The name of Norfolk County comes from that of Norfolk, England, and was among many place names brought to this country by the English immigrants who constituted a majority of early European settlers of Massachusetts.
Norfolk County, England, is located northeast of London and north of Suffolk County, on the shore of the North Sea. The names of Norfolk and Suffolk in England were derived from their inhabitants, who were known as the "North Folk," and "South Folk."
In the European settlement of New England, especially in Massachusetts, townships or towns were established before counties, and were the principal form of local government during the early years following the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (1620) and the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Company at Boston (1630).
By 1643, the Massachusetts Bay Colony's administration had expanded northward to include settlements in what are now New Hampshire and Maine. The Massachusetts General Court, in 1643, established four counties, then called shires, for settling legal cases, and denominated those counties Essex, Middlesex, Suffolk, and Norfolk. In the course of time other counties were formed throughout the territory.
The Norfolk County of 1643 (Old Norfolk County) was an entirely different geographic area from the present Norfolk County. Located north of the Merrimac River, Old Norfolk included Haverhill, Salisbury, and Amesbury, and what are now the New Hampshire communities of Dover, Exeter, Hampton, and Portsmouth (then called Strawberry Bank).
Under the 1643 division, Suffolk County, with its shire town (county seat) at Boston, included all of the territory comprising the present Norfolk County.
In 1679, New Hampshire was made a separate royal province, removing the northerly towns of Norfolk County. The following year the General Court of Massachusetts ordered that Salisbury, Haverhill, and Amesbury be incorporated into Essex County. By this order "Old Norfolk County" passed out of existence.
As early as 1726, communities south of Boston began to seek a division of Suffolk County. Many such petitions were unsuccessfully presented to the General Court during the following decades. In 1793, years of negotiations considering various proposals for grouping towns led to creation of a new Norfolk County by cutting it out of Suffolk and leaving only Boston and Chelsea in Suffolk County.
The new county line to the south followed the old boundary between Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies and included Hingham and Cohasset as it continued toward the sea. At the north, it encompassed Roxbury, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain and Roslindale, all sections of Boston today, and Brookline to the northwest. The legislation was signed into law by Governor John Hancock.
The new Norfolk County was to take effect in July of 1793. Just prior to that date, Hingham and Hull secured legislation which excluded them from Norfolk, citing the difficulty in traveling overland to the new county seat in Dedham. Hingham and Hull later reconsidered that decision, but in leaving Suffolk County in 1803, joined Plymouth County instead.
As established in 1793, Norfolk County consisted of twenty-one towns: Bellingham, Braintree, Brookline, Cohasset, Dedham, Dorchester, District of Dover, Foxborough, Franklin, Medfield, Medway, Milton, Needham, Quincy, Randolph, Roxbury, Sharon, Stoughton, Walpole, Weymouth, and Wrentham, with an area of 445 square miles and a population of 23,828.
As Massachusetts has developed, boundaries of and within Norfolk County have changed. Additional towns have been incorporated within Norfolk County: Canton (1797), Hyde Park (1868), Norfolk (1870), Norwood (1872), Holbrook (1872), Wellesley (1881), Millis (l885), Avon (1888), Westwood (1897), and Plainville (1905), and four communities have been annexed to the city of Boston and thereby returned to Suffolk County: Roxbury (1867), Dorchester (1869), West Roxbury (1873), and Hyde Park (1911).
Norfolk County at present is made up of one city (Quincy) and twenty-seven towns, four of which- Weymouth, Franklin, Randolph, and Braintree- have city forms of government. As a result of its history, Norfolk County has two communities (Brookline and Cohasset) which are not contiguous with the rest of the county, and Norfolk County as a whole is located south of Suffolk County, notwithstanding the origin of the counties' respective names.
Norfolk County is known as the "County of Presidents," being the birthplace of four Presidents of the United States: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John F. Kennedy, and George Herbert Walker Bush.
Many Norfolk County communities are residential suburbs of Boston. Economic activity within the county includes a wide range of business including technology, research and development, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. The county's greatest extent, from Cohasset Harbor to the southwest corner of Bellingham- is about thirty-six miles, and from the most northern point of the town of Wellesley to the Bristol County line, the distance is about seventeen miles. Bounded on the northeast by Massachusetts Bay, geographic features include the Blue Hills and the Charles and Neponset rivers. The area is served by several interstate highway routes, including Routes 95, 93 and 495. The county has an area of 408 square miles and a population, in the year 2010 census, of 670,850.