Look at any really old map of Connecticut—from about 1800 or earlier—and you’ll see lots of unfamiliar place names. In part this is simply because spelling had not been standardized, but many places were simply called different things at different points in time. The Native Americans had their own names and so did the Dutch. A few of those early names have endured, but others have long been replaced by names imported from England. There is a wonderful book called Connecticut Place Names, long out of print, which was published by the Connecticut Historical Society in 1976. It gives the origins of all the different names by which communities and geographical features have been known over time. We use it at CHS when we try to determine where old photographs were taken, when all we have to go by is a microscopic road sign in the picture or a scribbled annotation on the back. We also use it to date undated maps on the basis of the names that do or do not appear on them. It’s a reminder that names are often arbitrary things and that just like everything else they are subject to change.
So take a look at some of the old maps which have recently been digitized with support from Connecticut Humanities, and think about the names you see every day, as you drive to work or walk around your neighborhood: the names of streets and streams, roads and rivers, towns and cities. Rightly understood, these names have the ability to take us back in time and connect us with the past.