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July 02, 2013

What's in a Name? The Origins of "Burlington"

Name-tagNames tell more about those who give them than about those who get them. That’s as true for places as for people.

So who or what is behind some of the names that Burlington-area residents encounter nearly every day? Why was a town, a street, an institution or a natural feature given a particular label? Seven Days decided to find out.

We begin a weekly, summer-long series on the name game with the most obvious one: Burlington.

As it happens, historians disagree on how Vermont’s largest city got its name. Evidence has been submitted for two competing theories, according to Sylvia Bugbee, a Vermont-history reference specialist at the University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library, but, she says, “there’s no smoking gun.”

Bugbee personally ascribes to the view that Burlington’s name derives from the Burling family of New York City. She favors this choice mainly because the alternative — that the city is named for the British earldom of Burlington — “doesn’t make sense.”

Burlington, Vt., came into being in 1763 through a grant of land by Benning Wentworth, the governor of the royal province of New Hampshire. Those supporting the aristocratic origin note that the names Wentworth conferred on some other towns in Vermont were based on the nobility titles of families with whom he was politically allied — for example, the duke of Dorset and the marquis of Halifax.

Bugbee points out, however, that Richard Boyle, the specific earl of Burlington likely to have inspired the naming, died a decade before Wentworth made the land grant. “That’s too long a time for him to have been the source,” she argues.

New York’s 18th-century Burlings, on the other hand, had a documented connection to lands in several towns in what became Vermont. In addition, the family was “politically prominent and wealthy — a combination that always appealed to Wentworth,” observes Vermont Place Names, a 1977 book by the late Esther Munroe Smith.

Edward Burling (1713-1789), a Quaker real estate mogul who apparently also dabbled in the slave trade, was among those granted land by Wentworth in an area north of the Winooski River that became known as Colchester. “From this fact,” states the section on Burlington in the Vermont Historical Gazetteer (published in 1867), “it is supposed by many that the name was intended for Colchester … and that by some clerical error the name of Burlington was given to this town instead of that.”

Whoa! B-town’s name is the product of “a clerical error”? How deflating is that?

But how inflating for local self-esteem if the city were, in fact, named in honor of an earl? And not just any earl, but Third Earl of Burlington Richard Boyle (1694-1753), who worked in London as an architect and who is described in the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a patron of the arts, interested in the visual arts, music and literature.”

In other words, a proto-Friend of the Flynn!

Smith notes in Vermont Place Names the feel-good association with the Third Earl of Burlington. “Burlingtonians point with pride to the noble ancestry of their community’s name,” she wrote 36 years ago.

Such a link would also be consistent with Burlington’s royalist nickname: the Queen City — one it shares with several other towns in North America.

There’s just one explanation for that moniker — or at least there’s only one readily found via Google. It’s laid out in a blog called “Long Live the Queen City!” created in 2010 by someone identified only as Britta. She is described in an initial posting as “a recent graduate of the University of Vermont’s historic preservation master’s program and a Burlington resident for a number of years.”

Britta declares that Albert Catlin, the city’s first mayor, crowned Burlington with the Queen City title. The blogger quotes Catlin’s hubristic mayoral address of 1866, the year after Burlington was incorporated as a city:

“We represent a young city, which may in time be known and distinguished as the Queen City of New England. It has just been launched upon a career that I trust will prove prosperous and happy. Its location for natural beauty is not equaled in any part of our country — and for natural and acquired advantages in a business point of view, for manufactures and a general business-character, few places are its equal, and none surpass it.”

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