Why Are So Many Maine Towns Named After Foreign Countries and Cities?

Sep 24, 2015

Dave in Portland asks: "Why are so many towns in Maine named after foreign countries and cities? There's Norway, Paris, Denmark, Rome, Sweden, Belfast, China — the list goes on! How come?"

We looked into this, and after consulting with many town historians and the incredibly helpful and interesting book "Maine Place Names and the Peopling of its Towns" by Ava Harriet Chadbourne (available in its entirety here), we have some answers for you. Or at least some theories.

One thing to keep in mind is that Maine just has a lot of towns — in fact, it has 491 cities, towns and plantations, according to the Maine Municipal Association, and that's not even including the Unorganized Territory. And with a population of only 1.33 million people, that's a lot of towns per capita.

But out of those nearly 500 towns and cities, why are so many named after places such as "China" and "Norway"? There are a few different stories going on.

Place of settlers' origin

This is the most obvious answer, and it applies to many of the towns in Maine that are named after places in England. Settlers in the Province of Maine envisioned New England, Chadbourne says, as a very English place, and many upper-class town founders wanted to make it known that not only did they love England, they loved the king.

So, many of Maine's earliest towns (such as Maine's first three towns, Kittery — named after a manor in Devon in southern England — York and Wells) are named for places in England. Many later settlers did the same thing, although for slightly less highfalutin reasons: as with lots of towns in Maine, Topsham is the English town where many of the settlers were born.

Yet other towns in Maine — such as Leeds in Androscoggin County — are named after English cities and towns in honor of people the settlers knew. Leeds, for example, is named after the father of two of the town's settlers, who was — wait for it — originally from Leeds.

As for settlers who weren't from England, the French don't seem to have been very into this practice. And of the Irish-named towns, Belfast, Limerick and Newry are all named for the birthplaces of early settlers.

Other towns so named include Frankfort, Dresden, (possibly) Lubec, Stockholm, and New Sweden — although, interestingly, not Sweden.

For the most part, these towns weren't necessarily enclaves of immigrants from one country — in many cases, they were named for the hometowns of just a few settlers.

What about all the other towns?

Let's go back in time for a moment and imagine that we're the people in charge when many of Maine's towns were being incorporated. Yes, I know those woolen underwear are itchy, but let's try to stick to the topic at hand.

As often as people may have just wanted to name towns after themselves, at least in Maine they generally refrained from that. But there were certain trends that people did tend to follow so they didn't have to reinvent the wheel every time.

Most towns started out with fairly unsurprising names, based, for example, on the names of early residents, (such as "Thompsonborough," later Lisbon, named after a prominent family in the town), or geographical features (Palermo, first called Sheepscot Great Pond Plantation.) Names were often changed upon incorporation, some in an apparent bid to make them more notable. Here's a look at what was hip and now in the world of place names when Maine towns were being settled and incorporated:

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Towns named for revolutions, wars or political events

Maine was being settled in the 18th and 19th century, a particularly vigorous time for revolutions in many of the European colonies. Obviously, many of the newly American settlers of Maine had a particular regard for this revolutionary fervor. So Mexico in Oxford County, incorporated in 1818, was named in sympathy with that country's ongoing war of independence, which it won in 1821. Similarly, the people of Peru — south of Mexico in Maine as in the Americas, although not as far south — changed the name of that town from Partridgetown upon incorporation in 1821, just after the original Peru won its independence.

Other towns named for political reasons after foreign places include Belgrade in Kennebec County, which Chadbourne says may have been named "because of interest in the plight of the Serbians," who were caught in the middle in several wars between Austria and Turkey. But it may also have been named by a prominent resident of the town who had traveled in Europe when he was young.

Moscow in Somerset County seems to have gotten its name because town leaders who were pushing for what was then called Bakerstown to be incorporated were somewhat swept up by the news of the French invasion of Moscow. The Muscovites had largely abandoned, and then burned, the city, to foil Napoleon's troops; Napoleon's retreat from the city is considered a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars.

Towns named for religious reasons

Many Maine towns' names have religious origins — including some you might not expect. China in Kennebec County is a great example of this. It's often mentioned as the pinnacle of foreign place name weirdness in our state, but it's actually named after a hymn called "China," which was popular with the town's settlers. And it's not the only one: Poland in Androscoggin County is likely also named after a religious song of which the person who named the town was fond, and Bangor may have been named for a hymn as well, although this is somewhat controversial.

Towns with foreign place names taken from the Bible include Lebanon, Mars Hill (a hill in Athens dedicated to the god of War, where the Apostle Paul spoke to the Athenians), and Hebron.

Historical admiration

In the early 19th century, there was something of a surge of interest in history, particularly the classical period. Since it wasn't really practical for early Mainers to wear togas or eat a "Mediterranean" diet, this interest is reflected in several town names, such as Athens, Palermo, Rome and Troy.

Geography

A few towns and cities in Maine are, or may have been, named after foreign places because their geography seemed reminiscent of the geography of the original cities. Woolwich, for example, may have been called that because its location on the Kennebec River was similar to that of the English town of Woolwich on the Thames. Sweden and Norway may have both been so named because of their similar locations with respect to one another. Calais may have been named for its position opposite Dover, New Brunswick, on the St. Croix River, just as Calais in France is opposite the English Channel from Dover in England. In all of these cases, there are other explanations that compete with these.

Maine towns, once removed

Many Maine towns have names that are originally from towns and cities in other countries, but that were actually named after towns and cities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Most of those, including Andover, Bradford, Bridgewater, Chelsea, Gloucester, and Waltham, were named after English towns. A few had more exotic origins, such as Canton (Mass.), which was named in honor of the idea that Canton, China was on pretty much the opposite end of the earth from Massachusetts; and Sharon (Mass.), named after the Sharon Plain in Israel.

Lost in the mists of time

Sadly, we don't know — or at least we don't know for sure — the reasons why several Maine towns and cities were named after the foreign places they were. These include a lot of English town names (such as Acton, Argyle, Guilford, Falmouth, Newcastle and Portland), Sorrento, Madrid, Verona (Verona Island) and Lisbon.

At least one of these towns has just kind of a weird story. Norway, which we've previously mentioned as perhaps being named in honor of its location with respect to Sweden, has another possible origin: When the people of the town petitioned for incorporation, they asked for it to be called "Norage," a native word for falls; but when the petition came back the name of the town was Norway. It's thought that this is because the court thought "Norage" was a misspelling of the name people actually wanted. So they assigned Norway, although it's really not clear why.

Yes, but what about Egypt?

Carolyn Chute's novel "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" made the fictional town of Egypt famous — or so Chute thought: She intentionally chose the name because she thought it evoked Maine's strange place names, but wasn't an actual place.

It turns out that Egypt is a real place in Maine, although not a very big one. It's a village (more like a neighborhood) of about 30 people in the town of Franklin in Hancock County. Town historian Helen Canton says she's not sure why it's called Egypt, but that she thinks it has something to do with the real Egypt.

After you've read this and checked out the map, let us know: Did we miss something? Have you heard a different story? And do you have a burning question about something Maine-y that you've been dying to have answered? If so, use this form to ask your question — or email nflaherty@mpbn.net.