Skip to content

Subscribe  |  Login  |  Account

Pages of History: What’s in a Name?

Jonathan Bourne Sr.

Jonathan Bourne Sr. Photo courtesy of Bourne Historical Society

The individuals behind a few of the storied names of Cape Cod’s history

Please don’t try this at home—yours or that of anyone else—but you’ll know the scene… It’s a moonlit night in the garden of a private estate, one belonging to an enemy family, one with a generations-long grudge. Trellises support climbing flowers on thorny vines, perhaps a fountain gurgles, and stone cherubim draw back their bows. Light breaks as glass doors open to a second-story balcony, and out she glides, the girl with the forbidden name. To the young man, hidden among the flowers below, detection would mean prison, perhaps worse. Yet he remains, certain this will be his best, maybe only, chance at true love. He waits, watching the young woman, listening. Second warning: Please avoid such creepy behavior in real life—it’s not only illegal, it’s wrong. Luckily enough for the young stalker, however, Juliet calls his name into the night, then claims, “‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.” Romeo keeps his silence, but surely his confidence grows. Juliet now delivers one of Shakespeare’s most iconic lines, when she asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Romeo climbs up to the balcony, into Juliet’s heart, and the star-crossed lovers embark upon their tragic journey—ultimately proving the young woman’s thesis false. Turns out, there’s plenty in a name. For the young lovers, their names bring about their doom, but for another famous literary heroine, Anne of Green Gables, the distinction of a name is merely important rather than dire. Speaking of her father, Walter, whose name she likes, 11-year-old Anne muses, “I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage. I suppose my father could have been a good man even if he had been called Jedediah; but I’m sure it would have been a cross.” Anne’s observation seems rooted in aesthetics, the way a name sounds, but also probably in association, as she believes that a name such as Jedediah would have been a burden for her father to carry. Juliet’s rhetorical question, oft-quoted, has a more idealistic bent that includes her desire to live in a society unbound by names and thus free from historical weight. Ultimately, the tragedy of Shakespeare’s play leads to peace between warring families, but the names at its heart have remained iconic over the span of four centuries. As the Prince of Verona concludes at the play’s close, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Names endure, and sometimes they even confer a type of immortality, either by ascending into culture and/or legend or by rooting into a particular place. Such is the case in areas as rich in history as Cape Cod. On these shores, where the Pilgrims first landed, names trace back hundreds of years. Some of them seem to appear everywhere—in conservation lands trusts, on baseball fields, beaches, parks, bridges and streets. A few of them grace the towns themselves, and, of course, there’s an entire island named for a certain Martha. While the history of Cape Cod is long and storied, and while many names have filled the pages of entire books, it’s worth taking a sample of just a few names that folks will surely encounter in their explorations here.

“Gosnold at Cuttyhunk” painting

“Gosnold at Cuttyhunk,” painting by Albert Bierstadt (1858). Photo courtesy of Cuttyhunk Historical Society

On the 15th of May, in 1602, 18 years before the Pilgrims arrived, British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold landed in what’s now called Provincetown. He and the crew of his ship the Concord perceived the peninsula as an island, and they initially called it “Shoal Hope.” Although this initial name lives on today in such businesses as Shoal Hope Ciderworks (est. 2015), Gosnold changed it before it really took hold. He wrote that, “Near this cape we came to anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name and called it Cape Cod.” According to the New England Historical Society, Gosnold spent little time in Provincetown, but instead sailed on until he reached a large island where “they spent two days sampling strawberries.” Before departure, Gosnold named the island after his daughter Martha, who had perished in infancy. The Concord next landed on Cuttyhunk, where “they found abundant trees, herbs, fruit and, of course, fish. Most intriguing was the sassafras, then commanding a high price because it supposedly cured syphilis.” Gosnold and his men commenced trading with the local Native Americans, harvesting sassafras, and began building a fort before he decided to sail off for unknown reasons, leaving eight men behind for three days. When he returned, he and the entire crew took a vote as to whether or not they should remain in Cuttyhunk for a year or return directly to England. They chose the latter, most likely because, according to John Brereton, an English gentlemen who kept a diary throughout the voyage, “our bark had taken in so much sassafras, cedar, furs, skins and other commodities as were thought convenient.” In other words, the men thought the ship was full enough, and now it was time to get paid. Five years later, Gosnold would return to North America and help found Jamestown, where he died just months after arrival. His legacy continues, however, because the Pilgrims would follow his route to Cape Cod, and they would eventually name a town that encompasses the Elizabeth Islands, including Cuttyhunk, after him. His name also carries on in countless other places in the area, including one of the best-known centers in Massachusetts for “the prevention, treatment and recovery of mental health and substance use disorders.”

