We the People: The stripes of the American flag symbolized the colonies. How were they named?
June 12, 2022 Updated Fri., June 17, 2022 at 10:19 p.m.
Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.
Today’s question: There were 13 original states. Name five.
Tuesday is Flag Day, a commemoration that loyal readers of the “We the People” series will recognize takes place on the day the Second Continental Congress finalized the design of the American flag in 1777.
Those 13 stripes, and original 13 stars, symbolized the former British colonies that became the first American states at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. It may not surprise you to learn that the monarchy had a big hand in determining the names of those early states, issuing what were known as land grants or charters that declared new names for territories.
In many cases, the Indigenous tribes already had names for the areas where they lived, but those names were either changed to an English spelling or discarded entirely.
Here’s a list of each of the first 13 states, and where their name came from.
John Mason, an English sea captain responsible for mapping Newfoundland in Canada, was granted land for a fishing colony that became New Hampshire in 1629. Mason named what was then a province for the county Hampshire in England.
The Massachusetts were a band of Indigenous people who were subjected to disease and targets of Christian conversion by arriving European settlers to the bay that now bears their name. The Massachusetts Bay Co., which included Puritan leaders John Endecott and John Winthrop, earned a land grant for the colony in the late 1620s. The name and language derive from the word for “hill,” referring to what is known in English as the Great Blue Hill south of Boston.
Rhode Island has officially only been “Rhode Island” for two years. Voters there narrowly approved a name change at the ballot box to drop “Providence Plantations” from what had previously been the officials name of the state: “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Providence Plantations was a settlement founded by Roger Williams and was maintained as part of the state’s name when it officially became a state. Some disagreement exists about where the name “Rhode Island” originated, but many point to the comparison to the Isle of Rhodes in the South Aegean Sea by 15th century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano.
The English spelling of “Connecticut” comes from a word in the Mohegan-Pequot language that means roughly “land on the long tidal river.” That river also bears the name “Connecticut” to this day. The colony was organized in 1636.
When it was ruled by the Dutch until 1664, New York was known as New Netherland. The British changed the name to honor James, Duke of York, who was granted the land by his older brother, King Charles II, who died in February 1685, yielding the throne to James, who became King James II. “New Amsterdam” also became “New York City.”
The Lenape tribe were the original settlers of the area now known as New Jersey, but King Charles II renamed the area for the large island in the English Channel in 1664 and granted it to two soldiers who’d been loyal to the family during the English Civil War.
King Charles II again was involved in naming Pennsylvania for Admiral Sir William Penn, to whose son he made the original land grant. The younger William Penn wanted the name of the state to be “New Wales,” according to a letter he sent in March 1681. Penn, a Quaker, would later name the city of Philadelphia, which he founded.
Moving from one monarch to another, Georgia is named for King George II, who signed the colony’s charter in 1732, making it the final of the 13 original colonies to be founded. The charter laid out a board of trustees that was to govern the colony.
Virginia also is named after royalty. Sir Walter Raleigh is believed to have first suggested Virginia as a name for a British colony after Queen Elizabeth I, who never married and had no children and is known as the Virgin Queen. King James I assumed the throne in 1603 and chartered what became the Virginia Co., which sought to colonize the eastern seaboard of the United States. An arm of that company settled Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what became the United States.
King Charles I granted a charter to Baron of Baltimore Cecil Calvert in 1632 on the condition that it be named Maryland after Charles’ wife, the Roman Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, of France. Maryland became a refuge for Catholic settlers, and Maria was known to avoid the title “Queen Mary” she’d been given in England even before her husband was executed in 1649.
The Carolinas were named for King Charles I by his son, King Charles II, who issued a charter to eight noblemen in March 1663, some of whom had stakes in other British colonies. The name comes from the Latin version of “Charles.” The colony was split into north and south in 1712, amid an internal struggle of politics and religion in the northern reaches of the colony.
Delaware’s name predates the founding of the English colony by several decades. The navigator and captain Samuel Argall named the Delaware River following a voyage to the region in 1610. The name honored Thomas West, the Third Baron De La Warr, a royal governor under whom Argall served. The colony, and then the state, were named after the river when the English captured the colony from the Dutch in 1664.
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