula had previously been “Trimountain”  after the three large hills there, but “Boston” was selected as its replacement by the Court of Assistants in 1630. Records of the court during this period have been lost, but “Boston” was appropriate on several levels. Like the new settlement, Boston in Lincolnshire was a coastal port on a small river and surrounded by tidal salt-marshes. More importantly, Boston was a center of Puritan thought during the period. Also of importance was that it was the home of Reverend Cotton, one of the major Puritan thinkers of his day, and the selection of that name was in part an encouragement from him to come to New England. While the original selection of “Boston” may have suggested that this would be the spiritual, rather than political, home of the colony, the government of Massachusetts Bay moved to the renamed town less than a month later.

Although the name of the American city was chosen for different reasons than the British one, that history was still a part of the consciousness of the colonists. That name originated as  “Botolph’s Stone” or “Botolph’s Town”, named for Saint Botolph, a 7th century abbot who built a monastery in the area. Saint Botolph is revered by both Catholics and Anglicans as the patron saint of travelers and numerous churches within England are dedicated to him. The name “Boston” does not appear in the 11th century Domesday Book, but the port became prominent between then and the 14th century when the modern St. Botoplh’s Church was built. To the Puritan colonists, St. Botolph was an unwelcome connotation. Their theology taught that while saints were to be respected, that too frequently the indirect worship of saints could become direct worship, or even blatant idolatry. Regardless of the reason, when Boston was brought over, St. Botolph was not and this absence persisted into the nineteenth century. Today, there are relatively few locations in the city named for the saint. St. Botolph’s Street is a side-street in the Back Bay, between Huntington and Columbus avenues. This area of town, sometimes called the Saint Botolph Historical District (SBNA), was created in the 1860s with the filling in of the Back Bay.  The only “church” dedicated to the saint in modern Boston is in this neighborhood, a small Anglican chapel located in the Huntington Avenue YMCA (MDNE). Although Boston quickly diverged from its Old World counterpart, echoes of its history can still be found.

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