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Ever wondered how America’s 50 states got their names? The etymology of a name offers an insight into the history and origins of a region that dates back hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years. These chosen titles represent the geography, people, cultures, and traditions of the United States — many of which existed long before the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You’ll find recognition of Native American tribespeople who originally walked these lands, nods to natural landmarks, and homages to explorers, European royalty, and the homelands of colonists. But of the 50 states, four share one thing in common: the word “new” in their name — here’s why.
To discover the origin of New Hampshire’s name, we need to travel back to the 1620s and the life of British colonizer John Mason. Having already sailed to and mapped Newfoundland, Mason enquired about the potential colonization of Nova Scotia upon his return to England. Instead, in 1622, he and Sir Ferdinando Gorges were given a land grant by the Plymouth Council for New England, covering the territory located between the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers. They split the territory at the Piscataqua River, with Mason taking the southern section and creating the Province of New Hampshire in 1629.
Mason chose the name Hampshire to commemorate the coastal county in the south of England of the same name, where he had lived as a child. He went on to invest in the development of the lands and sent settlers across from Britain. In a twist of fate, despite chartering and naming the region, Mason passed away in 1635 having never set foot here. The Province of New Hampshire became the state of New Hampshire in 1788 and in doing so kept its original name.
In the early 1600s the Dutch West India Company began to claim land on the United States' East Coast in order to exploit the fur trade. They founded the colony of New Netherland, which included areas of present-day New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. To control their trade, the Dutch established a settlement called New Amsterdam at the southern point of Manhattan Island.
The Dutch continued to control the region until 1664, when Richard Nicolls sailed into New York Harbor, besieged Fort Amsterdam, and took control of New Amsterdam. Subsequently, the territories of New Netherland fell into the hands of the English crown, and King Charles II appointed his brother James Stuart as proprietor of the territory. James held the noble title of Duke of York and thus changed New Netherlands to the Province of New York and the city of New Amsterdam to New York. Despite the Dutch briefly retaking the province in 1673, it served as one of the Thirteen Colonies from 1664 to 1776. It was declared the state of New York in an independent United States in 1776.
The creation of New Jersey is closely tied to the colonial history of its neighbor New York; it was originally also part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. A Swedish colony, aptly named New Sweden, also established settlements in the region, but these were seized by the Dutch in 1655. Nine years later, the English conquered New York Harbor.
When word of the annexing reached the crown in England, King Charles II divided the newly claimed North American lands; the area between the Delaware and Hudson rivers was granted to Sir George Carteret and Sir John Berkeley. They named it the Province of New Jersey in memory of Carteret’s birthplace, the British Channel Island of Jersey. The reason for Carteret and Berkeley receiving the land? Both had been loyal supporters of the English Crown. Carteret, who was the lieutenant governor of the island of Jersey, in particular aided Charles II’s exile there during the English Civil War.
This southwestern state’s name is an Anglicized version of Nuevo México. The word Mexico derives from Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztec Empire and inhabitants of the city-state Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The founders of the empire were also known as Mexicas. Fascinated by the wealth and culture of the Mexicas, Spanish explorers traveled north in the hope of discovering similarly prosperous civilizations. Francisco de Ibarra arrived there in 1563 and first documented Nuevo México after meeting tribespeople that reminded him of the Aztecs. It became an official name in 1598 with the creation of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, a kingdom of New Spain. The area passed between the hands of the Spanish, Mexicans, and Texans before being declared an official U.S. state in 1912.
Contrary to popular belief, the state didn’t get its name from America’s southern neighbor. In fact, all of this occurred over 250 years prior to modern-day Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821. The Spanish-ruled territories that make up today’s Mexico were known as Nuevo España (New Spain). Consequently, and unlike the other “New” states, a place named New Mexico has existed for longer than one named simply Mexico.