The unknown Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who named America’s towns and cities

The unknown Anglo-Saxons and Vikings who named America’s towns and cities


When the first Anglo-Saxons settlers crossed the North Sea and pitched their wooden stakes into the English landscape around the 5th century AD, it was customary to name their settlements after their local chief, plus whatever natural feature was nearby.

It began the cultural ‘Germanization’ of a British Isles recently vacated by the Roman legions and of the Romano-British population they left behind.  It also made it clear to which Germanic tribe the settlement now belonged.  When the Anglo-Saxons were, in turn, culturally squeezed out of northern and eastern England by their Viking cousins a few centuries later, the invading Norse clans and their chieftains often followed the same convention.

These tribal leaders couldn’t have comprehended how many of the small villages bearing their personal names (bestowed upon them in a pagan naming ritual at 9 days old) would morph over the next thousand years into towns and cities inhabited by thousands, even millions of people.  They certainly couldn’t have imagined how their names would be transported by future settlers, who would drive their own stakes into far distant landscapes, and transplanted into new super-settlements across the ocean.

Here are some of those ancient men, mostly lost to Dark Age history, who are thought to have unwittingly given their names to America’s towns and cities:



Beorma was the leader of a tribe of Angles – the Beormingas – who established themselves in the West Midlands of England in a settlement that became known as Beormingaham, an early administrative unit of the Kingdom of Mercia.  Today, Birmingham is the most populous British city outside London with over 1 million residents.  Many 19th century Beormingas, or Brummies as they became known, emigrated to the US and helped form the city of Birmingham, Alabama.  The city was founded in 1871 during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and became an industrial centre with a focus on mining.



A tree planted by, or named after Cofa may have marked the centre or the boundary of his Anglo-Saxon settlement.  Cofa’s tree would become the city of Coventry in the West Midlands – one of the most important cities in England during the Middle Ages due to its booming textiles trade, and the centre of the British motor industry in the 20th century (its city centre was mostly destroyed during the Blitz in 1940 and had to be rebuilt).  Coventry, Connecticut was named in October 1711 and was the first of several ‘Coventries’ in America.



Anglo-Saxon chieftain Hwæsa settled his clan in the northeast of England in the village of Hwæsingatun (inga = the people of; tun = enclosed village).  This evolved into Wessyngton after the Norman Conquest and became the home of William de Wessyngton, the medieval ancestor of George Washington, the first President of the United States.  Although George Washington’s great-grandfather John Washington left for Virginia from Essex in southern England, Washington Old Hall in the northeast was their ancestral family seat and American Independence Day is marked by a ceremony there each 4th July.  Hwæsa not only lent his name to the English town of Washington, but also to the US capital Washingon DC, Washington state, and many other towns and cities across America.

'Hwæsingatun' - 4th July celebrations in Washington DC, and a quieter ceremony at Washington Old Hall, England
‘Hwæsingatun’ – 4th July celebrations in Washington DC, and a quieter ceremony at Washington Old Hall, England



Snot, unfortunately named to modern ears, was a Saxon chieftain who brought his people together in their homestead of Snotingaham.  It is now the East Midlands city of Nottingham, famed for its medieval links to the legend of Robin Hood.  Snot also gave his name to Nottingham, Maryland and Nottingham, New Hampshire in the USA.



Gippa’s collection of buildings (perhaps a farm, or a trading settlement) or Gippa’s wic, became Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk, England, located on the estuary of the River Orwell.  Ipswich, Massachusetts was founded by colonist John Winthrop the Younger in 1634 , “in acknowledgment of the great honour and kindness done to our people which took shipping there.”



Beda, a Saxon chief, settled with his followers in eastern England at a point where the River Great Ouse was shallow and fordable.  Beda’s ford became Bedford, the county town of Bedfordshire.  Bedford, Massachusetts was first settled by Europeans in the 1640s and was incorporated as a town in 1729.  The town’s library displays the oldest intact flag in the country; known as the ‘Bedford Flag’, it was carried to the battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the American Revolution.



