How Boston's Neighborhoods Got Their Names
Boston is a city known for many things —America’s best fast-food coffee joints (writer’s opinion), superior chowder (accepted fact) and actors incapable of capturing the local dialect. Another important facet is Boston’s connection to history as one of America’s earliest settlements, and how that is reflected in its neighborhood and town names.
What follows is an extensive, albeit not 100% exhaustive list. Unlike some other American cities, Boston is comprised less of neighborhoods than it is made up of towns, most of which take their earliest roots from the arrival of a group of explorers around 1630. If you’re upset about an omission, we ask that you respond as any proud Bostonian would — with a measured, reasonable reply in the comments section, sans insult or foul language.
A railroad depot constructed in 1867 — now the Regina Pizzeria near the intersection of Harvard Ave and Cambridge Street — split Allston and Brighton into two sections. Prior to the split, the area was known just as Brighton. After the split, the post office began referring to the area east of the station as Allston, named for Cambridgeport’s Washington Allston, a painter known especially for his work, “Fields West of Boston.” Brighton-Allston historian William Marchione claims Allston’s is the only artist name given to a community in the United States. The area continues to be a popular spot for artists and those who just enjoy a good PBR — mostly the latter, in this author’s experience.
Arlington was originally settled in 1635 and went by the name Menotomy, an Algonquin term for “swift, running water” (although it’s worth noting some would argue the claim). The name was changed to Arlington in 1867 after Arlington National Cemetery.
The Braintree area was originally named Mount Wollaston after Captain Richard Wollaston, who first colonized the area in 1625. In 1640, the area was incorporated as the town of Braintree, named after the English town of the same name.
Belmont was founded in 1859 by former citizens of Watertown, Waltham, and Arlington, and was named after the “Bellmont” estate of John Perkins Cushing, who was a leading advocate and financial backer of Belmont’s bid for foundation.
When Boston first began blossoming as a city in the mid-to-late 1600s, Allston and Brighton were grouped into what was known as “Little Cambridge.” The area was mainly a prosperous farming community prior to the Revolutionary War, but during the war it housed a cattle market that was key to the Continental Army. After the war, Cambridge politicians boiled Little Cambridge’s revolutionary fever by governing from all the way across the Charles River, and so Little Cambridge seceded and became its own town, initially known as Brighton. The name itself was lifted from the town by the same name in England, which was initially called Beorhthelmes Tun, or Beorhthelm’s Farmstead.
When Boston was first discovered by colonists and established, the area now known as Back Bay was, literally, a bay. In 1814, Massachusetts’ legislature approved construction of a mill dam to connect Boston to Watertown. In 1857, a massive filling project began to make use of Back Bay, but the undertaking wasn’t completed until 1900. Even after being converted from bay to land, the area retained the Back Bay moniker.
Bay Village was once an area of mudflats created by Back Bay tides, but that changed in 1825 after the city authorized the construction of a dam. Once the area was properly drained, the land became suitable for the construction of houses. Now one of Boston’s smallest neighborhoods, Bay Village has had a number of different names, including Church Street District, South Cove and Kerry Village, but Bay Village has stuck as an ode to the area’s proximity to Back Bay.
One of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, this area originally went by Tri-mount or Tremont because of the three hills than ran through it. A beacon was erected on one of those hills to warn its residents of approaching enemies, and so those in the area began referring to it as Beacon Hill.
What is now the Town of Brookline was once a part of Boston, but it broke away in 1705. It was at that point the town was renamed Brookline, supposedly after a farm once owned by Judge Samuel Sewall, most famous for being a key player in the Salem Witch Trials. The farm earned the name because Smelt Brook ran through it, according to Dean Dudley’s Brookline, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury Directory for 1871.
Now home to Harvard, Cambridge was originally founded in 1630 under the decidedly unoriginal name of Newtowne. It held that title until 1638, when the name was changed to Cambridge because most of the men on the town’s General Court had attended Cambridge University in England. The hope was to provide a good omen for Harvard, which had been founded in 1636.
