I remained vague when I discussed Boston — the Boston in Texas — in Named Like a Whole Other Country. I kept it to "the man who opened the first store in the area was W. J. Boston." Otherwise I might have tipped my hand that I’d discovered three Texas Bostons all within about four miles of each other in Bowie County. To wit,
- Boston was always Boston, and it’s newer than New Boston, although it’s now part of New Boston. Probably.
- Old Boston was the original Boston.
- New Boston was named for Old Boston back when Old Boston was still Boston.
- They’re all New Boston for postal purposes (Zip Code 75570) so maybe it doesn’t matter.
Got all that? It confused me too. Fortunately the Geographic Names Information System or GNIS provided precise locations for each location and the Handbook of Texas Online provided context and history.
(A) = Old Boston, (B) = New Boston, (C) = Boston
Notice the tight clustering of the Boston trio. This proximity would tend to justify a single town with a single name just about anywhere else. Maybe that would have happened here too except for several extenuating events. I took all three town histories from the Handbook, sorted through their intricacies and developed a timeline.
1830′s: Early settlers founded Boston and named it for the guy I mentioned earlier.
1841: Boston became the initial government seat for newly-founded Bowie County. That was while Texas was still an independent nation, the Republic of Texas.
1846: Boston gained a post office. Yes, it’s important to the story.
Some of the Railroad has been Decommissioned
1876: The new Texas and Pacific Railway laid track through Bowie County, and it skipped Boston. Residents feared Boston’s stagnation, a sad situation for many towns bypassed by railroads, so residents met with railroad officials to see what could be done about it. They agreed upon a station at the closest place possible along the line, about four miles north of Boston. Many Bostonians packed-up and platted a town around the new station, calling it New Boston because they lacked originality.
Mid 1880′s: The Bowie county seat moved from Boston to Texarkana which had become the largest town in the county by that time. Even so, Texarkana sat at the far eastern edge of Bowie County which inconvenienced just about everyone else. The county seat moved again about five year later, this time to the exact geographic center of Bowie. It corresponded to a spot about a mile south of New Boston.
1890: Bowie County started building a new courthouse at its nameless, centralized spot. The location lacked a post office and it needed to have one because of a quirk in the law that required a post office at every county seat. The Boston post office would move to the nameless spot — no issue there — although what should they call it? The Postal Service rejected several alternatives because they were already taken, otherwise Center, Hood or Glass would have sufficed. With preferred options unavailable, the county transferred the Boston name along with the Boston post office. Thus Boston became the county seat and the original Boston became Old Boston. Meanwhile, New Boston was still New Boston.
That’s the way things remained geographically and administratively for the next century even though the economics changed. New Boston, with its proximity to a railroad and later an interstate highway, expanded in size and influence.
1986: Bowie County built a modern courthouse in New Boston, on the edge of town near Interstate 30 and a Wal-Mart (map). The courthouse moved although Boston remained the legal county seat.
The Old Courthouse is Gone. Only the Abandoned Jail Remains
1987: An arsonist burned the old courthouse building in Boston, completely gutting it.
The story had an interesting postscript. An article in the Chicago Tribune reported on a suspicious situation in 1988.
The torching of one of Texas’ oldest courthouses has sparked a controversy nearly as hot as the flames that gutted the structure a year ago. At issue is whether to raze or restore the 99-year-old Bowie County Courthouse, one of the 10 oldest in Texas. An equally popular topic of discussion at local coffee shops is the timing of the fire, which was quickly ruled arson; it occurred two weeks after county officials increased insurance coverage on the building, at a time when the county budget was in the red. Another vexing question is whether the location of the new courthouse is legal.
The legal situation focused on whether the courthouse should have been allowed to move to its new location. By that time New Boston had annexed all of Boston except for the single block with the old courthouse. Apparently the move violated a Texas law about locating a courthouse too far away from the center of a county without adequate voter approval, or so it was alleged. Then there were the mysterious circumstances surrounding the arson. I couldn’t find out what happened after that time although eventually New Boston annexed the remaining vestige of Boston even though it continued to serve as the official Bowie County seat. That would make Boston a neighborhood of New Boston, and seemingly legitimize the new courthouse location.
