What’s in a Name?

I live in Southern New Hampshire in a town that used to be part of Massachusetts.  Borders changed a lot back in the day.  The area I’m likely saw many turf wars between the Pennacook and Abenaki over the centuries.  Both tribes were part of the Webanaki Confederacy.  Webanaki means “People of the Dawn Land” because, well you know, they lived along the Eastern coast.  I think we should adopt that name again, both to honor the native population we displaced and frankly because it’s way cooler than “Yankee”.

The name “New Hampshire” didn’t come along until 1629, when Captain John Mason, previous Governor of Newfoundland, split Northern New England with another well-connected gent named Captain Gorges and named the region between the Merrimack River and the Piscatagua River – you guessed it – New Hampshire.  Back then explorers and settlers didn’t venture too far into the wilderness, so Mason wasn’t envisioning the shape of the Granite State back then.  In fact, he never set foot in New Hampshire.  He died before he could sail over to check out his new stomping grounds.  But plenty of other folks did.  And of course, this brought violent conflict and atrocities hard to imagine today.

There are hints to the past if you look closely enough.  Massacre Marsh in Rye, NH marks the site of a raid that killed 13 settlers.  Worlds End Pond in Salem NH once marked the end of civilization and the edge of the vast northern wilderness.  The Dustin Garrison in Haverhill MA was built to defend the region from Indian Raids.  It was a harsh, unforgiving world.  The people who settled here had to be tough, resourceful and resilient, or they simply didn’t survive.

The name New Hampshire wasn’t an accident.  Mason had lived in Hampshire, England and it probably seemed like a logical choice to tack on New.  And the New World was looking for settlers, and naming the region after places familiar to the population back in the Old World was a nice marketing trick designed to entice settlers to drop everything they knew, risk life and limb sailing across the North Atlantic and find a piece of land to clear and farm.  And hopefully grow some food, hunt some game and fend off raids, wars and the brutal cold of winter long enough to put down roots.  New Hampshire, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, New France, New England…  and on.  Most people never think about the names of the places they live, or the life and death struggles of the people who came before us.  The bones of the past are all around us, if we only open our eyes to see.

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