How Maine Got Its Name

In 2009 I self-published State Names: The Stories of How the States Got Their Names. Now I’m in the process of uploading the whole thing to a website: . I thought I would post a few of the more interesting chapters here. Maine was one of my favorites because in writing that chapter I made a new friend. Her name is Carol B. Smith-Fisher, and she researched Maine’s history and found what I believe is the most plausible explanation for how Maine came to be named.

Wild and Fishy

Maine makes us think of fishing and of hearty fishermen, of rocky coastlines, old lighthouses, and lobster traps. The state’s history is inarguably tied to the fishermen of its past, who found the waters along its coasts rich with cod. They may have been attracted to the waters off of the Maine shore, but they were not so enthralled with the enigmatic Maine shore itself. Even today Maine is perhaps the only state along the eastern seaboard that seems untamed and wild. This image partly stems from a corollary reputation for being constantly cold (July — Maine’s warmest month — only averages in the upper sixties). While Maine’s quaintness and untamed beauty appeal to Americans, few of us would care to investigate them in the wintertime. Maine is a good place to go camping in the summer, to keep a summer cottage, and to escape the heat of the more southerly states come July and August.​

Cod fishing has long been an economic mainstay in Maine.

The state shares a trait with Texas, Louisiana, and New York. It’s one of those places where “people talk funny.” A Maine accent is easily recognizable, its inhabitants using words like nor’easter, steamers (clams), and crittah. Maine’s denizens say “yah” and “pahk the cah,” and in our imaginations, they all sound like the old farmer in the old Pepperidge Farm commercial.

For all its remoteness, quaintness, and wildness, Maine is amazingly easy to find on a map. While most of the New England states tend to run together for those who don’t live in them, Maine stands out. It’s the one up in the corner that’s almost as big as the rest of them put together. Even children, struggling to learn the states and their borders, find Maine among the easiest to locate and remember. How ironic that this state, with its fishermen so famous for trying to keep their best fishing spots a secret, is so easy to find.

What We Know

While there is little documentation for why Maine came to be named as it is, the details of its exploration and settlement have been prolifically described in books, newspapers, and journals. At the same time the Spaniards in the Southwest were searching for the seven cities of Cibola, the French and Italians eagerly and vainly sought their own fabled land-of-milk-and-honey: the land which Giovanni da Verazzano had called “Oranbega,” later appearing on maps as “Norumbega”. Paving the way for Samuel de Champlain and Jacques Cartier, Verrazano established the continental nature of the region which on early maps was labeled “Terra Nova” or “New Founde Land,” and was often depicted as in island or islands. In 1615 Captain John Smith explored and mapped the coastline of what the English were by then calling North Virginia. Smith presented to the King of England his new map, which contained the prophetic name “New England.”

This 1630 Dutch map shows “Norumbegum” (sic) lying in what is now the state of Maine.

The first official application of the name Maine to the land between the Merrimack and Sagahadock (now the Kennebec) Rivers appears in a Royal land grant made to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason by King James I of England on August 10, 1622. The two were businessmen who hoped to profit from the excellent fishing in New England waters by colonizing the coastline. In fact, as early as 1606, under a patent from the Plymouth Company, Gorges had commissioned George Popham to create a settlement in New England. Popham’s expedition set out within a year of the Jamestown mission and landed near the mouth of the Sagahadock River, establishing the foundation of their colony with a few single huts. Popham, however, died during the extremely harsh winter, and the colony was abandoned the following summer.​

While they initially had little success in colonizing, Gorges and Mason took pains to maintain control of their patents and land grants in New England. In 1629 they divided the land specified in the 1622 grant, Mason taking the portion south of the Piscataqua and calling it “New Hampshire” and Gorges taking the northern portion, keeping the name “Maine.”

Popham’s abandoned fort is now a State Park in Maine.

In 1639 Gorges had his Maine grant reconfirmed to him by King Charles I in a document which contains this tantalizing line:

“And Wee Doe name ordeyne and appoynt that the porcon of the Mayne Lande and Premises aforesaide shall forever hereafter bee called The Province or Countie of Mayne and not by any other name or names whatsoever…”

According to Smith-Fisher an explanation has never been found, either in memoirs or letters by Gorges or his descendants, as to why the name “Maine” was so adamantly chosen. And so the speculation began.

Theory Number One

According to the first theory regarding the origin of the state’s name, these fishermen referred to the mainland as “Mayne” or “Maine.” The name was so common among those who frequented the waters that it stuck and was used by Gorges to define the land he chose as his own.​

This theory is prevalent among historians and even seems a likely hypothesis unless one considers Ms. Smith-Fisher’s argument. She points out that “Maine” with its many different spellings was used up and down the eastern shores of North America (and indeed, on other continents discovered before and since) to differentiate the coast from nearby islands, but only here is it proposed that the name rose to the rank of a proper noun. Why, she begs, would Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a devout royalist with an English pedigree dating back to the days of William the Conqueror, choose a name so common and so meaningless?

