A Story of Many Plymouths, Pt. 1: 400 years since the arrival of the Mayflower

A Story of Many Plymouths, Pt. 1: 400 years since the arrival of the Mayflower

Have you ever wondered how the City of Plymouth received its name? One of the best sources for learning about the many place names throughout our state is Warren Upham’s Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encylopedia, originally published in 1920.

Upham’s text notes Plymouth, MN is only one of many Plymouths within the United States. This fact was explored in a 2014 Boston Globe article, which notes 30 locales around the country share the name. (Fun fact: our Plymouth is noted to be the largest in size with over 74,000 residents, with neighboring Plymouth, ND noted to be the smallest with a population of only 46.)

Map of Plymouth within Devon, England with subset of Devon within the UK. Image source.

As those familiar with American history will know, the name “Plymouth” is a legacy of the first British settlers arriving to the eastern United States. Our UK namesake is located at the mouth of the River Plym (thus Plymouth), a waterway running through Devon in southwest England. “Plym” is believed to come from an Old English word meaning “plum trees,” though this is disputed and could also mean “plump” or be a reference to a priory.

Plym linguistic debates aside, upon arrival to North America, those who had sailed adopted the name for the place of their landing as a nod to their point of origin. Plymouth, Massachusetts (the colony, later turned state, deriving its name from the Algonquin “at the large or great hill”) became known for these early colonial settlements and interactions with the Patuxet of the Wampanoag tribe, interactions from which our “Thanksgiving” holiday tradition is historically rooted. Thus, the first American Plymouth naming demonstrates this blending of European heritage with specificity of place and local, indigenous identification.

The Box, Plymouth, UK. Image source.

Our Plymouth’s British namesake recently opened a museum, gallery, and archive named The Box that marries a range of historical information and artifacts, including archaeology, natural history, fine and decorative arts, world cultures, photography, moving image, social and maritime history, local archives and local studies. Among its many displays include artifacts and interpretation about the impact of the city’s legacy as brought to North America via the Mayflower. It commemorates those who made the voyage to America while, as a recent Guardian article reports, “not shy[ing] away from the death and destruction caused by some of the voyagers, or the central part UK maritime cities such as Plymouth played in the slave trade.” The museum models a balance of interpretation that is valuable in describing our collective histories. We will continue to discuss and explore this balance as we learn about and describe the history and legacy of the name “Plymouth.”

Additional information and resources related to the 400-year commemoration can be found at the Mayflower 400 page.

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