The area that now houses Charlestown was one of the first established European communities in the U.S. Originally known as Mishawum, Charlestown was “Full of stately timber and hospitable Indians” when first discovered. John Smith was among the men who first explored the area, and when he returned to England with a map, Prince Charles (later King Charles I) renamed the river after himself. The town adopted His Highness's name because of its proximity to the river.
The Massachusett tribe referred to this area as Winnisimmeti, or “Good spring nearby.” It was renamed Chelsea in the early 1700s after a neighborhood in London.
Frederick Law Olmstead — famous for helping co-design Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City — was the chief architect behind the area surrounding the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The area received its name from a “stand of chestnut trees stretched from Dunster Street to Reservoir Lane.”
Established on top of a landfill, Boston’s Chinatown was initially populated by Syrian, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. The first Chinese in the area were laborers brought in to end a strike against the Sampson Shoe Factory, and throughout the 1880s and 1890s, more Chinese laborers came to the city to aid construction.
Dorchester was one of the first areas settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, taking its name from the English town with the same name.
Edward Everett was a Harvard-educated Dorchester native who is perhaps best remembered as the man who delivered the two-hour main address at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg. The town of Everett was named in his honor.
The Fenway portion of the name comes from the road that ran along the Back Bay Fens, a park established in 1879 at the urging of Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted named it the Fens after the British term for a low, marshy area. The Kenmore portion comes from Kenmore Square, which was named for the Kenmore Station subway stop (at the intersection of Kenmore Street and Commonwealth Ave.).
Local minister Henry Lyman suggested the name Hyde Park after the section of London.
The Jamaica Plain Historical Society puts forward a few possible explanations for the name. One theory suggests Jamaica Plain comes from the Caribbean island discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1494, and they adopted the name either because early habitants made their money off rum or because the area originally housed Native Americans who were fond of rum once it was introduced. Another theory has the area adopting the name from a Native American woman named Jamaco.
There’s some disagreement over the namesake of this town, which was the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War. Some put forward that Lexington was named after the English town of Laxton, which may have derived from the Anglo-Saxon Leaxingtūn, or “farmstead or estate of the people of a man called Leaxa.” Others believe the town was named for Lord Lexington.
Malden was originally part of Charlestown but it was incorporated fairly early, in 1649. Malden’s namesake is something of a mystery, but the most logical ties are to a small parish in Surrey, England, known as "Maiden."
In 1617, an epidemic killed a number Native Americans in the area, and so the survivors dubbed it Mattapanock, or “evil spread about the place.” The name was shortened to Mattapan and eventually chosen as an English name for the location, likely without knowledge of its significance.
While other towns like Cambridge and Watertown were established early on, Medford was originally the property of Matthew Cradock, who lived in London but owned the land and turned a profit from farming, fishing, and shipbuilding in the area. His workers lived in a great house in what is now Medford Square, and this house was referred to as the Meadford House for its location near a ford at which the Mystic River could be crossed. After Cradock died, his heirs slowly lost interest in managing the property from abroad, and the land purchased in the area adopted the Meadford — or Medford — moniker.
Melrose went by a few different names, including Ponde Field, Mystic Side, and North Malden. Up until the mid 1800s, Melrose was a sparse farming area considered a part of Malden. In 1845, B&M built three train stops (Wyoming, Cedar Park, and Melrose Highlands) in the area, and Boston workers began moving there and commuting to work. The population boomed, and Melrose became its own town in 1850, taking its name from its topographical resemblance to Melrose, Scotland.
Milton was originally part of the Dorchester settlement, and the area was referred to as “Unquety,” a Neponset term for “Lower Falls.” Milton split from Dorchester in 1662, taking its name in honor of Milton Abbas, a small village in Dorset, England.
Mission Hill is located on Parker Hill, “A rocky drumlin left behind by a prehistoric glacier.” The Mission half of the name was adopted after the construction of the Mission Church complex near the end of the 19th century.
This one’s pretty easy. The area — one of the first settled around Boston — originally went by Newtown because, well, it was all quite new. Newton was originally considered part of Cambridge but split in 1691 and was officially bestowed the Newton name.
