How Jamaica Plain got its name

January 22, 2010
By

Walter H. Marx

JP History

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Jan. 17, 1992 Jamaica Plain Gazette.

Jamaica Plain was established in the 1630s within the Town of Roxbury. The question that gets asked most frequently about Jamaica Plain’s history is the origin of its name. The earliest remaining record of the name is found in Hugh Thomas’ deed of 1677 to provide land for a school here where the Monument stands, which terms it “Jamaica End.” Rev. John Eliot’s 1689 deed to provide revenue for the school, the Eliot School now located on Eliot Street, calls the area “Jamaica or the Pond Plaine.” The 1683 Roxbury Town Records present a compromise in the name used today. “End” certainly is a geographical term, but the level area about the Pond and village was better teamed with “Jamaica,” a term first associated with the Pond.

The island

Prior antiquarians liked to derive “Jamaica” from the substantial West Indian Island near the middle of the Caribbean Sea amongst the Greater Antilles. Discovered for Spain by Columbus in 1454 on the north coast and only slightly colonized by the Spanish, Jamaica was a prize for England’s Admiral Penn (father of the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania) in May 1655. After a failed attempt on Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Penn had wanted something to bring back to the cantankerous Puritan English ruler Oliver Cromwell.
Massachusetts’s settlers sympathized greatly with Cromwell and were aware of the death by fever of Edward Winslow, three-time governor of Plymouth, during the capture of Jamaica. After one attempt at re-conquest by the Spanish in 1657, the English were established, and by 1664 a governor and council were in place along with the culture of cocoa and sugar cane. Trade could begin in the dastardly triangle of sugar, rum and slaves. Herein lie the explanations of JP as Jamaica (rum served) Plain or the fact that the early locals made their money on rum—very doubtful as farming was the economic staple here.

The runaway husband

Charles Ellis’ premier history of our area in 1847 dashes water on the West Indian island theory while telling three legends. First, gentlemen from the island are supposed to have summered here, but the first man known with such connections came just before the Revolution. Second, a Londoner on the run from his wife told her he was going to Jamaica. She followed him, found nothing, and chanced to come to Boston. She heard of a man residing at the Pond Plain who kept speaking of a trip to Jamaica. The two met, and thereafter the region was called Jamaica Plain.

The rum

When it comes to legend number three, this time concerning Indians, Ellis terms it “the most probable account” and approaches the key issue. The story goes that local Indians came into Roxbury and purchased Jamaica rum, saying “Indian love Jamaica.” The Roxbury settlers began to apply the term to the Indians’ place, and Pond Plain became Jamaica Plain. Yet Ellis doubts that numbers of Indians lived here and that liquor was sold to them.

Two Indian names

The most likely source of the neighborhood’s name is a local, 17th century Native American. From the earlier English writers here, it is known that the sachem, or head of the local Indians (the Massachusetts who lived in and around the City of Boston), was Chickatabut (House of Fire), who lived along the Neponset River. His uncle Kuchamakin (pronounced ku-cha-may-kin) had brought him up. While Kuchamakin was acting as regent for the young Chickatabut, John Eliot began his missionary work among the American natives. While the regent agreed to do homage to an English king across the sea, he told Eliot that he already had a King in heaven. Eliot then turned his efforts to another native group living on the Newton/Brighton line, and his Christianization program took root.

Though Kuchamakin (Big Feather) lost one chance at immortality, he succeeded in another fashion. For he had a connection with our magnificent and unique local treasure, the Pond, via a primeval Morton Street. This was a summering place and later became a place of retreat to allow Chickatabut to reign on his own when he came of age.

Another account would have our area named for an Indian woman named Jamaco who lived at the Pond where she made fine baskets. Once again, the native element comes forward. The whole tale may well be that she was the wife of Kuchamakin, who long outlived him. No matter what, we seem to have an easy corruption of the name of a local tied to a geographical description of the area he cherished after earlier names were tried and made into the form we know. It is a fitting combination of two primeval elements to name our vibrant modern area.

Sources: C. M. Ellis, The History of Roxbury Town, 1847. F. S. Drake, The Town of Roxbury, 1878. JP in Boston 200 Neighborhood History series, 1975. The Gleaner Geography & History of Jamaica.

Editor’s Note: The Jamaica Plain Historical Society, which features the original Gazette article among hundreds on its web site, JPHS.org, has received and published the following response to this article from Ed Quill of Pembroke MA:

I know you would want to make a correction in your article if there was an error in history. The Grand Sachem Chikataubut (House-a-Fire) died in 1633 of smallpox in the great pestilence. His brother Cutshamekin (The English had several spellings for Native American names.) became the guardian to Chikataubut’s son who was under age for a sachem. The son’s name was Wampatuck (White Goose). The confusion rises because Wampatuck (also Wompatuck) also later used the Christian name Josias and also his father’s name Chikataubut. In signing many land grants as Wampatuck, Wompatuck, Josias Wampatuck and Josias Wampatuck Chikataubut, he confused many historians. But your article seems to suggest that Cutshamekin was the uncle of the great sachem himself, who was the chief ruler of the Massachuset when the Puritans arrived in 1630 and had villages at Moswetuset Hummock (Squantum), Titicut (Middleboro), Mattakeeset (Pembroke/Hanson), Neponset (Dorchester) and the Blue Hills. Much of these lands were sold off by either Cutshamekin or Wampatuck after the great man had died.

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