“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
If Orford had been called Mannburg or Newbury was Riverton and Bradford was chartered as Salemville, would it have made any difference in their history? How about Cumberland County instead of Orange?
What if New Connecticut had remained the name for what is now Vermont? Would the appeal have been the same? That is a difficult question to answer. But this column will deal with how our political divisions were named. It is the first of two parts. The second one will deal with the naming of neighborhoods, roads and physical features of the area.
WHAT'S IN A NAME? Fairlee may have had its name taken from an estate on the Isle of Wight familiar to Governor Benning Wentworth who granted its charter in 1761. The name means "a beautiful open or cleared land or meadow," a description that apparently applied to both the estate and the new town. (Larry Coffin)
LAND GRANTER. Benning Wentworth was the Royal Governor of the Province of New Hampshire from 1741 to 1766. During this time he granted about 200 towns charters in what is now Vermont and New Hampshire. Many were named by Wentworth to honor members of the British aristocracy. Portrait by Joseph Blackburn, 1760.
NAMING TALE. Dr. Samuel Peters claimed that he christened the green mountains Verd-Mont, from atop Mount Pisgah or Killington Peak in 1763. He is pictured here in a 1938 National Life Insurance Company advertisement by Roy F. Heinrich. Most historians discount this story and give credit to Dr. Thomas Young, who first used the title Vermont in April 1777. (Courtesy Bradford Historical Society/National Life Insurance Company)
This column draws on information from Vermont Place-Names, Footprints of History by the late Esther M. Swift, Indian Place Names in Vermont by John C. Huden, local history books and internet sources. Swift was the Vermont Director of the Place Name Survey project for the American Name Society. Huden, who wrote widely on Native Americans, was the principal of Bradford Academy from 1930 to 41.
The original place names for the region were applied by the natives who were here prior to the arrival of Europeans. The names those natives used were derived from the key characteristics of a physical feature, how it applied to their needs or its relationship to other physical features. Their name for the area now occupied by the Bradford golf course was mas-ba-ak, “where much water overflows,” tolbabauk on Lake Fairlee meant “snapping turtle pond.” The Ammonoosuc translates as “narrow fishing-place” and is an example of how Europeans sometimes applied the native name for a local spot to a larger entity.
When Europeans began to settle the region, they dismissed most of these traditional names. The lack of a common language, speech sounds and subsequent numerous spellings made using native titles difficult. When they were used, they were often garbled or erroneously interpreted. Kwenitegw, “the long river,” became the Connecticut and tickeneket, “little beaver” became Ticklenaked Pond. Koaske, “the place of the white pines,” has many spellings, including coos, coosuc, cohos and cohase. It was also thought that the name meant “a crooked river, a wide valley or a great fishing place.”
Most political entities in the two states were named by the English settlers prior to the end of the 18th century. The exception to this is the names applied by the French in areas closest to New France north of the border. There are no political entities named by the French in our area.
New Hampshire was given that name by Captain John Mason who received major grants of land from the Council of New England in 1629. He selected the name for his new territory from the English county of Hampshire, his childhood home.
Massachusetts got its name from the natives who lived there at the time of European settlement and the native name for the river became the anglicized name for Connecticut. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations were given that name by settler Roger Williams. The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was captured by the English in 1664 and renamed New York in honor of the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II.
Vermont was created out of the New Hampshire grants in 1776 and 1777. When delegates met in Windsor in January 1777, they voted to call the new republic New Connecticut. Later, when they found that that name was being used in Pennsylvania, they changed the name to Vermont.
There are two different stories about the origin of that name. One is that Dr. Samuel Peters claimed that he christened the green mountains Verd-Mont, from atop Mt. Pisgah or Killington Peak in 1763. Peters was related to the Peters family who were among the first settlers of Bradford and an important family there for over 200 years.
Most historians discount the Peters story and give credit to Dr. Thomas Young, who published a broadside in April 1777 entitled, “To the Inhabitants of Vermont, A Free and Independent State.” It is the French words for “green mountain,” in a grammatical format used by the French for place names. That term had been applied to the Green Mountain Boys as early as 1772.
The names of towns and counties in our area come from the areas of New England that were settled earlier and from connections with England. Most were given their names by Benning Wentworth who became royal governor of New Hampshire in 1741. He assumed that his colony stretched westward to the Hudson River, an assertion disputed by New York. Between 1749 and 1766 he wrote grants for nearly 200 towns in the unpopulated areas in what is now Vermont and New Hampshire. At least two of them, Bennington and Wentworth, bear his name.
Wentworth’s land grants transferred ownership from the Crown to groups of private individuals or proprietors. These were often friends or associates of Wentworth, many of whom had no plans to settle in the new towns. Following the example of Massachusetts and Connecticut, these grants were for townships of about 30,000 acres. Establishing townships as a primary political division was based on the New England traditions of town meetings and the Congregational form of local church control.