When the Boston area was first settled, the North End went by the word-ier “Island of North Boston.” The area included a few estates and a large, wooden windmill, but not much else. In the 1700s, cobblestone streets were laid and more people began moving there, and the name was shortened to the more manageable “North End.”
The Quincy area was first settled in 1625 but was originally considered a part of neighboring Braintree. That changed in 1792, when Quincy split to become its own town named after Col. John Quincy, grandfather of Abigail Adams.
One would suspect Revere got its name from noted night rider Paul Revere. One would be correct.
Originally a part of Roxbury, Roslindale split into its own town in 1870. Many had ideas about what to name the area, but it adopted the Roslindale moniker at the behest of resident John Pierce. Pierce stood at a town meeting and spoke of how the West Roxbury area reminded him of historic Roslyn, Scotland, and added that -dale would make a nice addition because of West Roxbury’s surrounding hills.
A small community of settlers decided to forego Boston as a home and trekked north over the Boston Neck to settle in the Roxbury area in 1630. The area they chose was littered with rocks, and the settlers originally dubbed it “Rocksbury.”
On its official town website, Salem refers to itself as the “City of Peace,” named most likely for the biblical town of Shalem, now Jerusalem. Salem has occasionally lived up to its name sans notable, lung-crushing exceptions.
The town of Saugus was first settled in 1629 and boasts a long Native American history. The name was adopted from the term “Saugus,” used by local tribes as a word for “great” or “extended.”
Somerville split from Charlestown in 1842. In “Haskell’s Historical Guide Book of Somerville, Massachusetts,” Albert L. Haskell writes that the town originally was going to go by the name Walford after its first settler, Thomas Walford. However, a committee put together to choose a name vetoed this, and instead adopted the “Somerville” moniker suggested by committee member Chris Miller, a “purely fanciful name.”
When the Boston area was first settled in 1630, what is now South Boston was a slim peninsula — so slim, in fact, that at high tide, it became an island. The area was dubbed “Dorchester Neck” by the settlers and referred to as Mattapannock by the natives. It was sparsely populated until 1803, when a group of Bostonians bought up a significant portion of the land. A year later, Boston annexed the area and went to work improving accessibility and drawing up the street grids we know today. As for the name? That's entirely self-evident, what with its location south of Boston’s downtown area.
The South End was at one point made up of a narrow strip of land, the “Boston Neck,” and was surrounded by tidal marshes. Before the 1840s, the area included a few mansions, but was mostly unpopulated. That changed in the ‘40s, though, when overcrowding around Beacon Hill and downtown led to the filling of those marshes with land pulled from Needham. The area was planned by Charles Bulfinch and in the decades that followed, it became a “fashionable place for well-to-do families to build their homes.”
By the 1870s, though, those families began moving out. The exodus, paired with a string of bank repossessions on less elegant homes built around Columbus Avenue, dropped market values sharply. The South End quickly became a melting pot neighborhood of varying minorities — the influence of which can been seen in its diversity to this day. The name, like South Boston's, is pretty self-explanatory.
Waltham was originally part of the Watertown settlement, established in 1627. The area was referred to as Watertown’s “Middle Precinct,” but became the “West Precinct” in 1712-13. In 1730, the West Precinct voted to become its own town after a dispute with the East Precinct over the location of a school, but the motion failed. Another vote was set and passed in 1738, at which point Waltham was established. The name is a Saxon word meaning “forest home.”
Watertown is one of Boston’s oldest settlements. The Native Americans in the area referred to it as "Pigsgusset," but settlers renamed it Watertown because of its proximity to a fresh water river.
Remember when I said Waltham was once “Middle Precinct” but then it became “West Precinct”? Well, that’s because Weston was at one point Watertown’s “West Precinct,” but it was incorporated into its own town in 1712-13.
The West End, like the South End, served as a melting pot neighborhood in the late 1800s, although chiefly for Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants. Also like the South End, the West End has a boring name rooted in its geography.
John Winthrop was one of the most influential characters in Boston’s early history. He led the first wave of settlers into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 and served as its governor for 12 years between 1629 and 1649, when he died. The town of Winthrop, obviously, is named in his honor.