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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.

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