But Why ‘Lexington’?

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A Puzzle for Antiquarians

The name Lexington seems to have been associated with our town for the very first time in the General Court’s 1713 order. We can’t be absolutely certain that this is a fact, because the association could have been made in some document that’s now lost to us. The Farmers had petitioned the Court to make their precinct an independent town, and it isn’t impossible that the petition—which is now one of those lost documents— asked that the town be given this name. But although it’s possible, it isn’t very likely.

Some Massachusetts towns have native Algonkian names, suitably distorted to render them pronounceable by English-speakers, but most of these were named later than Lexington. A 19th-century antiquarian named William Henry Whitmore (whom you’ll soon hear more from) reported that none of the towns established before 1690 in the Massachusetts Bay colony were given Indian names, except temporarily, and only two—Scituate and Monomoy—in the Plymouth colony. (He clearly didn’t count the towns inhabited by “praying Indian” converts: the first and largest of these, Natick, still has its original, and aboriginal, name.) But most of our towns with Indian names (Mattapoisett, Chicopee, Seekonk, Acushnet for example) were first entered in official records in the 1700s and later.

It won’t cause much surprise to learn that the names of most Massachusetts towns established in the 17th and early 18th century were borrowed from English towns—more often small villages than great cities, because they were the former homes of the settlers. Perhaps naming a settlement that way provided some psychological comfort to men and women who were striving to make an English life in a very un-English world. Of course, there were some exceptions to this custom, including a couple of towns with names from the Bible (Salem and Rehoboth) and others with descriptive names like Watertown and Rockport.
Laxton, Nottinghamshire
Knowing all this, 19th-century historians who took an interest in the question of how our town was named naturally looked for a town named Lexington in England. And they found one—or, at least, they found a town in Nottinghamshire that had once been called Lexington. However, the name had morphed into Laxton over the centuries—one study I found suggests that this process began as early 1200 and may have been over and done with early in the 1300s. If some of our town’s settlers had come from that village (though there’s no reliable evidence that any of them did), it’s unlikely that a name no one had used for many generations would have made them feel comfortably at home.

Charles Hudson: Local Historian

Charles Hudson, 1795–1881
Of the scholarly antiquarians who applied their minds to the “Whence Lexington?” question during the 19th century, the first to weigh in was Charles Hudson—a former politician of the Whig party who had served in both the state and national legislatures. He published his History of the Town of Lexington in 1868. He pointed out that, though the English town had become Laxton, the name Lexington had been revived, not long before our town was named, as the title of a noble family that had its roots in Laxton.

Hudson says that, back in the 1200s when the town’s name was still Lexington, a Robert Sutton, Baron de Lexington, had lived there. This isn’t quite accurate: sources that weren’t available to him tell us that the man he means was named Robert de Lexington. Lexington, not Sutton, was his surname, and it wasn't a title of nobility; he and his father took their surname, as many ordinary folk did, from their place of residence. The family had been of service to King Henry III, and had possession of a small estate (called a sub-manor) in the village.

Now, fast-forward 10 or 12 generations to the 1600s: a knight named Robert Sutton, whose ancestors had inherited the sub-manor when the de Lexington family ran out of male heirs, provided generous financial support to King Charles I in the Civil War. The grateful monarch named him Baron de Lexington of Averham in 1645, Lexington for the family‘s ancient seat and Averham (a few miles away) for the place where the new baron was living. His son and heir (also named Robert Sutton) was the second baron.
2nd Baron Lexington, 1662–1723
This younger Lord Lexington eventually became a supporter of William of Orange in the House of Lords, and held several offices during William’s reign and afterwards during Queen Anne’s. In 1713, he was serving as ambassador to Spain during the negotiations that ended the War of the Spanish Succession. (Despite the name of the war, Spain was something of a sideshow. The important fighting and treaty-making took place in other countries.)

Hudson suggested that either Governor Dudley or the General Court chose the name Lexington to honor an important peer and politician “at the height of his popularity”—a peer, he said, whom the governor claimed as a distant relative. “A custom is said to have prevailed in Massachusetts in those days, when a town was incorporated, to pass the order or act, and send it to the Governor with a blank for the name to be filled by him. […] So that the name of Lexington given to the town would, if given by the Legislature, be a compliment to the Governor, and if given by the Governor himself, would be a compliment to his friend and relative.”

(…continued—Click Next below.)