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St. Botolph Street Names and Abolitionism

A question at a neighborhood gathering about the origin of street names in the St. Botolph neighborhood leads to an interesting look at abolitionism and anti-slavery activism and post-Civil-War attitudes in the city of Boston. The eight streets in the neighborhood suggest a British influence, starting with Albemarle, Blackwood, Cumberland, Durham. The pattern shifts with Follen and Garrison, and then picks up the British tone with Harcourt, and then the more American name Irvington. Two studies of neighborhood history mention that Garrison Street is named for the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. But who chose this name? Was there a public announcement of the name? Is there anything significant about the other street names?

The St. Botolph neighborhood was developed in the 1880s, fifteen years after the close of the Civil War and just before the beginning of the Progressive Era. St. Botolph was the last section of the Back Bay tidal flats to be filled in and developed. Since the early 1800s, the tidal marshlands of the Back Bay had been under the management of the Boston and Roxbury Water Power Company, a company organized to create a water-power dam that would capture tidal flows to power mills.

The water power project did not work as well as hoped, and the dam transformed the tidal flats into an unhealthy polluted marsh. The dam project was abandoned in favor of filling the Back Bay for development. Most of the Back Bay was filled in the mid-1800s. The St. Botolph Street neighborhood was filled and developed later, managed by a trust, called the Huntington Avenue Lands. Three trustees oversaw the development. The first three trustees were Alexander Rice, Franklin Haven and James B. Thayer. Thayer resigned in 1879 and Peleg W. Chandler became the third trustee, just as the street laying and land sales were beginning.

The street names are a topic of curiousity and interest because, unlike most parts of Boston, the streets in the small St. Botolph neighborhood were laid out in a grid, in alphabetical order.

In 1880, the first four streets were laid out:

The next street, West Newton Street, was already in place before 1880.

The next three streets were laid out in 1882 and the last in 1884:


A 1910 Boston street directory notes that Garrison Street was named for William Lloyd Garrison. Two local histories about the neighborhood [1981 Historical Landmarks study; and 1995 Durham St. study] mention that Garrison Street was named for Garrison. Both of these local histories note that there is no information about how the other streets were named.

However, the Follen Street name suggests another Garrison connection: Charles Follen was an abolitionist, and Garrison named one of his sons Charles Follen Garrison. (This son died in childhood.)

William Llyod Garrison died in 1879, so the idea of naming one or more of the new streets in honor of his work was timely. But it is interesting that so far there appears to be no known documentation, other than the much-later 1910 street directory, about the naming of the streets.

Even in the 1880s, naming a street for Garrison may have been a controversial decision. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Garrisonian abolitionists had been seen by many conservative Bostonias as too radical and too idealistic. In the years afterwards, controversies about reconstruction in the South and civil rights for freedmen continued to result in controversy.

Reflecting these continuing tensions, the three trustees who oversaw the development of the neighborhood came from three very different political perspectives, and might not have agreed on the choice to name a street for Garrison. Of the three trustees, Peleg W. Chandler is most likely to have wanted to honor Garrison:

Alexander Rice, a former governor of Massachusetts, was from the conservative wing of the Republican party, opposed to the radical republicanism of the abolitionists.

Franklin Haven was a bank president. He was described in an article in the New York Tribune as a cross beetween a "Hunker Democrat" and a "Webster Whig" and a tendency just short of "Ruffianism."

Peleg W. Chandler was a lawyer, politician, historian and writer, with books, speeches and public statements that show that he was strongly anti-slavery. He was a lifelong friend of Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew, an abolitionist who pushed for emancipation during the Civil War, and also a friend of Charles Sumner. While there is nothing in his writings, newspaper articles or the brief biographies about him that explicitly identifies him as an abolitionist, his writings and many newspaper articles from the time give evidence of his support for the anti-slavery cause and his interest in thoughtfully examining legal, moral and philosophical principles. Of the three trustees, he is the one most likely to have decided to name a street for Garrison.

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