Sometimes, our ancestors were not the most creative people. This is particularly true when it came to naming new settlements. Throughout the history of the United States, many towns have been named after one of the following: a founder or influential early settler, a figure from American history (i.e., Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Madison, etc.), or a famous foreign leader (Guilford, Vermont, and Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire). There are other methods for community-naming, including one which can be extremely helpful to genealogical researchers: reusing the name of a town in another state where many early settlers originated.
Unfortunately, all too often the rationale used when selecting a name for a newly settled community is lost to history. Sometimes, however, this reasoning can be inferred by closely examining the origins of the founding families. What if, for example, a family recorded in the 1850 census in the town of New London, Huron County, Ohio, had several members who were born in Connecticut? It would be very important to know that many of the founding families of New London, Ohio originated in the town of New London, Connecticut, and the Ohio town was named after the settlers’ former home. With this in mind, the scope of your research could then be narrowed significantly as you could direct your attention to records in New London, Connecticut as opposed to searching throughout the entire state. This pattern of naming settlements has been used across the country and can be seen prominently in nearly every state.
Bearing migration patterns in mind is also extremely important in many cases, as those patterns may suggest which state should be examined first. In the eighteenth century, many residents of Connecticut and Massachusetts traveled north along the Connecticut River and established settlements in what is now the State of Vermont. This pattern is apparent when one considers the town names that were selected throughout Vermont. One notable example is the town of Coventry in Orleans County, which was named by Major Elias Buel, one of the first men to be granted land in the town. Major Buel came to Vermont from the town of Coventry, Connecticut, and chose to bestow on the Vermont town the name given to his place of origin. Knowing this, researchers could then surmise that other founding families in the Vermont community may have also originated in the same Connecticut town.
"[The] winning bid was offered up by a man named Joseph Axtell, who bid 'five dollars and a jug of rum.'"
Another Vermont town was named in a similar, albeit more humorous, manner. The local lore of the town of Grafton avers that in 1791 the naming rights to the town, originally known as Thomlinson, were auctioned off and the winning bid was offered up by a man named Joseph Axtell, who bid “five dollars and a jug of rum.” Axtell, who came from the town of Grafton, Massachusetts, decided to name the town after his former home.
Other notable towns in Vermont named for the hometowns of early settlers include Pittsfield (named after the town in western Massachusetts), Newbury (named for the Massachusetts home of 75 of the early settlers), and Braintree (named for the town in Bristol County, Massachusetts, itself named after a community in England).
While this method of naming was certainly common in New England, it was also frequently applied by Americans as they began to move westward across the continent. For decades prior to 1800, the Colony (and later State) of Connecticut claimed a right to land extending across northern Pennsylvania into northeastern Ohio and beyond. This land came to be known as the Connecticut Western Reserve. Many individuals and families from Connecticut made the journey westward and settled in Ohio, a fact which is supported by the abundance of town names shared by the two states. The town of Lebanon was founded in 1813 in Ashtabula County. In 1825, it was renamed New Lyme as a tribute to Lyme, Connecticut, the home of several of the town’s original landowners. In Huron County, Ohio, alone, there are towns named Lyme, Norwalk, Norwich, Fairfield, New London, New Haven, and Greenwich, all names which can also be found in Connecticut.
While many of the names that were transferred to newly formed communities in Ohio are derived from locations in New England, several were also drawn from towns in states south of Ohio. One such example is the town of New Burlington in Clinton County. New Burlington’s name is a tribute to the town of Burlington, North Carolina, where many Quakers who transplanted to the Ohio town originated. Similarly, the town of New Martinsburg in Fayette County was selected to honor the community of Martinsburg, Virginia. Given the sheer size of the southern states where many migrants to Ohio initially lived, determining the source of the name given to the locations where these transplants settled often serves as a useful way to significantly narrow down the search for your ancestors.
As intrepid men and women made their way westward across what would become the United States, they brought with them the memories of the places where they were born and raised, providing them with inspiration when naming the lands where they settled. Families from the State of New York made up a significant portion of those who found new homes in the Midwestern states.
Just three miles from the Iowa border, in Whiteside County, Illinois, is a small town named Albany. As one might expect, the town was founded by a contingent from the New York capital city. Given the small size of Albany, Illinois (just 628 at the time of the 1860 census), if a researcher can trace a family back to one of the town’s original settlers, there is a strong likelihood that this settler can also be identified in records from Albany, New York.
Given the relatively small amount of land between western New York and the State of Michigan, it is unsurprising that it served as a frequent destination for families looking to make a new start. This is especially obvious based upon many of the names of towns across Michigan which were inspired by towns in the State of New York, including the communities of Rochester and Troy. However, perhaps the most obvious name chosen in tribute to another location belongs to the community of Vermontville, Michigan, a small town in Eaton County.
"[At] least one town is known to have been named after an entire region."
While all of the above-mentioned communities were named after either specific towns or states where founders were known to have originated, at least one town is known to have been named after an entire region. Deep in the southwestern corner of North Dakota lies a small town just 0.49 square miles in size. When this town was founded in 1887, it was given the name of New England, as many of the first landholders were from Massachusetts and Vermont.
While locating your ancestors in records is important for understanding where they were at a specific time, analyzing the history behind the name of the town where they were living often provides key information about where they originated. Given that towns were sometimes named after the former home of many early settlers, the history behind the name of a town can be essential to finding your family in their birthplace.
 William Daniel Overman, Ohio Town Names (Akron, 1958), 97, and Abraham J. Baughman, History of Huron County, Ohio: Its Progress and Development, with Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens of the County, Vol. 1 (1909), 168.
 Pliny H. White, A History of Coventry, Orleans County, Vermont (1859), 5.
 Francis A. Palmer, History of the Town of Grafton, Vermont (Grafton, 1954), 13.
 John J. Duffy, Samuel B. Hand, and Ralph H. Orth, Vermont Encyclopedia (2003), 235.
 Austin Jacobs Coolidge and John Brainard Mansfield, A History and Description of New England, General and Local (1859), 9.
 Henry Royce Bass, The History of Braintree, Vermont: Including a Memorial of Families that Have Resided in Town (Braintree, 1883), 9.
 Recorder of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, “Western Reserve History” (2005), <https://fiscalofficer.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/WesternReserveHistory.aspx>.
 Overman, Ohio Town Names, 97.
 Ibid., 96.
 Edward Callary, Illinois Place Names (2010), 3.
 Population of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington, D.C., 1864), 101.
 Pure Michigan, “How Did Michigan Cities Get Their Names?” <https://www.michigan.org/article/trip-idea/how-did-michigan-cities-get-their-names>; Troy Historic Village, “Why Name a City Troy?” 30 October 2015, <https://www.troyhistoricvillage.org/october-30-why-name-a-city-troy/.
 Edward W. Barber, The Vermontville Colony, Its Genesis and History, with Personal Sketches of the Colonists (1897).
 Mary Ann Barnes Williams, Origins of North Dakota Place Names (1966).
About Zachary Garceau
Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.View all posts by Zachary Garceau →