I’ve always thought that places named Braintree sounded odd. I knew it couldn’t have derived from a tree with brains dangling from its branches although that’s exactly what came to mind. The Osage Orange or Hedge Apple (Maclura pomifera) might come closest to that twisted image. Still, my overactive imagination went directly to literal brains.
Maclura pomifera, "Osage orange" by John Lillis on Flickr (cc)
My familiarity with Braintree drew from the town of the same name in Massachusetts. I surmised correctly that it wasn’t the original Braintree, that its peculiar phrasing must have sailed across the Atlantic with the original European settlers.
Braintree, Essex, England
Postcard From Braintree by Andreas-photography on Flickr (cc)
Indeed, Braintree migrated from a place in England, a town dating back at least a thousand years (map). I’m usually pretty adept at digging into obscure corners of the Intertubes discovering etymologies, especially for a name so delightful as Braintree. I didn’t do so well this time however, running up against the dreaded, "nobody really seemed to know" excuse. Wikipedia included a long paragraph without attribution. In essence the tenuous claim came down to "the origin of the name Braintree is obscure" and it might "indicate that Braintree literally means ‘town (or village) by the river’" It could mean that, or it could mean something completely different. Take your pick.
However, the Braintree in Essex definitely conveyed its name to the Braintree in Massachusetts, USA. People who emigrated from the English Braintree to the colonial Braintree included influential citizens such as the ancestors of future US presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Both of them were born in the Massachusetts Braintree (a portion now in Quincy) as I noted in an earlier article, Presidential Birthplaces.
Braintree, Massachusetts, USA
Sacco and Vanzetti via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
The Adams Family notwithstanding, I first encountered Braintree and wondered about its unusual name because of a more recent and completely unrelated historical event. Many people probably recognized the names Sacco and Vanzetti even if they didn’t fully remember the notorious events that happened in Braintree in 1920. Two robbers shot and killed a paymaster for the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company and his guard as they transported payroll boxes to the factory building on Pearl Street (map).
Authorities quickly arrested Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, known anarchists born in Italy who belonged to an extremest group called the Galleanists that advocated violence against government officials and institutions. The alleged motive involved funding future bombings. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death. This caused an international uproar with allegations of unfair treatment deriving from prejudices against Italian immigrants. Historians have long debated whether Sacco and Vanzetti committed the crime. However the consensus seemed clear that their "prosecution, trial, and aftermath constituted a blatant disregard for political civil liberties" at the very least. The state electrocuted the pair in 1927.
The Governor of Massachusetts issued a proclamation in 1977, the 50th anniversary of the execution,
…that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, from the names of their families and descendants, and so, from the name of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and I hereby call upon all the people of Massachusetts to pause in their daily endeavors to reflect upon these tragic events, and draw from their historic lessons the resolve to prevent the forces of intolerance, fear, and hatred from ever again uniting to overcome rationality, wisdom, and fairness to which our legal system aspires.
A small marker now memorializes Sacco and Vanzetti at the intersection of Pearl Street and French Avenue (map), in Braintree.
New Braintree, Massachusetts, USA
New Braintree, Massachusetts
There was a New Braintree in Massachusetts too? Why, yes there was, and it was situated about 75 miles (120 kilometres) west of the other Massachusetts Braintree (map). I figured that Massachusetts residents must have migrated away from the coast and brought the name along with them, just like there forebears had done when they crossed the ocean from England. Now I’m not sure.
The Town of New Braintree said,
In 1709, 6000 acres were granted to the residents of the village of "Braintree Farms". Additional tracts of land which were formerly part of Brookfield and Hardwick were acquired and in 1751 the town was incorporated as New Braintree.
I dug a bit deeper and discovered more information from a book printed in 1902, published to commemorate the town’s 150th anniversary. It referenced the "Braintree Grant" that dated back to 1666 that formed the later Braintree Farms and a portion of the future town of New Braintree.
The incorporation of Braintree outside of Boston happened in 1640 so it’s possible that it influenced the name of the Braintree Grant. It think it’s more likely that the Braintree in England provided the name directly though, since Grants generally (although not always) were bestowed by Royal decree. That remained just a hunch for now.