Many Maine place names are not like the rest of New England’s, with Bristols and Yarmouths and Portsmouths named after counterparts in England.
Maine has a Madrid, Mexico and a Peru, located just north of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Belfast is near Frankfort and Vienna is near Rome and Belgrade. Calais sits on the Canadian border.
It has to do with timing.
The English and Scots-Irish settled coastal Maine first. They named their early settlements after their birthplaces, with English and Scots-Irish place names like York and Belfast.
Quite a few Maine place names come from the Native American people, including Machias (“bad little falls”) and Ogunquit (“beautiful place by the sea”). Indigenous people also named Caribou, Damariscotta, Kennebunk, Millinocket, Orono, Penobscot, Saco and Skowhegan.
But Europeans settled Maine’s vast interior later than the rest of New England because the French and Indian wars made it too dangerous. Settlers didn’t put down roots in much of Maine until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They incorporated towns when many people in foreign countries fought for independence. And so they named their towns after the freedom fighters they admired.
Maine Place Names
Mexico, for example, was originally called Holmanstown because Col. Jonathan Holman owned the land. When the pioneer settlers planned to organize into a town, they sympathized with the Mexicans battling the Spaniards for independence. So when the settlers incorporated in 1818, they chose the name to honor the Mexicans who won their fight for freedom in 1815.
In 1821, people in Maine’s western interior decided to name their town Peru after the South American country that had just declared its independence from Spain.
Denmark, incorporated in 1807, was named in solidarity with the people of Copenhagen. The British Royal Navy attacked the Danish city in 1801 and 1807, much as it had attacked Falmouth in 1775. Eleven years later, Falmouth’s neck had grown into a shipping center. So that part of town broke off and gave itself the functional name of Portland.
In 1812, the settlers of Moscow, Maine, admired how the Russians had turned back Napoleon’s army. So they named the town after them.
Two decades earlier, the people of Township No. 4 felt gratitude toward the French for their help in the American Revolution. In 1793, they incorporated the town and named it Paris. Ironically, the land was originally granted as a reward to 60 men for their services fighting the French during the French and Indian wars.
Though Maine has few people of Italian descent, it has several towns named after Italian cities: Verona, Sorrento, Palermo, Naples and Rome. Maine Romans believed their town compared favorably with Rome, Italy, because they had seven times as many hills. They also had enough granite to rebuild the Italian capital.
‘Just Liking’ Maine Place Names
Some Mainers actually named their towns for non-British places they’d lived in. Swedish immigrants bestowed the Maine place names of New Sweden and Stockholm. Sweden, Maine, on the other hand, was given to Yankees who fought with John Lovewell during Father Rale’s War . No one seems to know why it became Sweden in 1813.
French and German Protestants originally settled a Downeast town they called Frankfort. In 1794. Lincoln County Probate Judge Jonathan Bowman renamed the town Dresden because he liked the sound of it.
Similarly, Moses Emery named the Town of Poland, home of the famous Poland Springs resort. As one of the early settlers elected to the General Court, he procured the town’s incorporation in 1795. The town’s residents rewarded him by letting him name it. According to the Poland Historical Society,
He had always had a peculiarity for an ancient melody called “Poland,” found in most of the collections of ancient psalmody.
The melody must have been running through his mind the day he considered names for the town, for it was Poland he chose.
Japheth Washburn had the privilege of naming another town. He wanted to call it Bloomville, but the people of Bloomfield, 25 miles away, objected. They thought the names sounded too similar. So, like Moses Emery, he chose China, the name of one of his favorite hymns.
The origin of the town of Norway, incorporated in 1797, remains a mystery. Originally the town petitioned the General Court to be called Norage, an Native American word for “falls.” But then fire destroyed the town records in 1843, so no one knows how Norage became Norway.
Given the precedent of Maine place names, the General Court may have thought ‘Norage’ was a misspelling of Norway.
This story about Maine place names was updated in 2023.