The early English and Scots-Irish settlers tended not to give a new settlement a unique name.
Many New England place names came from towns and shires in England and Ireland. The Puritans even named groups of towns in New England after groups of towns in England: Boston and Lynn, for example, were next to each other in East Anglia as they were in Massachusetts. So were Worcester and Leominster, and Amesbury, Salisbury, Newbury and Andover.
In Rhode Island, the geography of England was mimicked in Warwick and Coventry and in Bristol and Newport. In New Hampshire, Sandown and South Hampton are next to each other as they were in England. And, as in England, there was once a Gosport on the Isles of Shoals next to Portsmouth in New Hampshire.
The Scots-Irish did the same. As the earliest pioneers after the Puritans, they named their frontier towns after home. New Hampshire has a Derry, Dublin and Antrim; Massachusetts a Colrain and a Charlemont; Maine a Belfast, a Limerick and a Newry. Both Vermont and New Hampshire have a Londonderry, and Connecticut has a Waterford.
But sometimes the first settlers simply named a place after its geographic features, like Marshfield, Mass., and Rockport, Maine.
Others named their towns after heroes, like Washington, Warren, Hancock and Adams. Generally, individuals only had towns named after them after the American Revolution, though one New Hampshire governor was the exception that proved the rule.
There are at least six New England places that have a unique name found nowhere else.
Mianus is a village along the Mianus River that lies in three other districts in Greenwich, Conn: Riverside, Greenwich and Cos Cob.
It began as a project of the Veterans Administration and the Town of Greenwich to build 40 starter homes for servicemen returning from World War II and their families. During the Baby Boom there were 90 children in Mianus, and they played in the nearby woods and along the river and harbor. A writer named Jack T. Scully grew up there and wrote a book of poems celebrating his elegiac childhood, called Mianus Village.
The unique name is pronounced ‘maɪˈænəs,’ which made it the butt of jokes on the reality show Jackass.
Mianus is also known to antique inboard marine engine enthusiasts because it was home to the Mianus Motor Works, founded in 1889.
The area was given its unique name by English settlers in the 17th century, who called it Mianus after the chief of the Siwanoy Indian tribe.
A large sign once proclaimed, “Kennebunk, the only village in the world so named.” The locally famous billboard boasting the town’s unique name was attached to the Kesslen Shoe Mill on Route One.
‘Kennebunk’ was an Abenaki Indian word meaning ‘the long cut bank,’ which refers to the long bank behind Kennebunk Beach. The town’s presence on the Kennebunk and Mousam rivers made it an early center of shipping and shipbuilding. Later, manufacturers built mills on the rivers to make textiles, leatheroid, shoes and luggage.
Today Kennebunk is a bedroom community and a destination for upscale tourists attracted by its beaches and shopping. The town was overshadowed by its neighbor – also with a unique name. Kennebunkport was often in the world’s news when President George H.W. Bush summered there at his family compound.
Kennebunk today is home to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, historic buildings, the 1799 Inn, Tom’s of Maine and the Brick Store Museum.
Passaconaway, the Pennacook sachem who brokered peace in the Merrimack River Valley, spent most of his life on what is now Dracut, Mass.
It was known as Augumtoocooke until Passaconaway’s daughter Bess sold the land in 1665 to Captain John Evered, whose family was associated with Draycot Cerne in northern England. (Evered had earlier been in charge of the execution of Mary Dyer.) The land was sold for ‘four yards of Duffill and one pound of tobacco’ and given the unique name of Dracut.
Dracut belonged to Chelmsford until 1701, when it formally separated. Part of Dracut was set aside as a Praying Town for Christianized Indians. Dracut’s paper and textile mills attracted French-Canadian and Irish immigrants. Modern real estate development swallowed much of the town. What isn’t a suburb of Lowell is now part of Lowell, which annexed large parts of the town. Dracut has a population of about 30,000 and still retains some rural landscapes and historic buildings.
Henniker, a bucolic New England town near Concord, prides itself on being ‘the only Henniker on earth.’ It was chartered before the American Revolution and named for British merchant Sir John Henniker, an unusual practice at the time.
Christopher Lenney argued that towns named ‘directly and unequivocally for persons are largely of post-Revolutionary vintage’ in Sightseeking: Clues to the Landscape History of New England. “The custom was un-English and only became widespread in the 19th century, when antipathy to the practice had broken down.”.
New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth broke with that tradition when he dispensed land grants and charters in Vermont and New Hampshire, naming them after friends in high places to win their support for his westward expansion. Henniker, which received its charter in 1768, had been known as Todd’s Town and New Marlborough until Wentworth decided to name it after his friend.
Today Henniker is home to New England College, Pat’s Peak and the Old Depot No. 6 book barn.
Burrillville, R.I., broke off from Glocester in 1806 and named itself after a favorite son, James Burrill, Jr. Burrill had established himself as a leader of Rhode Island by the tender age of 34. He had become Rhode Island’s attorney general at 25 and was elected a U.S. senator in 1817. Shortly before he died on Christmas Day in 1820, he delivered an eloquent speech opposing the Missouri Compromise, which banned free blacks and people of mixed race from settling in Missouri. That clause ‘was entirely repugnant to the Constitution of the United States’ he said, because it created separate classes of citizens.
Burrillville originally comprised 60 square miles but lost land to Massachusetts over a border dispute. Now part of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Burrillville once had many mills, now gone or shuttered.
St. Johnsbury, Vt.
St. Johnsbury was organized in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in 1790, a time when the un-English custom of naming towns after individuals began to take hold.
St. Johnsbury was named for Michel Guillaume St. Jean de Crevecoeur, also known as J. Hector St. John, a French writer living in New York. St. John wrote Letters from an American Farmer in 1782, a book praising American agriculture.
St. John befriended George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and he corresponded with Ethan Allen, who wanted to name the town St. John. The writer suggested St. Johnsbury, realizing that several places already had the name St. John.
St. Johnsbury became a minor manufacturing center where the Fairbanks family made its famous platform scales. By the 1940s, St. Johnsbury was the world’s largest manufacturer of scales, maple sugar and candlepins for bowling.
Today it is a quintessential Victorian industrial town with a large historic district that encompasses the Railroad Street District, Main Street, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium.
Photos: Dracut Old Yellow Meeting House, By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26184431 ;Henniker Congregational Church and Historical Society, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3380925. This story last updated in 2022.