While fees were paid to the office of the Governor, the major benefit to Wentworth was that he received a large tract of land in each town, which he could then sell. The proprietors were also in a position to make money from the sale of land to settlers. In many cases the first town meetings were not held in the new towns, but rather in remote locations such as Portsmouth.
When granting a town to its proprietors, Wentworth often selected a name chosen “to honor or influence members of the peerage of England.” These were powerful individuals the governor hoped would support him politically or economically.
Thetford was one of these grants, and its name may have come from the English Viscount Thetford, a distant relative of Wentworth. There are others who believe that it derives its name from the England town of Thetford. Although Orford was referred to earlier as Number 7 or Sugar River, it was named for Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford and Britain’s first prime minister. Strafford got its name from the Earl of Strafford, a title held by Wentworth’s cousin.
Fairlee may have had its name taken from an estate on the Isle of Wight familiar to Wentworth. The name means “a beautiful open or cleared land or meadow,” a description that apparently applied to both the estate and the new town. When the town was split in 1797, West Fairlee became the official name of that section, while the rest, bordering on the Connecticut River, was often referred to as East Fairlee.
Warren was named by Wentworth in honor of British naval hero Sir Peter Warren. There is an alternate version that suggests that name describes a township that was “beautiful and full of rabbits.”
Many thought that the name of Ryegate came from either the city of Rye in Scotland or the one in New Hampshire. Ryegate historian Dwight White explains in his book, The Down of the Thistle, that Ryegate was named by Wentworth in honor of Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough and Baron of Reigate.” Swift also suggests that one of the most prominent early families in Ryegate had connection with Reigate in England.
When Grafton County was created in 1769 it was named for the 3rd Duke of Grafton, prime minister of Great Britain. Orange County was created after the Revolution, just one of a number of locations in New England whose name derives from the title Prince of Orange, borne by William III, who became King in 1689.
Caledonia County was created by the Vermont legislature in 1792, a body unlikely to name it for the aristocracy. In fact, the name is taken from the ancient name for Scotland and recognizes the importance of Scots to the county’s settlement. Politics apparently also played a role when, in 1810, the name of Jefferson County was changed to Washington County.
Bradford was not one of the towns granted by New Hampshire and was actually settled five years before it was chartered. These inhabitants called their community Waits River Town or Waitstown. In 1770, a delegation from the squatters approached the royal governor of New York asking for a charter that would recognize their land ownership. That request was granted and the town was named Mooretown in honor of Governor Sir Henry Moore, who had died the previous year. After that the town was sometimes referred to as Salem, “perhaps as an increased dislike to be named after a royal governor.” At the request of the inhabitants in 1788, the Vermont General Assembly voted to rename the town Bradford, probably after Bradford, Massachusetts.
Corinth was one of two towns that Wentworth named after ancient cities, Jericho being the other. The Corinth Bicentennial Committee, among others, preferred to think that the town was named after Corinth in England. Swift believes that no connection between the two towns has been found. There has also been considerable debate over the pronunciation of the town's name.
Lyme’s history says that the origin of its name “has been the subject of some controversy.” While there were those who believed it came from Lyme, Connecticut, there was no immediate connection between those two towns. Lyme’s history states: “It appears more reasonable that this town was named by the Massachusetts proprietors.” They, more than the royal governor, would have appreciated the connection with the English town of Lyme Regis, a puritan stronghold. The name was spelled Lime until about 1823.
Some of the first settlers of Topsham were from Topsham, Maine and took that name for their new community. Both are named for Topsham in England. Newbury and Haverhill got their names from the older adjoining towns in Massachusetts, which in turn are taken from towns in England. Piermont was given its name by its proprietors in 1764. According to the 1947 town history: “It is quite likely that Peaked Mountain, standing out like a great pier, suggested the name.”
The Vermont General Assembly “coined” the name of Vershire as a combination of the names of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire. Swift quotes Child’s 1888 Gazetteer, “the town was first called Number 7, afterwards Caley Town and it was also at one time called Arlington.” In 1878, the residents voted to change the name of the town to Ely in honor of the owners of the copper mines, a vote that was rescinded four years later.
Groton’s charter was voted on by the Vermont legislature in 1780, but not officially issued until 1789. Like all the other Grotons in America, this name is taken from the town of that name in England. Groton historian Waldo Glover indicates that, while no documentation exists, he supports the theory that the grantees named the town in honor of an ancestor of fellow grantee Thomas Butterfield. That ancestor, having gone to the defense of Groton, Connecticut in 1704, was captured by the natives and “cruelly treated.”
We use these names of states, counties and towns to help identify who we are. While not as likely as in the past, some individuals reside their entire lives within one town or county. In the past these small communities have been compared to the walled cities of the Middle Ages, defensive against outsiders and competitive with neighboring towns. While these identities have dulled with changing population and modern communication, many still swell with pride over their town’s accomplishments and bristle when the town is belittled.