The City of Boston was named and incorporated on Sept. 7, 1630 by English Puritans in pursuit of religious freedom. Now that almost 400 years have passed, the city and its streets are chock-full of vibrant history.
It’s safe to say that over the years, the city has been touched by countless historical figures and happenings — many of which have shaped the names of Boston’s buildings, parks, and streets. In this guide, we’re delving into the history of our city’s streets — specifically how they were named.
A quick note for aspiring historians: The City of Boston doesn’t keep official records on the origins of street names or the reasons for their changes. If you’re interested in uncovering the history of your street, check out this list of Boston Public Library resources. Pro tip: Use the Atlascope to see how certain streets have changed throughout the years.
Types of street names
There are some common name origins for Boston’s streets — here are just a few examples of themed street groups in our city:
- Streets in the southern part of East Boston’s Eagle Hill neighborhood were named for battles in the Revolutionary War. Think: Monmouth, Lexington, and Saratoga streets.
- The streets from Arlington to Kilmarnock in Back Bay (excluding Massachusetts Avenue) were named for lordships or earldoms in England in alphabetical order.
- Boston has nearly 2,000 “Hero Squares,” or Memorial Squares, which are named in honor of fallen soldiers or first responders. See the city’s database of all known Hero Squares.
Back Bay and South End
Back Bay is known today for its brownstones, skyscrapers, and shopping, but it was once exactly what its name implies: a bay. The South End was similarly built on filled or “made” land and was developed around the mid-19th century.
Newbury Street — The name of Back Bay’s current day shopping hub celebrates the victory of the Puritans in the 1643 Battle of Newbury during the English Civil War. The street was originally downtown as part of present-day Washington Street, and later reappeared in the newly-made Back Bay.
Commonwealth Avenue — Arthur Gilman, who designed plans for the neighborhood, named this street for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “It was referred to as the Commonwealth Avenue as a generic filler name,” said Matthew Dickey from the Boston Preservation Alliance. “There was a push to call it something better, but the name stuck.”
Melnea Cass Boulevard — Completed in 1981, this street is named after the First Lady of Roxbury. Activist Melnea Cass lived in the area and was the only woman charter member of the Action for Boston Community Development, among other local awards and accomplishments.
Shawmut Avenue — This South End street’s name comes from the Shawmut Peninsula that connected Boston to Roxbury.
Fun fact: The South End used to be home to “the New York Streets,” which were named after cities along the Erie Canal.
Downtown and North End
In the 18th century, Downtown Boston was home to our city’s colonial leaders and the seat of government at the Old State House. Nearby, Boston’s “Little Italy” is one of the oldest residential areas in the city, dating back to early 17th-century Puritans.
Batterymarch Street — In the 17th century, this downtown street led to the city’s South Battery, or Fort Hill. Today, the crescent-shaped road runs from Hawes Street to High Street.
Washington Street — The Washington Street we know today has a rich history as the main road in colonial Boston, and was named after the first US President. For those wondering why Boston is home to so many Washington streets, it’s because Boston is made up of annexed cities that all had their own Washington Street (think: Roxbury and Charlestown).
State Street — Previously called “King Street,” this downtown road was renamed after the Revolutionary War to eliminate the connection to the British Empire.
Hanover Street — The North End street was originally a path to the harbor, called Orange Tree Lane, before it was renamed after the House of Hanover in England.
Hull Street — The first street in our city to receive an official name was named in the 1700s by Hannah Hull Sewall, in honor of her deceased parents.
Beacon Hill was originally made up of three peaks and referred to as the “Tri-mountain,” “Tra-mount” or “Tre-mountin” area in the 1600s. The neighborhood was renamed in 1635 after English settlers built a wooden beacon at the top of the hill to warn of any incoming danger.
Bowdoin Street — Originally called “Middlecott Street,” this Beacon Hill street was renamed after Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin in 1805.
Louisburg Square — Named for the 1745 Battle of Louisbourg, this square was once home to A. Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott).
Acorn Street — Boston’s most photographed street was originally called Kitchen Street, as the row houses were occupied by the cooks and coachmen who lived near their employers. It was renamed after a type of tree to follow suit with the rest of the area’s streets (think: Chestnut, Walnut, and Cedar streets).
Once its own city, Dorchester was founded months before the establishment of Boston in 1630, and was eventually annexed to Boston in 1870. The now Boston neighborhood was founded by Puritans from Dorchester, England (hence the name) who first landed at Columbia Point.
Old Colony Avenue — This avenue is named after Old Colony Railroad, which used to run nearby.
Dorchester Avenue — Simply put, this street was named because it was the “Road to Dorchester.”
Adams Street — One of the longest streets in Boston, the street is named for housing the 18th century estate of President John Adams.