Columbus Day always seems to spur a fair amount of dining-hall debate on the broad issues of imperialism, colonialism and western influence foisted upon poor benighted natives. But despite this chatter, it’s the trivial aspects of North American settlement that unfailingly command my interest. Like the fact that the bulk of place names in New England are either thinly veiled modifications, or shamelessly copped duplicates, of some British equivalent.
Let’s think about this. After the initial discovery of the New World — and after Amerigo Vespucci’s classic cartographic coup de grace slyly renamed an entire continent — the settlers arrived. Whether escaping Old World persecution or wagering on new fortunes, they absconded, leaving creativity behind: Colonizing these shores, they named virtually every village after an established British town.
Now I grant, the founding fathers sometimes had the presence of mind to attach the prefix “New” to their place names. With this handy solution, those charged with christening a fledgling township could cobble together a unique name without taxing the imagination. In this manner, London became New London and so on, and true to form, the entire region was dubbed New England. But for people so disenchanted with Britain that they were driven to emigrate — people whose flight to America is the stuff of legend, people who would later repulse British rule altogether — such unabashed affection for king and country is unexpected.
I’m surprised by this lack of imagination. As a current-day corollary, imagine we get our act together, assemble a Mars mission and send astronauts to tame the red planet. Despite a strong affinity for the city of my birth, I would nonetheless be deeply dismayed if these trailblazing colonists named their outpost New Toronto. Besides being unoriginal in the extreme, this practice debases the spirit of exploration and threatens serious confusion. Meet my friend, just arrived from New-New-Haven. “Wait, do you mean New Haven, or New-New-Haven — you know, the one on Mars?”
I suppose the Puritans were, to an extent, unwilling pioneers — a morbid fear of state religion doesn’t commonly fuel modern arctic explorers or astronauts, for instance — but this does little to excuse their banal naming conventions. Some folks landed in America, struck camp and after three sober cheers for successful elusion of the Church of England, sat down to name their town. “Hey,” cried Brother John, “I’ve got an idea — let’s name it after the place we just left!” No, hold on, you mean the one where they persecuted us? The one we fled? Yeah, that’s the one.
And this didn’t happen once, or twice; it happened every time. Plymouth? Ripped off. Southport? Milford? Boosted. Danbury, Brighton, Cambridge? Stolen. Stratford? Some of these names are so hot, they could fry an egg. Fleeing London? Welcome to New London. Just left York? You’ll surely enjoy New York. (Though to be fair, New York was originally New Amsterdam; the Dutch were evidently no more creative.)
Whatever the cause, our local place names are a bricolage of words culled from British maps, occasionally prefixed or saddled with compass points. Haven is taken, you say? Fine, we’ll go with New Haven, North Haven, West Haven and East Haven. Sure looks nice up that way — let’s call that Fair Haven.
It really need not have been this way. Some parts of New England and Cape Cod sport the most delightful names, like Woonsocket, Narragansett and Wickaboxet. Town names in Pennsylvania charm with their stochastic, evocative tone: During a recent furlough, I passed Blue Ball, Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand and Pillow, all in the space of an afternoon. Hats off to the Keystone State! That so many settlers evidently got it right should compel even a staunch traditionalist to slam these much-lauded Puritans.
Still, as you have by now undoubtedly surmised, I am neither a historian nor particularly versed in 17th-century history; a general grasp of the Mayflower Compact is basically the summit of my early colonial knowledge. Nonetheless, I refuse to accept that cooking up an interesting name or two was beyond even the most stoic Puritan colonist. Relevant, catchy words abound in the colonial lexicon: Plough, harvest and pumpkin could easily be pressed into service as town names. At the very least, they could have used “Not” instead of “New” to prefix their names. After all, Not York, Not London and Not England are just as snappy, and if you ask me, far more informative.
Michael Seringhaus is a fourth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.