Changing town names

Partial map of Norfolk County, 1888, showing Dedham, Hyde Park, and Milton still in the county, while Dorchester has already been annexed to Boston. Robinson’s Atlas of Norfolk County, Massachusetts (New York: E. Robinson, 1888)

In documenting the dates on Mabelle Clifton (Lippitt) (Bourne) Bevins in my last post, her step-mother’s data reminded me of other issues that come our way in family history with new towns being created, or annexed, and the shifting borders of counties and states.

Mabelle’s step-mother, Lillian Hannaford Blazo, was born at Hyde Park, Massachusetts on 5 December 1869, daughter of William Augustus and Mary Elizabeth (Farnum) Blazo.[1] She married at Boston 7 March 1901, Robert Lincoln Lippitt.[2] This marriage listed her birthplace as Dorchester. Lillian died at Providence, Rhode Island 7 February 1937 and her death record listed her birthplace as Milton.[3] Why was there confusion on these two records?

Hyde Park was incorporated as a new town in 1868, just one year before Lillian’s birth, from lands in Dorchester, Milton, and Dedham. From that alone, it’s difficult to say if Lillian was born in the part of Hyde Park that had been Dorchester or Milton, without looking at land records or town directories to see where Lillian’s parents lived, assuming a home birth. In 1912, Hyde Park was annexed by the City of Boston, and what remained of Dorchester had already been annexed by Boston (in 1870): Hyde Park and Dorchester remain neighborhoods in Boston today, while Milton and Dedham remain distinct towns.

If we consider counties, this gets even more complicated. Dorchester, Milton, and Dedham were all part of Norfolk County, and Hyde Park would be as well. However when both Dorchester and Hyde Park were annexed by Boston, they in turn became part of Suffolk County. Norfolk County had been created in 1793 largely from Suffolk County, so that can add to confusion when researching all of these towns.

While vital records in the Bay State have been at the town level as well as the state level since 1841 (Boston as of 1850), land and probate records in Massachusetts have been recorded at the county level, so knowing how a town could have been under different counties depending on the decade is helpful. To keep things simple for Lillian, I listed her birth as Hyde Park (now part of Boston), Massachusetts, without reference to the county, with further explanation about Milton and Dorchester in the footnote.

This reminded me of other scenarios that are even more confusing when occurring near a state border. As I have mentioned before, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors largely derived from Woodstock, Connecticut. This town was settled by English people from Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1686, and was originally called New Roxbury, Massachusetts, part of the existing Suffolk County. (It was renamed Woodstock in 1690.)

In 1731, the town became part of the newly created Worcester County, Massachusetts. In 1749, Woodstock was annexed by Connecticut and since then has remained in Windham County. However, even after being part of Worcester County, I have found relevant documents on Woodstock people in Suffolk County records, and even after being part of Connecticut, I have found relevant documents in Worcester County records.

Sometimes there might be border confusion in records even if a boundary change did not even occur. My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Esther (Daggett) Franklin, was born in Westmoreland, New Hampshire in 1785. However in the 1880 census, three of her children (having long lived far away in western New York) list their mother’s birthplace in Vermont.

As I researched this area of western New Hampshire, I learned Westmoreland was one of the towns that on 5 April 1781 voted to unite with Vermont as part of the Eastern Union. (Two months later the town chose to remain in New Hampshire.)[4] This may have played a part in why three of Esther’s children listed Vermont as their mother’s birthplace.

In our publication Western Massachusetts Families in 1790, William B. Saxbe, Jr. wrote a sketch on John Bowen, who, according to the 1790 census, was enumerated in Royalston, Worcester County. The scope of this western Massachusetts project was limited to Berkshire and Hampshire Counties. However, as Saxbe notes: “the author of this sketch believes that John Bowen actually lived at Warwick, Hampshire County, and that his listing at Royalston, Worcester County, was an error by the census taker. There is considerable evidence that John Bowen lived at Warwick before 1787 (and possibly as early as 1780) and none that he lived at Royalston. His property was in the northeast corner of Warwick, abutting the Royalston line. Today, as in 1790, access to that property is difficult from Royalston, but even more difficult from the rest of Warwick.”

Knowing how these borders shifted, could have been perceived to shift, or otherwise mistaken can be very useful when determining where records may be located for ancestors whose locale remained constant even as records (sometimes far-afield) might make you think otherwise.


[1] Massachusetts Vital Records, 1869, Births, 215: 312, as “______  Blazo (F).”

[2] Massachusetts Vital Records, 1901, Marriages, 515: 54.