I learned about an interesting tool from Twitter user @OsmQcCapNat as a result of the recent 12MC article on Trap Streets. The tool, Map Compare, displays the same location on several online maps simultaneously. That would have made my side-by-side comparison of OSM, Google Maps and Bing Maps so much easier. I’ll file that one away for future use.
I love statistical clustering. Another moment of weirdness revealed itself on my never-ending family history quest. I’ve oftentimes searched for months without finding anything beyond mundane anecdotes of routine life. The latest one was far better though. It actually tied to geography in a concrete way so bear with me as I provide context, or skip the middle part and catch the last few paragraphs.
Once again the story involved someone who married into my extended family so I don’t have any kind of actual blood relationship with him. My family is boring although they appear to have an unusual ability to attract interesting characters. Sophia Whitney — first cousin of Nancy Whitney who’s husband confronted the body snatchers — married Moses Sherburne (1808-1868).
One of my go-to sources for this family said little more than "resided Saint Paul" Minnesota. That was hardly revelatory so I dug deeper.
Justice Moses Sherburne of the Minnesota Supreme Court
via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license
I discovered my first clue when I saw the gentleman’s portrait in Wikimedia Commons, the repository for all media files used by Wikipedia. That implied a status slight higher than some random dude who happened to live in St. Paul a century and a half ago. I’ll say. Check out Moses Sherburne’s greatly condensed résumé:
- Major General in the Maine Militia
- Elected to Maine House of Representatives
- Appointed by various Governors of Maine to statewide judicial positions
- Friends with Franklin Pierce who became President of the United States in 1853
- Moved to Territory of Minnesota after appointed by Pres. Pierce as Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court
- Prominently involved with Minnesota statehood and the drafting of its state constitution
Too bad he dropped dead when he was only sixty years old.
Ready for the geography?
Elk River, seat of Sherburne County, Minnesota
There is a county in Minnesota that honors Moses Sherburne, named Sherburne County appropriately enough. It’s located just northwest of Minneapolis and has nearly 90,000 residents. Regular 12MC readers understand my fascination with U.S. counties so imagine my reaction when I consulted my county-counting map and discovered that I’ve been to Sherburne County. Sherburne contained all sorts of Sherburne things, so by extension they’re all named for him too. That included the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, a breeding spot for sandhill cranes.
The most fascinating facet had to be that Moses Sherburne lived in Sherburne County during his final few years. Imagine walking around a place and thinking, "Yup, everything here named for me" all day long. That would have been one mighty ego boost. If someone crossed him he could have responded with authority, "well it’s my stinkin’ county so shut up already." Awesome.
I guess I should get to the City of Frogs part.
Sherburne Ave. through Frogtown
It wasn’t just a Minnesota county named for Moses Sherburne. There were other things too, like a road. Sherburne Avenue in St. Paul runs east-west through a portion of the city, with its eastern two-thirds through the heart of Frogtown.
Oddly enough, that wasn’t the first time Frogtown appeared on the pages of Twelve Mile Circle. Reader "David F-H" mentioned this neighborhood after I posted Canadian Ethnic Enclave:
So, my hometown appears to have roughly 15 neighborhoods though some of them officially go by names that I’d never heard of. If you’d ask me to get you to Thomas Dale (no hyphen) I’d have no clue. If you asked for Frogtown, I could send you on your merry way.
The Frogtown Neighborhood Association (which appeared to favor the hyphen between Thomas and Dale) explored the unusual name.
The exact origins of the name Frogtown are difficult to pin down. But this much is certain: the moniker was derived from the prevalence of frogs in what was originally a swampy, sparsely populated section of town. In fact, many of the early homes built in the neighborhood began to sink into the muck. Early German residents of the area called it Froschburg – literally frog city… Frogtown is among the most diverse neighborhoods in St. Paul. According to the 2000 census, nearly 40 percent of Frogtown residents are of Asian descent, with white and black residents each accounting for about a quarter of the area’s population.
