Naming patterns

A map of Huron County, Ohio. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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.[1] 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.

Vermont

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.[2] 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.[3]

Other notable towns in Vermont named for the hometowns of early settlers include Pittsfield (named after the town in western Massachusetts),[4] Newbury (named for the Massachusetts home of 75 of the early settlers),[5] and Braintree (named for the town in Bristol County, Massachusetts, itself named after a community in England).[6]

Ohio

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.

The Midwest

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.[11] Given the small size of Albany, Illinois (just 628 at the time of the 1860 census),[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

“[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.[15]

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.

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] Pliny H. White, A History of Coventry, Orleans County, Vermont (1859), 5.

[3] Francis A. Palmer, History of the Town of Grafton, Vermont (Grafton, 1954), 13.

[4] John J. Duffy, Samuel B. Hand, and Ralph H. Orth, Vermont Encyclopedia (2003), 235.

[5] Austin Jacobs Coolidge and John Brainard Mansfield, A History and Description of New England, General and Local (1859), 9.

[6] Henry Royce Bass, The History of Braintree, Vermont: Including a Memorial of Families that Have Resided in Town (Braintree, 1883), 9.

[7] Recorder of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, “Western Reserve History” (2005), <https://fiscalofficer.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/WesternReserveHistory.aspx>.

[8] Overman, Ohio Town Names, 97.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 96.

[11] Edward Callary, Illinois Place Names (2010), 3.

[12] Population of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census (Washington, D.C., 1864), 101.

[13] 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/.

[14] Edward W. Barber, The Vermontville Colony, Its Genesis and History, with Personal Sketches of the Colonists (1897).

[15] Mary Ann Barnes Williams, Origins of North Dakota Place Names (1966).

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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.

20 thoughts on “Naming patterns

  1. Our ancestors having not the most creative naming? Zack do you realize millennial’s will give their kids a name that 50% of their classroom will have it in about five years. Way too many Madison’s , way too many Caileys and way way too many Masons.

  2. Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy each wanted to name a new settlement (then called “The Clearing”) after his respective hometown in New England. They decided to flip a coin, and that is why I grew up in Portland, instead of Boston, Oregon.

  3. Excellent article. Another naming reason was using ancient cities for revolutionary war land grants for example, Rome, NY and I suspect Athens, GA. And in some cases the hero’s name is truncated. Think of all the Fayetteville’s in the south derived from General LaFayette.

    1. Re: Athens, Georgia– In 1801, a committee from the of Georgia’s board of trustees selected a site for the university on a hill above Cedar Shoals, in what was then Jackson County, Georgia. On July 25, John Milledge, one of the trustees and later governor of Georgia, bought 633 acres from Daniel Easley and donated it to the university. Milledge named the surrounding area Athens after the city that was home to the Platonic Academy of Plato and Aristotle in Greece. (from Wikipedia)

    2. Many place names, like Greek Revival buildings, came after the Revolutionary War as homage to Greek democratic ideals. Ypsilanti, Michigan, Seneca, NY, etc.

  4. I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. How it got its name is uncertain, but when a couple of early towns merged, they needed a name. The best guess is that Toledo was chosen as easy to spell and pronounce, and no other town in America had this name.
    But the consequences of that decision have been considerable! Even though there was no connection to Spain, the name influenced the culture in a number of ways. The major newspaper (then and now) was named The Toledo Blade, after the renowned sword-making city. When Toledo, as the site of an archdiocese, built a magnificent cathedral, it chose Spanish Plateresque as the style. The University of Toledo’s motto is in Spanish, not Latin. And, of course, Toledo, Spain, is one of its sister-cities.
    And even on a personal level, the impact was felt. When I entered high school in 1936, I had to take a foreign language. Without much thinking, I chose Spanish, so oriented was I in that direction by growing up in Toledo.

  5. Your article made me wonder how many locations in the US were named after places in England. I found my answer on the Wiki and after Connecticut (60) stopped counting at 87. Checking Massachusetts, found there are 150+.

    Overall, I appreciate challenging and expanding my way of thinking when it comes to finding some of those documents that have been hard to find. Your article helps in that regard.

    And, Pamela, if you’re listening, I liked your example.

    Elizabeth

  6. I lived many years in Nevada County, California. The county seat is Nevada City. The pistol-shaped county points to the state of the same name. Did the California areas take their names from the neighboring state? No. Perhaps the other way around. Many of the Nevada County gold miners rushed over to Washoe Territory during its big silver strike. Speaking of mining, one of the county thoroughfares is Idaho-Maryland Road, which fills the street sign. It’s named for the same-named mine that had been there, which was named for the home states of its claim stakers. There are several such locations named by nostalgic miners — when they weren’t being humorous in donning place names, such as Humbug, Poker Flat, Red Dog and the town of Rough and Ready.

    1. Our new puppy is a bit of a digger, to the point that we’ve named a portion of our backyard “Malakoff Diggins”! My step-mother’s family has lived in the area for generations, and my father is buried in the North Bloomfield cemetery with many of her ancestors. As you point out, many of the towns in the area were named after mining strikes or busts.

      1. It’s great fun to hear your family connection to the area where I lived for 30 years. I now reside in the other state that you often mention — one that is known for its filberts! I’ve read your posts and enjoy them. You are a knowledgeable and enthusiastic genealogist. Perhaps we’ll find that our lines cross somewhere or we’ll meet at a conference in the Beaver State. Did you know Oregon’s motto is “She flies with her own wings”?

  7. The names of towns can still be an issue, as it was here in Oklahoma a few years ago when PETA petitioned the town of Slaughterville to change its name. When it learned that the town was named for the founding family, PETA withdrew its request,

  8. My daughter went to college in Rolla, Missouri. We were told it was named for a settler’s home town of Raleigh, North Carolina, but ended up spelled “Rolla” due to the man’s strong accent.

    1. We were told a similar story at the historical society, but that the first settlers were illiterate, and someone later wrote the town name the way the locals pronounced it, presumably being unaware of the original link to Raleigh, NC.

  9. Thank you for this excellent article. I have been researching the Merritt/Allen line in Coventry VT. This recently lead to ancestey with John Allen, where I have found a great deal of misinformation, but with threads of documented hustory. This gave me a new thread to explore in my attempt to ethically and as accurately as possible document fsmily history. (Allen, Allyn, Allin, etc).

  10. I’m always looking for the “naming conventions” of my ancestors! My great grandfather was born “Smith Jester” 1865 in Salem area, North Carolina. The name chosen for my great grandfather is a mystery to me. I have found no links to another person named “Smith”; however, there is a small village town close by the Salem/Surry County area, known as “Smithtown”, where 2-3 brothers operated a furniture operation. So until I can discover another explanation, I’m thinking that is the closest explanation I can find! Thank you so much for your great article!

  11. Thank you for the information. My ancestor’s sister, Sarah Turner, married Major Elias Buell in Coventry, CT. All their children were born there, and both Elias and Sarah died in Albany NY, where they lived in old age with their son. I had no idea they had gone to Vermont.

  12. Wisconsin, too, is full of places named for previous homes, most often in upstate New York. And in Northwest Ordinance states, there are both township and post office names, not always the same, which give two chances at clues.

  13. My great grandfather moved to Rolla, Missouri in the early 1860’s. The lore passed down to us is that Rolla was named by settlers from Raleigh, NC who had Southern accents! ha, ha, I have no idea if this is true, but our family loves the story!

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