French place names reveal much about the history of a city or town. They reflect the great historical events that took place at the time residents settled on a name. They may have named their town when a popular king took the throne, or during the French struggle for liberty, or right after the American Revolution, or during westward expansion.
You’re far more likely to find French place names the closer you get to the border of Canada. Still, the number of French place names in New England doesn’t truly reflect the region’s French heritage.
Vermont, of course, comes from the French for ‘green mountain’ (vert mont), and 23.9 percent of its population claims French ancestry. But only about a dozen of the state’s 255 municipalities have a French place name.
Vermont is only the third most Franco-American state in the Union. New Hampshire comes in second. Maine, with 25 percent of its population claiming French ancestry, ranks No. 1. The state has two dozen towns with French place names, and the state Legislature once claimed (probably wrongly) that ‘Maine’ came from the French province of the same name.
Here, then, are six New England municipalities with French place names, one in each state. If you know of another with a story worth repeating, please share in the comments section.
Orange, Conn., initially belonged to the Algonquian Indians until 1637, when they sold it to the Rev. Peter Prudden. The price? Some coats and blankets, hatchets and hoes, a kettle, knives and a dozen small mirrors.
Prudden, educated at Cambridge University in England, came to Massachusetts as part of the Great Puritan Migration. He preached in Wethersfield, Conn., for a while. Then he joined a group of New Haven Colony settlers in Milford and was ordained pastor of the church in 1639.
When Prudden died in 1656, his survivors buried him in his garden, which became the Milford town cemetery. His widow, Joanna Boyse Prudden, married the first English mayor of New York City.
Thirty years after Prudden died, the last Roman Catholic king of England, James II, consolidated the New England colonies. He appointed the hated Edmund Andros as governor general of the Dominion of New England. Andros tried to seize Connecticut’s charter, but failed because a militia captain hid it in a large white oak tree, known forever after as the Charter Oak.
In 1689, much to the joy and relief of New England’s Puritans, William of Orange deposed James II. The staunchly Protestant William, who had inherited the French principality of Orange from his father, was James’ son-in-law and nephew. The colonists sent Andros back to England.
The popular new king gave the village of Orange its name. It belonged to Milford until 1822, when residents formed the Town of Orange. In 1921, rural Orange separated from urban West Haven.
Orange Center Historic District includes 42 historically significant structures, including the Orange Congregational Church. They form a ‘cohesive village of well-preserved buildings and their surroundings that convey a strong sense of the area’s historic appearance,’ according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form.
Meetinghouse Lane, Orange Center Road, Schoolhouse Land, Tyler City Road.
Acadians first settled the region on both sides of the St. John River, so it’s natural that Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, should have a close friendship. Calais has three international crossings over the St. Croix River to St. Stephen.
So friendly were the two towns that the British military gave St. Stephen gunpowder to defend itself against Americans during the War of 1812. St. Stephen instead gave the gunpowder to Calais for its July 4th celebration.
The townspeople named Calais for the French city in 1809 to honor France’s help to the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.
Calais didn’t really get going as a town until the 1820s, when shipbuilding and lumber brought growth and prosperity. Between 1810 and 1850, the town’s population grew tenfold, to 4,749. By 1840, Calais was the second busiest port in Maine next to Bangor. Many successful Calais businesspeople built fine homes in the city during its heyday.
The Calais Residential Historic District comprises 15 acres of handsome 19th century homes in a variety of architectural styles.
Calais Residential Historic District: Calais Avenue and Main Street From Calais Avenue To Swan Street
Orleans, on Cape Cod’s elbow, has had its share of military assaults. The British captured the town twice during the American Revolution, and the Orleans militia skirmished with a British warship trying to dock at Rock Harbor during the War of 1812. And German U-boats shelled Orleans during World War I.
The town split off from Eastham in 1797, when memories of the British occupation still stung.
Isaac Snow, a descendant of Mayflower Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins, supposedly suggested the French place name for the new town. The British had captured Snow during the American Revolution and confined him aboard a prison ship in England. Snow then escaped to France, where he more than likely learned about the popular Louis Philippe Joseph, Duke of Orleans. The duke, though one of the richest men in France, supported the French revolutionary cause.
Isaac Snow’s family opened its first store in Orleans in 1887. The Snow family still runs Snow’s, where you can probably find whatever you need.
The town also harbors a motorboat listed on the National Register of Historic Places, CG36500, used in the courageous rescue of 31 Pendleton crewmembers in 1952.
CG 36500 is berthed at Rock Harbor n Rock Harbor Rd., Orleans, Mass.; Snow’s, 22 Main St., Orleans, Mass.
Fremont, N.H., took its French place name from the illegitimate son of a French-Canadian schoolteacher. John C. Fremont also happened to be a military hero and the Republican Party’s first candidate for president of the United States.
