How New England Got Its Place Names

New England has six towns called Warren, one in each state, but the reason for those place names is more complicated than you might think.

Warren, Conn.

Warren, Conn.

The second most popular name? Bristol. It’s the name of towns in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island, a city in Connecticut and counties in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were named after Bristol, England.

English Place Names

Warren, N.H.

Warren, N.H.

Many, many place names in New England came from places in England. Massachusetts has the most, with at least 104 English names for cities, towns and counties, starting with Amesbury and ending with Yarmouth. (Click here for a complete list of U.S. places named after places in England.)

Rhode Island has the fewest — 15 of them, from Bradford to Wickford. Maine has 32, Vermont 36. Connecticut 31, including Hartford, an archaic spelling of Hertford (the birthplace of one of Thomas Hooker’s assistants, the Rev. Samuel Stone).

New Hampshire was named after Hampshire, England, by John Mason, the colony’s first proprietor (though he never set foot in New England). New Hampshire has 47 cities, towns and counties named after English places.

Waren, R.I.

Waren, R.I.

Historian Kevin Phillips points out many of the English names in New England came from East Anglia. Angle invaders from western Denmark arrived there in the 6th century and later mingled with their Saxon neighbors.

Many Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts Bay during the Great Migration of 1620 to 1640 left from East Anglia It was a wealthy center of cloth manufacturing with thriving ports of Boston, Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Colchester and Harwich. Norfolk was the county of the North Folk, or the Northern Angles. Suffolk was the county of the South Folk. Essex, between Suffolk and London, was the home of the East Saxons; Middlesex of the Middle Saxons.

Scots-Irish Place Names

Some place names reflect the Scots-Irish origins of their first settlers: Derry, Antrim and Londonderry, N.H.; Belfast and Limerick, Maine; Colrain, Mass.; and Londonderry, Vt. They were once the frontiers of New England. The Puritans, led by Cotton Mather, encouraged the Scots-Irish to settle in places where they would serve as buffers against the Indians.

Some towns, like Montpelier, Vt., and Calais in Vermont and Maine, named themselves out of enthusiasm for France because it helped win the Revolutionary War.

Warren, N.H.

Warren, Maine

New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth bestowed many Vermont place names. He sold 138 tracts of land for town charters and named some of them after people he wanted to flatter. He named Clarendon, for example, for the earl of the same name and Monkton for British Gen. Robert Monckton. Wentworth named tiny Ferdinand after Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick-Luneburg, related to England’s royal family.

Wentworth named Bennington after himself.

Barton, Vt., named itself after Maj. William Barton, who captured British general Richard Prescott in Newport, R.I., during the Revolutionary War. He founded the town and then went to jail for selling the same piece of land to two people. Barton was born in Warren, R.I.

Two Warrens

Warren, Vt.

Warren, Vt.

Each New England state has a town named Warren, though two different heroes of distinctly different eras inspired the place names.

Warren in Rhode Island, with colonial roots back to 1621, and Warren, N.H., which welcomed its first English settlers in 1767, were named for Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Warren. Admiral Warren was an Irish officer in the British Royal Navy. He, along with American troops, captured the French fort at Louisbourg on Nova Scotia’s Cape Bretton Island in 1745.

The action established trading agreements between the New England colonies and Canadians. The victory not only made Warren very wealthy, it made him a celebrated figure throughout New England.

Warren, Mass.

Warren, Mass.

The Warrens in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine trace their name to a more well-known figure in U.S. history: Dr. Joseph Warren. Warren led the American struggle for independence in the run up to the war. A major general in the Continental Army, he died fighting with the militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British army knew him well and celebrated his death.

To Americans, however, Joseph Warren died a martyr to the cause of freedom. They have affixed his celebrated name to schools, monuments and towns throughout America since shortly after his death.

Many, many places in New England bear Indian names, but that’s another story in itself.

This story about New England place names was updated in 2019. 

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