[3] Rhode Island Deaths, 1937, 8: 86, FHL #1954,438 (images #1161-1165 if browsed on

[4] Walter Hill Crockett, Vermont – The Green Mountain State (New York, 1921), 2: 354-57; see C.C. Child and J. Kelsey Jones, “Family of John and Esther (Daggett) Franklin: A John Billington Line,” in Mayflower Descendant 60 [2011]: 158-78, for a full description of this family.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

11 thoughts on “Changing town names

  1. Interesting and informative and I have to reply on this post.
    My ancestors were in NH and VT and I have some huge brick walls in the area.
    Very rarely do I see the last names that I’m researching but on this particular post Veta had put the last name of BOURNE in ( ). I have purchased the books by Helen Bourne JOY in hopes that my JOY family would be mentioned but to no avail. Oh well I’ll keep trying.

  2. So true that you can’t just go looking in the records under a single town name. I’m told that some of my ancestors near Worcester, MA lived in 4 different towns but never physically moved.

    1. In her book “Thomas Horton of Milton and Rehoboth”, Margaret Jenks includes a map that shows the evolution of Rehoboth, Seekonk and Pawtucket, Mass. and then Pawtucket, R.I. I’ve researched several families that lived in that area and have come to the conclusion that they didn’t move around nearly as much as I thought at first. The borders were shifting around them. That map made it all clear.

  3. There are hundreds of examples of changing town names. One that I examined recently is Dunstable, MA. It’s location on the border of NH and MA can cause confusion. Families living in Dunstable, MA, in the early days would find later that the homes of their ancestors are now located in Nashua, NH. An 1846 map of this issue is found on Wikipedia if you search for Dunstable, MA.

    1. These name changes still happen, and not just in New England. In Washington State, some parts of counties remain unincorporated, because a county isn’t automatically divided up into towns. Unincorporated areas are governed in part by the county and in part by a nearby town, whose name they usually carry. This can get confusing and has tax consequences as well, because both the county and the town have to pay for services. One of my sisters has lived for more than 30 years in the same house in the Seattle suburbs. When she first moved there, her address was Seattle; but it was unincorporated. A few years later, the area around her, including her house, acquired the name of a nearby suburb, but was still unincorporated. About ten years ago, their address changed again. This time, though, the voters decided to incorporate, and became a town, with a town council, fire department, schools, etc. Until I began doing genealogy on early

      New England, the idea that all the land in a state or county was entirely divided up into towns was completely foreign to me. Since my sister and brother-in-law have lived with the frustrations of living in unincorporated areas, the advantages of every piece of land being a town makes more sense to me. In fact, the minute their town came into existence, my brother-in-law, by now newly retired, ran for, and was elected to, the town council. He felt like the council had some say over how things were run.

  4. Chris – I appreciate the Hyde Park history. My Coan ancestors moved from Maine to Hyde Park during this time frame. Knowing to check more than one county will help a lot. Thanks! Oh, and the map is much appreciated as well. After being in Texas for 30+ years it helps to remind me that we’re not talking great distances so expanding a search geographically makes sense.

  5. My ancestor, Thomas Wight, and some sons were among the founders of Dedham, Medfield and Medway and another was pastor of the Congregational minister of the Fairfield, CT Congregational church, and organized the Fairfield library, historical society and other stuff and I forgot my point. But I have to go for dinner. Bye.

  6. This confusion still exists with towns today. The southern part of Warwick, RI is covered by the East Greenwich, RI Postoffice, and as a result has the East Greenwich zip code 02818. Many of the people living in this area of Warwick believe they live in East Greenwich! (They should check their tax bill!). There are also residents of “extreme” western Rhode Island who are served by Connecticut Post Offices, and thereby have Conn. addresses. They deal with confusion sometimes with their own town officials on where they actually live.

  7. Chris Child: We may be related! I have been researching my 4G Grandmother Lefa Jane Childs. She was born in Vermont, then moved to Sand Lake, NY where she married and eventually moved to Oswego County, NY. I have read the Child Genealogy published in the 1850’s. As far as I can estimated her father may have be Josiah Child or Cephas Child. She was not in the Genealogy because there were brothers who moved from Woodstock, CT into Vermont and I cannot find any recorded birth data but that may be as Vermont in 1797 had just become a state and it was wilderness where a Church may not have been available. She is one of the pioneering grandmothers that I am wanting to write a family children’s book about her adventures from Vermont, travelling with her 8 children across the Mohawk Valley and settling in the Central NY frontier. Might I have an opportunity to chat with you about any research you may have done on the Child family that might offer more clues as to her father and mother?

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