Fremont’s mother was the daughter of a wealthy Virginia planter. At 17 she married a well-to-do army major in his 60s. The major hired a Canadian immigrant, Charles Fremon, to tutor his young wife. They fell in love and ran away to Savannah, Ga., where John Fremon was born out of wedlock. The major refused to divorce John’s mother, so she could not marry his father.
When Charles Fremon died, John Fremont and his mother lived in poverty and disgrace. He compensated with pride and ambition.
During his lifetime he fought in the Mexican War, rose to the rank of major general, explored the West, gained and lost a fortune, served in the U.S. Senate from California and ran for president in 1856. He also met and married Jessie Benton, daughter of the powerful U.S. senator from Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton.
Benton earned immense popularity for his support of western expansion. In 1840, the town of Coventry, N.H., decided to change its name to Benton in honor of the senator. Fourteen years later, a town called Poplin, N.H., decided to change its name to Fremont after the future presidential candidate and senator’s son-in-law
Today the town takes justifiable pride in its 1800 Meetinghouse – and for being home to the stunningly awful all-girl group, The Shaggs.
Fremont Meeting House 464 Main Street , Fremont, N.H.
Lafayette Village, R.I.
When the Marquis de Lafayette made his triumphal tour of the United States in 1824, enthusiastic Rhode Islanders renamed a village in North Kingstown after him. Previously, people had given it a less glamorous name: the North Kingstown Cotton Factory.
Lafayette, though, remained little more than a French place name for a cotton mill, a smattering of houses and an unusually wide road. The road had been ordered by the Rhode Island colony in 1703 so farmers could bring their goods to the port of Wickford. The road had to be as straight as possible and 160 feet wide to allow grazing for livestock.
Today, the National Register of Historic Places lists Lafayette Village as a monument to Robert Rodman, a paternalistic textile manufacturer in the tradition of southern Rhode Island.
Rodman, a relative of the Hazard manufacturing family in nearby Peace Dale, began making wool textiles in Lafayette in the 1840s. He incorporated as the Rodman Manufacturing Co. in 1883 and employed 500 workers by 1900. The Rodman family still owned the company into the late 1940s, when it ceased operation.
The company sold St. Nicolas Doeskin to growing markets in the south and west. In 1876, “one supposes a celebratory mood as Rodman packed his entire family, children and grandchildren off to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where the doeskin, a luxury fabric with nap, won a medal,” according to Lafayette Village’s nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.
Shortly after the Centennial, Rodman bought the engineering marvel of the day, a Corliss steam engine, to power his textile machinery. In 1877 he built the vast brick mill that still stands.
Rodman also built a mansion for himself (now a patio furniture store) and three more for his children, a church, boarding houses and workers cottages.
The paternalistic Rodmans stayed within the community, made up of local Yankees who in the 1970s remembered it as ‘one big family’ and ‘all English.’ The Rodmans sponsored the Lafayette Cornet Band, magic shows, games and pottery classes to entertain the mill workers – and, no doubt, to distract them from any union organizers who might be prowling around.
For more photos of Lafayette in the 1970s, click here.
Lafayette Historic District, Properties bordering Ten Rod Road from Wickford Junction to the culvert east of 935 Ten Rod Road and side streets, North Kingstown, R.I.
Barre, Vt., took its name from an Irishman of French Huguenot ancestry who gave the Sons of Liberty their name.
Isaac Barre, the son of Dublin’s high sheriff, served the British Army with distinction before representing Chipping Wycombe in Parliament. He had a long, colorful parliamentary career, during which he vigorously opposed the taxation of the American colonies. While addressing Parliament, he coined the phrase ‘Sons of Liberty.’
During his military career, Barre fought at the Battle of Quebec and gathered around the dying general James Wolfe. John Gouldsbury, the earliest settler of Barre, also fought at the Battle of Quebec under Wolfe.
Until 1788, roving bands of Indians were the only inhabitants of the area described as ‘primeval forests, granite hills and green valleys.’ The first settlers named it Wildersborough, but the residents didn’t like it and the name didn’t stick.
According to one story, the settlement’s selectmen decided the person who contributed the most to a meeting house could rename the town. For 64 pounds, Ezekiel Wheeler got to name the town Barre.
According to another story, two men from Massachusetts put forward their preferred names at a Town Meeting. Both Captain Joseph Thompson of Holden and Jonathon Sherman of Barre wanted to name it after their former towns. They decided to fight it out in a barn, and Sherman won.
Barre grew into a center of granite cutting shortly after the War of 1812. The work attracted a diverse group of European immigrants, including Italian anarchists and members of the International Workers of the World. In 1916 and in 1929 Barre residents elected a Socialist Party candidate as mayor.
The old Socialist Labor Party Hall still stands, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Socialist Labor Party Hall, 46 Granite St., Barre City, Vt.
Images for French place names: Fremont Meeting House, By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24513389; Socialist Labor Hall By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35779862; Calais By P199 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18061218; Orange church By The original uploader was Staib at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34580770