On the Naming of Dennis Port

The author of the below paper has given me permission to share his research  on the Dennis Port Revitalization website. I did not include the 33 reference materials that he used to back up his research. A great deal of research went into this paper.

Even though the Dennis Historical Commission, the Federal Government, the Town of Dennis, the majority of the internet searches and the Dennis Port Revitalization Committee recognize the correct spelling as Dennis Port, the controversy over the spelling will continue into the future.

The author also requested that this paper does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the DPRC and that the paper is not an “official history.”

We hope everyone enjoys this article and appreciates the time and effort that Mr. Berry put into this paper.




For more than a century a controversy has existed over the spelling of the village of Dennis Port, some insisting that the correct spelling is “Dennisport.” This report will attempt to provide an explanation of how the controversy came about and suggest a resolution.

The village of Dennis Port is located in the southeast corner of the Town of Dennis and was formerly known as Crocker’s Neck. Its first postmaster, Thomas Howes, renamed it “Dennis Port” in 1862. Howes used a two-word spelling that was followed by the History of Cape Cod published in 1862, the List of Post Offices published in 1870, Geo. H. Walker’s Map of Massachusetts published in 1879, and the History of Barnstable County published in 1890.

In 1880 George H. Walker & Co. published the Atlas of Barnstable County which spelled Dennis Port as “Dennisport.” It is not clear why the company made the change since it had recently used “Dennis Port” in the 1879 map referred to in the previous paragraph. Perhaps the change was merely a cartographer’s whim. The popularity of this atlas may have encouraged the use of a one-word spelling. However, a more likely explanation was soon to come out of Washington.

In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison created the Board on Geographic Names. Its mission was to decide “all unsettled questions concerning geographic names which arise in the [Executive] Departments.” Only when the Board made a specific order regarding a specific name were its decisions controlling, but a decision was “to be accepted by these Departments as the standard authority in such matters.”

The following year the Board issued a report which set forth thirteen “guiding principles.” The first principle “was by far the most important”:“that “spelling and pronunciation which is sanctioned by local usage should in general be adopted.” However, the principles also provided: “In the case of names consisting of more than one word, it is desirable to combine them into one word.” The Board emphasized that these were not rules, but only “guiding principles from which the Board reserves liberty to depart whenever, in its judgment, it deems it advisable to do so.”
The Postmaster-General at the time was John Wanamaker, a farsighted Philadelphia merchant who had created the first modern department store. Wanamaker emphasized efficiency and innovation in his business dealings and brought those principles to Washington. He introduced street-car post offices and pneumatic tubes in cities to better move the mail, and issued the first commemorative stamps to increase post office revenue.

One of Wanamaker’s concerns was the standardization of post office names. In 1891, he ordered “that the forms of spelling the names of Post Offices, decided upon the said U.S. Board on Geographic Names shall be observed in all branches of this Department.” The following year he ordered that the name of a new post office should be the same as the town or village where it was located, and “that, whenever it be possible, single and not compound words be selected for names of post-offices.”

A further order regarding post office names were made by, Wilson S. Bissell, Postmaster General under President Cleveland, in 1894. Bissell ordered that with respect to a new post office, “only short names or names of one word will be accepted.” This order was published in the May 1894 issue of the United States Official Postal Guide along with additional instructions from the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General, who, at some point had been made responsible for establishing post offices. His instructions stated that certain prefixes and additions, including “Port,” were “objectionable” as they were “liable to lead to confusion and delay in the transmission of the mail.”

When applied to Dennis Port, these orders and instructions were perhaps ambiguous and confusing. The Board on Geographic Names had never specifically directed that “Dennis Port” be changed to “Dennisport.” Moreover, the Dennis Port post office was not “new” and it bore the two-word name the community had commonly used for decades. Arguably it was not “possible” to combine its name into one word.

This ambiguity is reflected in the lists of post offices found in The United States Official Postal Guides between 1894 and 1905. While the Guide for 1894 lists “Dennis Port,” the Guides between 1895 and 1904 list “Dennisport.” However, the Guide for 1905 reverts to “Dennis Port.” Therefore, between 1895 and 1904 the post office in Dennis Port was officially known by the Post Office Department as “Dennisport” but after 1905 as “Dennis Port.”

“Dennis Port” and “Dennisport” were both used in documents appearing after 1890. The atlas of Barnstable County published in 1909 refers to “Dennisport,” as does a map in the 1916 issue of “Cape Cod Magazine” and a 1956 article in the Cape Cod Standard Times. Authors of popular mid-twentieth century books including Cape Cod Pilot, Cape Cod Ahoy!, Cape Cod’s Way, and And This is Cape Cod opted for “Dennisport.” The Secretary of the Commonwealth currently lists four businesses using “Dennis Port” and sixteen using “Dennisport.”

Some early 20th Century postcards show scenes in “Dennisport,” although one of these cards is postmarked “Dennis Port.” A postcard shows the “Dennisport Post Office” even though the picture of the post office includes a hanging sign reading “U.S. Post Office Dennis Port.” What appears to be a more recent post card shows the post office with a roof sign that uses the one-word spelling.
In 1934 the United States Geographic Board, the successor to the Board on Geographic Names, was abolished and its duties transferred to the Department of the Interior. In 1947 Congress created the Board on Geographic Names (USBG), whose purpose was “to decide the standard [geographic] names and their orthography for official use . . . for all material published by the Federal Government.” The USBG lists “Dennis Port” on its web site and does not list “Dennisport.” Therefore, it appears that the USBG has determined that approved name of Dennis Port is “Dennis Port.” Section 123.411 of the Postal Operation Manual provides that “[a] Post Office located in an unincorporated place should generally bear the approved name of the principal community served.” Therefore, for federal purposes “Dennis Port” is correct.
According to a blog by the Dennis Port Revitalization Committee and an article in the Cape Cod Times, the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Dennis unanimously voted on February 18, 2014 to retire “Dennisport” and recognize “Dennis Port” as the correct spelling. If that were the case, there would be no doubt that for Dennis governmental purposes, Dennis Port would be correct. However, although the video of the meeting shows the Board voting to “officially name Dennis Port two words,” the minutes of the Board of Selectmen which are the official record of the meeting do not refer to any such vote.

Therefore, apart from the mandated use of “Dennis Port” within the federal agencies, there appears to be no official spelling of the village name. There is no need, apart from consistency with federal practice, for a business in Dennis Port that uses “Dennisport” to change to “Dennis Port.” I suspect that villagers will receive their mail regardless of whether their address uses one word or two. Both usages have many precedents, and no particular usage for general purposes is mandated by law or custom.

Dana A. Berry
March 26, 2018