Reada chose a prime Thames Valley location – at the confluence of the River Thames and River Kennet – for the settlement of his Anglo-Saxon tribe the Readingas (Reada’s people).  As the modern town of Reading, Berkshire, it remains in a prime commercial location, just 24 miles south of Oxford and 36 miles west of central London.  It’s first US namesake, Reading, Massachusetts, was incorporated in 1644.  A ‘larger Reading’ was established in Pennsylvania in 1748 by Richard and Thomas Penn, who also created Berks County in 1752, of which Reading became the county seat.



Although not a chieftain, Botwulf was a popular 7th century Anglo-Saxon missionary and saint.  Through his regular travels around eastern England many ancient English churches were dedicated to him, the most famous of which is in ‘Botwulf’s town’, or Boston, Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England.  Boston, Lincolnshire was the birthplace of several prominent emigrants to New England, who gave its name to Boston, Massachusetts in 1630.

'Botwulf's town' - Boston, Massachusetts
‘Botwulf’s town’ – Boston, Massachusetts



Saxon landowner Ebba chose the site of his homestead well.  Ebba’s ham lay on a spring line and, as his land became the affluent market town of Epsom, Surrey, the minerals in his spring water became the source of Epsom Salts.  It also became the site of Epsom’s racecourse and the world famous Epsom Derby – the forerunner of ‘Derbys’ across many sports in English-speaking countries.  The town’s US namesake, Epsom, New Hampshire, was incorporated in 1727.



Anglo-Saxon chieftain Bucca brought his people together in their homestead of Buccingaham, later Buckingham, in the 7th century.  His name also went towards the county of  Buckinghamshire in the 10th century.  Centuries later, he gave his name to Buckingham Township and Bucks County, Pennsylvania.



Kenesigne’s village (Kenesigne’s tun) became the affluent and densely populated district of west London known as Kensington.  The name would be adopted by a number of towns and districts in the USA.  Kensington, California and Kensington, Maryland were named in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by developers who had either visted or lived in London.



Athla’s fortified settlement (or burh) in Norfolk, England became the small market town of Attleborough.  It’s US namesake, Attleboro, Massachusetts, is much larger – although when English settlers first arrived on its soil in 1634, they considered it to be unfit for human existence and resolved to never return.  Their descendants, however, tried again and the town of Attleborough was incorporated in 1694.  The town was reincorporated in 1914 as the City of Attleboro, with the ‘-ugh’ removed from the name.



Vinandar was of Viking stock (his name being Old Norse or Old Swedishin origin).  Vinandar gave his name to the largest natural lake, or mere in England.  We know it as Windermere in the Lake District, though it was still being called ‘Winander Mere’ at least until the 19th century.  The town of Windermere itself does not actually touch the lake and only formally took its name when the railway arrived in 1847.  The US town of Windermere, Florida was established in 1889; its motto is ‘Among The Lakes’.



Viking brothers Kormak and Thorgils made their mark on the coast of eastern England around 966 AD by establishing a fortified settlement there.  Kormak’s affectionate nickname for Thorgils was Skardi, meaning hare-lipped.  The settlement became known as Skardaborg – ‘the fort belonging to Skardi’ – which was handed down to us as Scarborough, now the largest holiday resort on the Yorkshire coast.  Scarborough was famed in the Middle Ages for its 6-week trading festival which attracted merchants from all over Europe.  The fair ran for 500 years, from the 13th century to the 18th century, and is commemorated in the song Scarborough Fair.  It’s coastal namesake in the USA – Scarborough, Maine – was incorporated in 1658.

'Skardaborg - the fort belonging to Skardi' - Scarborough, England
‘Skardaborg – the fort belonging to Skardi’ – Scarborough, England


Source:  Wikipedia – place name origins and places in the United States named after places in England


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