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The Mass. Studies Project

Local Lessons and Activities
for Massachusetts Teachers

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What's In A Name?

For grades 4 - 8

Origins of MA PlaceNames
Historical Atlas of Massachusetts, Wilkie and Tager, 1991










How did Massachusetts get its name? How did your community get its name? The 1616 John Smith map is the earliest to use the name "New England." Most of the other names given on his map did not remain in use as settlers arrived. Usually the General Court approved their English place of origin for their new town. Although Indian names were often replaced, the Massachusett tribe's name for the Blue Hills and its people became the name for the Bay Colony. Other sources of town names became more common after 1660, including geographic, and local, state and US leaders.

In this lesson, students will determine the origin of the name of their town or city.

Background: Massachusetts Place Names

"The original names of most places in Massachusetts were those given by Native Americans. Over the years the meanings of many of them have been distorted or lost, but the place names themselves, with their distinctive sound and rhythm, remain: Nantucket, Agawam, Saugus, Housatonic, Chicopee, Scituate, and Quabbin. The name Massachusetts was taken from the Massachuset tribe of Indians who lived near the Great Blue Hill in Milton.

After 1691 the colony became the Province of Massachusetts and, later, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The names of all but two of the 14 counties in the state had English origins. Half were named for counties in England: Berkshire, Essex, Hampshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Worcester. English seaports accounted for names of Barnstable, Bristol, and Plymouth counties,while Dukes and Hampden counties were named after well-known Englishmen-the duke of York and John Hampden. Franklin County in western Massachusetts was named for Boston-born Benjamin Franklin. Only one county, Nantucket, received a Native American name.

The accompanying map of cities and towns identifies the 351 units and groups them into nine categories. Names of English cities, towns, and counties account for 106 of the total, about one-third, while 80 are named for distinguished Americans or local settlers, 52 for famous Englishmen, and 33 for geographical features. In addition, 32 towns are named for other communities in Massachusetts (e.g., New Salem, East Brookfield) and 17 for places elsewhere (e.g., Peru, Florida, Berlin); 15 have Native American names (e.g., Cohasset, Natick, Seekonk, Mashpee); and 14 are named after other things (e.g., Blandford, the boat that brought Governor Shirley in 173 1). Two, Norwell and Rowe, are unknown."

(Source: Wilkie and Tager, The Historical Atlas of Massachusetts
The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.)


Grades 6 - 12

Curriculum Standards

History and Social Science:

Gr 3, CS #4 4. Use cardinal directions, map scales, legends, and titles to locate places on contemporary maps of New England, Massachusetts, and the local community. (G)

Language Arts:

Grades PK-K: 8.5. For informational/expository texts: Retell important facts from a text heard or read.

Grades 3-4: 4.15. Determine the meanings of words and alternate word choices using a dictionary or thesaurus.

Grades 5-6: 3.8. Give oral presentations for various purposes, showing appropriate changes in delivery (gestures, vocabulary, pace, visuals) and using language for dramatic effect.
Grade 3: 4s.9. Determine the meanings of words using a beginning dictionary.

Grades 5-6: 4.19. Determine pronunciations, meanings, alternate word choices, and parts of speech of words using dictionaries and thesauruses.

Grades 7-8: 4.22. Determine pronunciations, meanings, alternate word choices, parts of speech, or etymologies of words using dictionaries and thesauruses.

Grades 9-10: 4.25. Use general dictionaries, specialized dictionaries, thesauruses, or related references as needed to increase learning.

Grades 11-12: 4.27. Use general dictionaries, specialized dictionaries, thesauruses, histories of language, books of quotations, and other related references as needed.

Information Technology

Grades 5-8: 3.6. In keeping with the research process outlined in Standard 24 of the English Language Arts Curriculum Framework, identify electronic sources of information (e.g., Internet, CD-ROM, online periodical databases, and online catalogs).

Grades 5-8: 3.7. Use search engines effectively to find relevant, unbiased, and current information on a subject. (Standard 2 performance indicators apply--i.e., evaluate Web sites and write correct citations for sources.)

Grades 9-12: 3.12. In conducting research use all appropriate electronic sources (e.g., Web sites, online periodical databases, online catalogs).

Grades 9-12: 3.13. Integrate (with correct citations) electronic research results into a research project.

Grades 9-12: 3.14. Routinely evaluate Web sites for authenticity when using them.



Duration: One or two class periods.


1. Begin by discussing the following questions as a group: What's in a name? What can a name tell us about an object or a person (ethnicity, status, personality.)? What is the name of our town or city? How is it spelled? Where do you think this name came from? What makes you think that? Does our community have any nicknames? How is a nickname different from a name? (less formal, sometimes more descriptive)

2. Have students locate their community on the "Sources of Place Names" map from the Historical Atlas of Massachusetts (below). Match the the community's fill-in color with the legend below the map, which shows the source of the place name.

3. Was your community named after another place, or after a person, or after a physical feature or landmark, such as a river, mountain or valley?

4. Students use the library encyclopedia or the Internet to learn more about the place, the person or natural landmark that your community is named after. (Online sources: Mass. Community Profiles, Wikipedia, Britannica Online (subscription only, but generally available through school library, or local Public Library website.) They should answer the questions: When did the town receive its present name? Why might this have seemed like the perfect name for this place? What characteristics are implied in the name? What is the story behind this name?

5. Write the name of the local community on the blackboard. Use all of the students' contributions to create a composite concept map describing the characteristics of the person, place or natural landmark that gave this community its name.

6. Propose a new name for your community based on one of the other categories (for example, if your community was named after a person, you might think of a new name based on a natural landmark.) Introduce the new name to the class, and explain why it is an appropriate name for this community.

Resources Needed

Internet connection

"Sources of Place Names" map from the Historical Atlas of Massachusetts (below)

Paper, pencil or pen


Rubric (spreadsheet or PDF format)

Student Resources

Sources of Place Names for All Communities in Massachusetts.

Origins of MA PlaceNames

This online image is from the book Historical Atlas of Massachusetts Richard W. Wilkie and Jack Tager, Published in 1991, University of Massachusetts Press. You may click the image above for a larger version of the map. Note: the printed version of the map in the Historical Atlas of Massachusetts is more easily readable; a copy of this wonderful book was donated to each public library in Massachusetts - check your town library for a copy!


Massachusetts Map

The Mass. Studies Project

These curricular modules were developed with support from the
John H. and H. Naomi Tomfohrde Foundation

The "Our Town, Our City" Curricular Resources Project is an initiative of the Massachusetts Studies Project, Institute for Learning and Teaching, University of Massachusetts, Boston

The lesson plan formatting is based on The WebQuest template.

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