Category Archives: Name Origin

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.) 

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The Three Lives of the Boston Stone

The Boston Stone is a monument like no other in the city. Although inscrutable to most passers-by, the Boston Stone tells a story of three eras in Boston history. It speaks first to the industry of Boston in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth. The stone tells us something about the wily shop-owners and proto-capitalists of the 1730’s who gave the stone the reputation it has today. And finally, the stone serves an an example of the rediscovery and myth-making that took place in Boston in the 1840’s which gave the stone its true prominence as a Boston landmark. Although the monument tells of two centuries of Boston history, it does this without the benefit of a plaque from a historical society or a register of historic places. Only a low-class gift shop marks the importance of the landmark.

(This is a reprint from a project that I worked on in 2009, but never published. I’ve recently been asked by a friend to share some of my Boston Stone research and this may be of interest to a wider audience.) 

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Name Origin: Falmouth, Massachusetts

Falmouth_MA_highlight_largeFalmouth is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts and is the south-westernmost town on Cape Cod. It is to the east of Buzzards Bay and to the north of Nantucket Sound with the Elizabeth Islands extending from it to the southwest. The original Indian name for the area was Suckanessett but it was first settled by a group of Quaker sympathizers in 1660. The settlement was incorporated as the town of Falmouth in 1686.

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Name Origin: Dennis, Massachusetts

800px-Dennis_MA_highlight_largeDennis is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Prior to the arrival of the English, the area was known by its Indian name of Nobscusset. The first European settlers, John Crow, Thomas Howes, and William Lumpkin, arrived in 1639 when the area was part of  Yarmouth. In 1721, a church was built and the area was organized as the East Parish of Yarmouth. In 1793, the local villagers broke away from Yarmouth and incorporated separately as the town of “Dennis”.

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Name Origin: Chatham, Massachusetts

Chatham_MA_highlight_largeChatham 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”.

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Name Origin: Brewster, Massachusetts

Brewster_MA_highlight_largeBrewster is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. The original Indian name for the area was Sawkattuckett (later Anglicized as Sawtucket) and the current town was settled in 1656 as the north parish of Harwich. The town split off from Harwich in 1811 and was renamed Brewster, in honor of the Pilgrim elder and Mayflower-passenger William Brewster (1567 – 1644).

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Name Origin: Bourne, Massachusetts

800px-Bourne_MA_highlight_largeBourne is a town in Barnstable County, on Cape Cod. Initially settled in 1640, it was a part of Sandwich until 1884 when it ceded and incorporated, taking the villages of Sagamore, Buzzards Bay, Cataumet, Pocasset, and Monument Beach with it. Prior to being settled, in 1627, the Pilgrims had set up a trading post called Aptuxet Trading Post (meaning “little trap by the river”) in what would eventually become the village to facilitate trade between Plymouth Colony, New Amsterdam, and the local Wampanoag Indians.

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Name Origin: Barstable, Massachusetts

1024px-Barnstable_MA_highlight_largeBarnstable is both the name of a county in Massachusetts, as well as the town that is its county seat. It was founded by the Reverend John Lothrop and a group of Congregationalists who settled there and incorporated it in 1639. Lothrop had been exiled from England as punishment for preaching against the established Church of England. He and his congregation had settled first in Scituate, before experiencing friction over land allotments and moving to Barnstable. The area had very recently also been settled by another religious group, led by Parson Joseph Hull, who had been recently kicked out of Weymouth. (He is not the namesake of Hull, MA.) He had also departed for New England after having been expelled from the Church of England (but not exiled) in 1635. The town of Barnstable was primarily an agricultural community with the commercial center of the county to be in nearby Hyannis. The original Indian name of the area that would be Barnstable was “Mattakeese”, meaning “plowed fields”.

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