Why, indeed? Which brings us to…

Theory Number Two

Henrietta Maria was a fifteen-year-old princess — daughter of France’s King Henry IV, and sister to future King Louis XIII — when she married Charles shortly after he ascended the throne. For their first three years of marriage, Henrietta Maria was ignored by Charles, who preferred the company of his favorite courtier the Duke of Buckingham. After Buckingham’s assassination, King Charles began to redirect some of his attention toward his wife, and they eventually became openly affectionate.​​

Queen Henrietta Maria

The queen was widely mistrusted in England, primarily because she was Catholic, and the king’s attention toward her was one of many acts which caused suspicion of him by his Protestant subjects and parliament. (Charles I would go on to provoke Civil War in England, be tried and convicted of high treason, and finally beheaded.) A royalist like Gorges, however, who was consistently loyal to King Charles and more distrustful of the increasingly powerful Puritans in his own country than of the Catholics in France, might well have wished to pay his Queen a compliment. James Sullivan asserted that

​“The territory was then called the Province of Mayne, by way of a compliment to the queen of Charles I who was a daughter of France, and owned as her private estate, a province there, called the Province of Meyne, now called the Province of Maine.”

Theory number two, however, is chronologically difficult to swallow. According to a biography of Henrietta Maria written in 1845, the Queen had no connection with the French province of Meyne. Moreover, Smith-Fisher points out that the name “Maine” was bestowed by Gorges in 1622, three years before Henrietta Maria became Queen of England in 1625. In fact, in 1622 Charles (who was then Prince of Wales) was engaged to the Infanta Maria of Spain, a marriage that he and his father, King James I, very much hoped for. Not until 1624 did Charles pursue an alliance with France by proposing marriage to the Princess Henrietta Maria.

Theory Number Three

She further discovered that this village was, in the Domesday (English census) book of 1086, referred to as “Maine” and later divided into Brademaen (Broadmayne) and Parva Maen (Little Maine). The implication derived from Smith-Fisher’s theory is that just as Gorges’ ancestors settled in (perhaps even founded) the town of Maine in England upon their arrival from France in the eleventh century, so did he establish the colony of Maine in North America for the further propagation of the Gorges family.

Naming his new land after the place of his family’s estate would be in keeping not only with the times but with Gorges’ apparent inclinations for naming of land possessions. He was granted many other patents for land in the New World, one of which he named Lygonia for his mother, Cecily (Lygon) Gorges, and another which he named “New Somersetshire,” for the county in which his family estate was situated. His colleague Captain John Mason also honored his home county in England, calling his portion of the granted land “New Hampshire.” Years later, in 1634, Sir Ferdinando’s nephew Thomas Gorges would name his own Maine plantation “Wells” after his family home in England.

Smith-Fisher admits that more proof is needed to verify her theory, but as she eloquently puts it “…does it not ring true that our 17th century English knight would want to bless the future American homeland of the Gorges family with the ancient name of their first English village — Maine?”

So Anyway

In 1640, Sir Ferdinando sent his nephew Thomas Gorges to govern his holdings, and under his judicious leadership, several of the established communities came together to form a tenuous government for their “Province of Maine.” By 1651 the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to see that these settlements to the north were “attempting to gain recognition from Parliament” as an independent province. The MBC leaders quickly asserted a contrived control over the region, conceding to the locals a measure of religious freedom and local governmental control in return for their submission to the government of Massachusetts.

That began a tug-of-war between Royal control and that of the Bay Colony. By 1674, Massachusetts had won, creating the “District of Maine of Massachusetts” and governing the region as a province of its own for the next century and a half. During the American Revolution, the English had numerous designs on Maine, one of which proposed taking the territory between the Saco and the St. Croix Rivers, and calling it the “Province of New Ireland,” then making it available to loyalists escaping from the rebellious colonies. The plot came to nothing, and the Paris Treaty of 1783, which ended the War for Independence, ended also any claim of the English to the Province of Maine.

In 1819 Maine separated itself from Massachusetts and applied to Congress for statehood. It should have been a formality but instead ran afoul of the slavery debate. Southerners were concerned that the addition of northern, non-slave states would reduce their numbers in the Senate to a minority, and northerners were afraid of the converse regarding Missouri, which was ripe for statehood as a southern, i.e. slave state. On March 3, 1820 the Missouri Compromise was passed, allowing both Maine and Missouri to enter the Union, and maintaining the equilibrium in the Senate. Less than two weeks later, on March 15, 1820, Maine became the twenty-third state of the Union, signed in by President James Monroe. Its northern border would not be firmly fixed for another half-century, when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1874 finally determined the line which now separates it from New Brunswick and Quebec.

I’m Kathy Guyton, author of “U.S. State Names” I write about other stuff too.

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