Frogtown has long attracted immigrants, first newly-arriving Germans upon its founding, and now Vietnamese and Hmong.
Today’s tale took quite the strange meander, didn’t it? Somehow I connected grave diggers, sandhill cranes, Hmong immigrants, and a U.S. President within the confines of the same article, all connected tenuously through time and geography by the over-achieving Moses Sherburne.
I came across a tiny, minor footnote as I researched Yankee Doodle Dunce, an account of allegedly independent nations that joined the United States. With the case of Vermont specifically, within the confusion of overlapping New York royal decrees and New Hampshire Grants and compounded by turmoil during the American Revolutionary War, stood the King’s College Tract.
First, let’s start in the present-day Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City at Columbia University.
Columbia is an Ivy League institution and one of only nine "colonial colleges" in the United States, a select group tracing their foundation to a date before the American Revolution. Columbia came sixth on that prestigious list and the first one in New York, established by a royal charter from King George II in 1754. Why does any of that matter? Because Columbia was originally named King’s College and the tract now located in Vermont had been set aside for its expansion.
Evolution of the Tract
Within the King’s College Tract
I could not find the exact boundaries of the King’s College Tract, however many sources mentioned that it covered about 20,000 acres in the vicinity of the current towns of Cambridge and Johnson, Vermont. That would place it east of Lake Champlain and north of a stretch of Interstate 89 from Burlington to Montpelier. It was set aside at the instigation of New York’s then-Lieutenant Governor, Cadwallader Colden (who should get a special award simply for his name), who granted this tract to the trustees of King’s College for an educational institution in 1764.
Colden was a powerful politician who strongly supported a college in New York. He fell on the wrong side of a debate leading up to the establishment of King’s College, part of a group that "railed against the corruption of New York City, its tippling houses, and other base entertainments." He wanted a rural college.
Colden hadn’t given up, however. He was keenly aware of the overlap between New York and the New Hampshire Grants. He sold numerous patents under his authority to individual New Yorkers within the disputed area and threw-in land for King’s College to boot. This would bolster New York’s claims while creating an avenue for pushing King’s College out of the city.
Today Columbia has a global presence with centers "in Amman, Beijing, Mumbai, Paris, Istanbul, Nairobi, Santiago, and Rio de Janeiro." It does not, however, maintain a campus in a rural corner of northern Vermont. Obviously something happened.
The Revolution and the Vermont Republic
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons released into the public domain
Cadwallader Colden found himself on the wrong side of the equation, again. New York’s authority and governance dissipated with the establishment of the Vermont Republic in 1777. Colden probably wasn’t too concerned about it though. He died in 1776.
King’s College, meanwhile, hit difficult times. Loyalists controlled the college upon the outbreak of the revolution, and it suspended operations for several years. People in the new nation were still sensitive to things named after English royalty after the war. King’s College had to change its name. It became Columbia College, and later Columbia University. Don’t cry too much for the Loyalists that ran King’s College, though. One member of the college’s board of governors, Charles Inglis, relocated to Nova Scotia and founded a new King’s College in 1789. Today it’s known as the University of King’s College with a campus in Halifax (map).
The Final Word
Johnson State College
Nascent Vermont found a handful friends in the Continental Congress who represented its interests even if it wasn’t officially one of the 13 Original Colonies. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, later a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, was one reliable supporter so the Vermont Republic gave him the former King’s College Grant as a gift in 1785. The Town of Johnson, located within the original grant, bears his name as does Johnson State College.
Here’s another interesting turn of events: Johnson’s father, Samuel Johnson was the first president of King’s College in NYC, and Samuel himself became president of Columbia College in 1787. The King’s College Tract retained an odd connection to what later became Columbia University via the Johnson name long after the physical tie had been severed.