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Curiosity Desk | Dec. 12, 2018

Massachusetts Has A Northborough, Southborough And Westborough. Why No Eastborough?

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Map by Crossroads Creative/Getty Images, illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News
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Curiosity Desk | Dec. 12, 2018

Here at the Curiosity Desk we love nothing more than to hear from you about what has roused your curiosity. And today we turn to Worcester resident Richard Klein, who recently reached out.

Here in Massachusetts we have Westborough, Northborough, Southborough, even Marlborough. But there’s no Eastborough. Why is that?

The answer to Richard's question is a tale — not uncommon here in New England — of colonial expansion and the division of large swaths of land into smaller ones as the population grew. But there is also a more complicated side to the story. One of the displacement of a people who had called what is today Massachusetts home for thousands of years.

It all starts with the beginning of the town of Marlborough, today a city of some 40,000 along Route 495, about 30 miles west of Boston.

"All of the people who first settled Marlborough were residents of Sudbury," explained Paul Brodeur, trustee emeritus for the Marlborough Historical Society.

In 1657, 38 families were granted 6,000 acres of land to Sudbury’s west to make a go of things — their way.

"These were dissidents," said Brodeur. "They were looking for more land. There [were] all kinds of political issues over there [in Sudbury]."

In 1660, they incorporated the new town of Marlborough, named — to no one's surprise —after a town in England. Over the years the population steadily grew, including along the town's westernmost edge.

"[It was] probably seven, eight miles away from the center of town," said Brodeur. "So that’s a long way to go to Sunday services, which is mandatory. Town meetings are impossible."

And so, in 1717 the western part of Marlborough split off and formed a new town, appropriately — if not creatively — named Westborough.

"Ten years after the Westborough separation, Southborough separates," said Brodeur.

That separation was undertaken for similar reasons — as was the next one, in 1766, which established the town of Northborough.

"And they don’t separate from Marlborough, they separate from Westborough," Brodeur explained.

This explains why Northborough is due west of Marlborough, and why there is no Eastborough — as what remained of the original Marlborough was the town's northeastern quarter. The remaining Marlborough would again be divided one last time, with a northern part becoming the town of Hudson in 1866.

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Emily Judem/WGBH News

But there is a little more to this story. Much of the land originally granted to the settlers of Marlborough was indeed unoccupied wilderness.

"But in the middle of this town was a plantation that was granted to the Praying Indians," said Brodeur.

These so-called Praying Indian towns — among them, present day Natick, Grafton and Dartmouth — had been established throughout Massachusetts. They were the efforts of a man called "the apostle" John Elliot. Elliot was a missionary to and advocate for Native Americans, and he was keen to convert them to Christianity — hence the term "Praying Indians." But he was also a man of his times — and a man of his God — so his advocacy was on his terms.

"The English wanted the Indians to completely assimilate before they could be converted," said Brodeur. "They had to dress like the English, they had to cut their hair like the English."

In its early years, the town of Marlborough developed around the Indian town with little incident. But long-simmering tensions between the English and Native Americans erupted in 1675, when King Phillip’s War broke out across New England. The deadly conflict — so-called because Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief, had also adopted an English name, Phillip — lasted three-years and was ultimately won by the colonists.

"After King Phillip's War, the Indians in Marlborough are exiled," said Brodeur. "First they’re exiled to Natick, then they are exiled to Deer Island for the winter of 1675."

And while their praying town in the midst of Marlborough was unoccupied following the war, it was still Indian land in the eyes of the Massachusetts General Court. In 1684, a deal was struck by Marlborough to buy the land, but it was a raw one for the Indians. The price paid was far too low. And there was deep division among the Indians about whether to sell at all.

And this analysis isn’t just in retrospect.

"The general court reads this [in 1684] and they deny the deed," said Brodeur. "The people of Marlborough cannot have the land."

Despite the court’s ruling, the people of Marlborough nevertheless began to occupy the land. And 32 years later, they again put forth the deed to the Massachusetts General Court for consideration. This time it was approved.

"Same deed," said Brodeur. "There is no other deed. There is no additional compensation for the Indians."

It’s no coincidence that it was the year after the Indian land was acquired that Marlborough let go of Westborough and, as Brodeur put it, "all the dominoes start to fall."

When I started researching Richard’s question, I thought this would be a light, fun tale about how a few area towns got their names. Well, Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” And in the complex story that is America, if you scratch the surface a little, you’ll often find the answer is, “More than meets the eye.”

My thanks to Richard Klein for his question that led to this story. What's yours? Email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. Who knows? I might just look into it for you.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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