One of the towns close to Gosnold, just across Buzzards Bay, is Bourne. Perhaps most famous for the bridge bearing its name—along with the droves of cars in the summer—the town’s eponym, Jonathan Bourne Sr., descended directly from a Pilgrim named Richard Bourne, the first English minister to work with the Wampanoag Indians. Richard Bourne was one of the earliest settlers in Shawmee, which became known as Sandwich in 1637, and he was married to Bathsheba Hallett (another longtime Cape surname). He became a political leader and a missionary in conjunction with John Eliot of Plymouth, who believed that “the principall Ende of this plantation wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the Knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Savior of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth.” The mid-17th century was a time of rapid growth in the settlements of Massachusetts, and the Native American populations had been in decline due to disease following earlier contact with Europeans. Mark Nicholas of Lehigh University writes in his graduate thesis that the Puritans established plantations or “praying-towns” that were geographic areas designed to become formal towns once they had “become settled by sufficient numbers of English-speaking ‘freemen.’” Based upon the model that Eliot had laid out in Natick and in other communities, Richard Bourne established the Mashpee Plantation. An important first step in this process was to transfer ownership of land back to the Native Americans. Bourne used 10,500 acres to this effect. Nicholas states, “The area’s principal sachems, Tookonchasun and Weepquish, in signing it also acknowledged that the plantation would be the homeland to a Christian group of Indians. The deed further assured any land within Mashpee’s limits would not be sold without the entire community’s consent.” Bourne learned the Algonquian language, established schools for Wampanoag people, taught English, and enjoyed overall success in his missionary work. He was also instrumental in helping to maintain peaceful relations among the Puritans and Native Americans. King Philip’s War, waged from 1675-78, caused deep rifts throughout the region, and Nicholas notes that Bourne convinced “a group of Indians from Mashpee not to attack the small town of Sandwich in the early 1680s.” In addition, most of the Native Americans who had learned English had sided against King Philip; had they joined him, it’s likely that the entirety of Plymouth colony would have been wiped out.

Jonathan Bourne Sr. actually rose to prominence in the whaling industry of New Bedford, but he maintained a second home here on the Cape, and the town of Bourne was named for him when it became incorporated in 1884. In the decades leading up to this, however, dozens of families sailed directly out of the Cape, and the homes of many prominent ship captains remain today, both as private residences and as museums. Entire books explore the rich seafaring past of these harbors, but the Nickerson family name is one that became both associated with sailing and nearly ubiquitous throughout Cape Cod and the Islands. A number of Nickersons captained ships out of Cotuit in the 19th century, including Captain Carlton Nickerson, who operated a boatyard in the inner harbor, and Captain Willard Nickerson. Willard’s son, Captain Edson Nickerson, became master of several schooners. Captain Seth Nickerson and his wife Rozilla may be the most famous of the Nickersons from this area, however, because their granddaughter, Clara Nickerson Boden, wrote a romantic novel, “The Cut of Her Jib,” based on their experiences. In their book “Cotuit and Santuit,” authors James W. Gould and Jessica Rapp Grassetti detail the tragic story of “The baby brought home in a cask of rum.” During a three-year whaling voyage, Ella, the daughter of Seth and Rozilla, died at the age of 13 months while aboard vessel. Her parents preserved her body in a cask of rum, which they towed back to Cotuit, where they buried her body in Mosswood Cemetery.

Nickerson family

The growing Nickerson family in front of their Brewster home, now the site of Ocean Edge Resort. Through the years, large families such as this settled across the Cape and still have an impact today.

Rewinding back in time, William Nickerson, who would found the town of Chatham, was not a ship captain, though a number of his descendants would take on that vocation. Instead, he was a weaver. A plaque located on Orleans Road at the Nickerson Family Association tells the story of the Nickerson family. It reads: “William Nickerson, founder of Chatham, arrived in Salem in 1637 aboard the ship, John and Dorothy, with four children, his wife, Anne Busby and her parents. … After first settling near Little Bass Pond in Yarmouth, he bargained with Monomoyick tribal sachem, Mattaquason, for a parcel of land at Monomoit (now Chatham) in 1656. A shallop (a dory-like boat),  cloth, kettles, axes, knives and wampum served as payment. By 1664 William, Anne and eight of their nine children and their families were living in various parts of the 4000 acres of Monomoit. However, because it was illegal to purchase tribal lands directly, it wasn’t until 1682 with a payment of ninety pounds and a Plymouth Colony Court settlement that the purchase was made legal.” Today, the Nickerson House serves as the headquarters of the family’s association, which the eighth descendant of William founded in 1897. This descendant, William Emery Nickerson, also happened to invent the safety razor and to co-found the Gillette company.

Nickerson State Park, the first such public space in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is the gift of Addie Nickerson. The land had previously belonged to Samuel Mayo Nickerson, a founding member of the First National Bank of Chicago. He built a mansion called Fieldstone Hall here in 1890 for his son Roland and wife Addie. This home burned to the ground in 1906, however, and Roland, who already suffered from heart disease, passed away two weeks after the fire at age 51. Their son, also named Roland, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and died of influenza during the 1918 epidemic. In 1934, Addie donated the land for use as a “state forest park,” and it has since become the second most visited natural attraction on Cape Cod, after the National Seashore.

Since Gosnold’s naming of Cape Cod over 400 years ago, the area has transformed in a number of different ways. It served first as a settlement for Pilgrims, or “freemen,” whose primary focus was religious. Then came the age of sail, and of the whaling industry. The 19th century gave rise to summer communities. But throughout the Cape’s history, dozens of families have maintained roots here, each with stories of successes and tragedies. The Cape Cod Museum Trail includes over 50 sites, and about 20 of these bear family names, from the Atwood House and Museum in Chatham to the Wing Fort House in Sandwich. Beaches like Cahoon Hollow and Chapin are but two more “roses” in the bouquet of Cape Cod names, and with dozens of monuments and memorials, one could spend years taking time to stop and breathe in the entirety of this historical garden.



You might also like: