Corner of William and Water Streets in 1805 by William Allen Wall

New Bedford Streets; A Piece of Americana: William Street


A neglected piece of nostalgia and Americana is the origin of street names. We give directions, our home address, or mention events that happened on particular streets with no afterthought. However, many street names have deep history and/or interesting stories behind them. How did they come about? Are they randomly assigned names? What exactly is a “Coggeshall”? Purchase Street is called so because that’s where people bought merchandise, right? William Street is named after some famous historical personage named William or is it a last name? Union Street? Is it named after an actual Workers Union or did it come about because of the Civil War?

Each week I hope to shine some light on the origins and history of street names. Some will be dull, others exciting, but all will be a light hearted journey through the history of the region. If you read these installments, learn a bit about local history and historical figures and maybe walk down these streets with a slightly different outlook, our mission will have been accomplished. Many of the streets are named after families that are still extant in the area, and hopefully you come away with a greater appreciation for the last names of friends or even your own family.

Since the history of the area is so vast, I would encourage our readers to share any tidbits of information they may have, even if only anecdotal. Let’s discover and explore together. We could build a local resource that contributes to the community.

William Street
This week we’ll take a journey down William street. Our inaugural street turned out to be an incredibly daunting task. Most street names that are named after a person borrow the surname. In this case, a person’s first name was used. There is an obvious difficulty associated with researching a street named after a person’s first name.

The history of William street goes back before the history of New Bedford as a city or even a town. It also begins, as is often the case with the origins of New Bedford with the Russell, Kempton and Allen families. We’ll get to them in a moment. Let’s set up our series.

Gosnold at Smoking Rocks
1602-Gosnold at Smoking Rocks

New Bedford’s Earliest European Arrival
The first instance of a European setting foot on soil that would eventually be called New Bedford, was an Englishman named Bartholemew Gosnold in May of 1602. Gosnold is known for giving Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard their names. Cape Cod for its abundance of the fish, and Martha’s Vineyard named after his beloved daughter. The spot where Gosnold first landed in the local area is what is called Round Hill in Dartmouth. Eventually he made it to that harbor where New Bedford is today, before heading back to England in June of 1602. However, he had paved the way for the many Europeans to follow that came to the region.

In the early 1600s waves of Pilgrims and Puritans began to arrive and settle in the region. By 1628 John Endecott settled at Salem and began the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1630 John Winthrop brought over 900 people to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and by 1640 more than 20,000 colonists came to New England. Settlers headed into the interior of the continent, and made their way to area that would be New Bedford.

Dartmouth Township; First Families
On March 7th, 1652, the region called by the local Wampanoag tribe “Acushnea, Ponagansett, and Coaksett” was sold to elders of what was called Plymouth Colony. Familiar names like William Bradford, Captain Myles Standish, Thomas Southworth, John Winslow, John Cooke, crop up as part of this group. Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and Wamsutta sold this land to the elders for “thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes, fifteen pairs of shoes, one iron pot, and ten shillings’ worth of assorted goods.” The land was dubbed Dartmouth and comprised of what would eventually become Westport, Fairhaven, Acushnet, and New Bedford. Settlers arrived in droves and the area of Dartmouth would be incorporated in 1664. Families like the Russells, Kemptons, Hathaway, Howlands, Aldens, and others would begin to make their presence known.

Between 1700-1750 the Russells, Kemptons, and Allens, who owned large parcels of land and cattle would start many businesses and begin to develop the area of Bedford Village. The first areas settled and developed were on the western side of the Acushnet river within what is now downtown, and particularly along what is now called County Street. Joseph Russell gave New Bedford its name after the Duke of Bedford-a relative that was involved in Whaling. As there was already (and still is) a Bedford,

Circa 1870-Looking down William Street from Purchase Street

Massachusetts the town was dubbed New Bedford.

The first mention of William Street that I could find went back to 1714 with a description of how the Kempton family and the Russell family would have their estates and properties deeded and bounded. A boundary line that was between Elm and William street split the Kemptons to the North and the Russells to the south. Joseph Russell was born in 1719 and lived at the head of William Street. So by the early 18th century the street has been named already. So which Williams were known in the almost hundred year span from Gosnold to 1714?

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About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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  1. What an amazing article!

    I am so impressed by this prolific author’s vividness and his ability to make you care about the topic written.

    Very uniqe evocative style. I look forward to more articles by Joe Silvia. Well done!

  2. Joe, great read! Can I link my website to you? I have a New Bedford section on my site.

  3. Joe, nice read. Can I link to you from my site? I have New Bedford info too.

  4. Joe, you most certainly can! You may share your link as well.

  5. Mr. Silva (May I call you “Joe”?):

    Great writing/great research!

    Your articles have touched me in a way. I’ve been meaning to research the origin of some street names in NYC. I’m no writer, but at least I can do some research. Your detective skills are impeccable!

    Thank you for inspiration!


  6. What about William Rotch Jr., born in Nantucket in 1759, died in New Bedford in 1850?

    • Hi Matt – I have since come across an Old Dartmouth Historical Sketch that mentions that it was indeed named after William Rotch. Perhaps this is what you came across? I haven’t reconciled it yet – still figuring out whether the street was called William Street before him or not.

  7. Thank you for the comment and interest Mr. Bullard. William Rotch is an influential and important historical figure and one certainly with enough stature, to be the “William” that William Street is named after. However there are historical documents that mention William Street by 1714. William Rotch, hadn’t been born yet. Of course, he was part of the family that Rotch Street, a mile away was named after.

    Perhaps a future installment. 😉

  8. Joe:

    Great article. Fascinating! Aminor point is that Haskell’s “Bar” was actually Haskell’s Cafe. I was a musician there in the late 60’s at only 16 yrs. old. Had to tell everyone I was 17 in order to accompany my band. Pretty rowdy place at the time!

  9. Thanks Victor! A big thanks for the anecdote as well! Every once in a while I hear a story about Haskell’s and how rowdy it was.



  11. E-mail sent, Mrs. Tatro!

  12. Great information Joe! I always thought it would make a great topic to trace the origins, history and development of streets. I do a little local history now and then on my blog: and greater New Bedford baseball history at

  13. Wow. What a gold mine, Kyle. Fantastic writing! Perhaps we can collaborate on a few streets. You are also more than welcome to write an installment yourself. I will also be doing buildings, monuments, parks, and people in a similar vein.

  14. hi there, enjoyed your historical info. would you have any info on the streets between brook and ashley blvd. i grew up on shaw st and have always been curious about the development that took place in that area. i assume it was built as housing for mill workers from the mills along church st. thanks!

  15. Joy, I’m sorry. I never saw this.

    Off the top of my head, and I may be wrong, but are you thinking of Bowditch?

  16. I am an International student studying in Umass Dartmouth and I have always wondered why there are names like “Coggeshall” to the streets. I am very glad that you have stared this series. Hoping to read more articles from it very soon. Thank you.

  17. Thanks Gaurev! There is much history in this area to uncover and it seems people are hungry for it. We appreciate your vote of confidence!

  18. I love the way you write. You have a way of engaging your readers. I live in New Bedford and always tell my partner, ” I would love to go back and see what New Bedford was like”. Your articles are the second best thing to actually going back. Please keep writing, I’ll definitely keep reading!

  19. Thanks a ton, Brian. Very thoughtful and I appreciate your kind words! I have hundreds of articles in store and plan on returning to the history articles very soon!

  20. I’m absolutely captivated by all things history of New Bedford. I own and live in a house on County St. and am told was built by a whaling captain named either James or John Barrett. (not sure which) I am fascinated on your research of street names and look forward to the next one.

  21. Hi Joe, a friend of mine said his grandmothers ancestors were one of the first settlers in what is now called New Bedford. He claims that there is a rock near the waterfront in New Bedford with the names of the settlers. He believes the last name was Rickerson. He said his grandmother would take him there when he was very young. He is now 71yrs. old.

    He suggested we go to New Bedford some day and try to locate this rock. I was thinking maybe near Fort Tabor? I, being a history buff, got interested in this once he told me. I reside in Johnston, RI and he lives between Newark VT & Johnston. I have done a few Civil War re-enactments at Fort Tabor and have a friend a the War Museum there by the name of Bob Bromely, who is the curator there. I am also an associate member of the museum. I have asked him and he said he has never heard of such a place.

    So if you can shed any light on this subject I would really appreciate it.

    • Hi Arthur,

      When he refers to settlers, do you know if he means the Leideners i.e. the nation’s first settler in a specific way or does he mean the Olde Dartmouth Proprietors, meaning the region’s first settlers?

      I believe he may be referring to the Ricketsons, not the Rickersons. While a Mary Ricketson came aboard the Mayflower, her surname would have been lost after marriage to a Daniel Wilcox. However, decades later the Ricketsons -a Quaker family – pop up in historical record.

      The most notable of whom is Daniel Ricketson (1813-1896), philanthropist lawyer, historian, poet who wrote, in my opinion, the best source on the history of Olde Dartmouth. He had a shanty on the edge of Brooklawn Park, there might be a stone there.

      The only other Ricketson that comes to mind that might have his name on a marker somewhere is Joseph Ricketson whose house is still standing on the north side of Union Street between Pleasant and Sixth Streets. He was an abolitionist who hid slaves and his house is part of the Underground Railroad.

      Hope that helps. If I drive by these spots in the coming days, I’ll pull over and check.

  22. Barbara Healey

    Hi Joe. Great piece. I grew up in New Bedford and was in the Class of 1972, the last class to graduate from the old New Bedford High on County St.

    Question for you, do you have any info on a family named Healey located from the south end of New Bedford?
    Supposedly they were linked to whaling and owned large tracts of land in the south end. The family mausoleum is in the Rural Cemetery.

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