The name of the state of Maine is of uncertain origin. The name first appears in 1622, in a charter of the Council of New England granting land to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Captain John Mason. Mason named the portion of the territory granted to him New Hampshire. The portion granted to Gorges, which is the modern state of Maine, had various names at different times, with Maine being the only one used consistently throughout the period leading up to 1665, when the crown made the name official. In 1677 the colony of Massachusetts purchased Gorges’s territory and kept the name intact.
The leading contender for an origin theory is that it comes from the French province of Maine, which is located just south of Normandy. French explorers may have dubbed the territory Maine in honor of that province;1 although the common French name for the region was Acadia. So, this hypothesis is somewhat questionable. It has been claimed that the territory was named in honor of Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria (see also Maryland), who allegedly had a claim of ownership over the French province, but this has been shown to be false. She had no connection to the French province and there is no known connection between the American colony and the queen. While the French connection is somewhat tenuous, it is the most commonly cited explanation.
Another leading possibility is that it is a reference to mainland, distinguishing the bulk of the territory from its many islands.
A third possibility is that it is from the town of Broadmayne, on the Dorset coast in England,2 referred to simply as Maine in the Domesday Book of 1086. *main is Celtic for rock or stone. With the addition of the Old English brad, Broadmayne means great stone.3 Gorges was from neighboring Somerset and he may have named it after the village in his home region. Gorges had attempted to name his colony New Somerset, a suggestion that was vetoed by Charles I, so Maine may have been a second choice. This is a tempting hypothesis, but there is no direct evidence indicating that Gorges named the colony for the Dorset town.
From 1677 until 1820, Maine was part of Massachusetts. By 1820, growing population and the fact that it was not contiguous with the rest of the Massachusetts created pressure for separate statehood. Maine became a state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise. Maine, which prohibited slavery, would be permitted into the union on its own in exchange for Missouri being admitted as a slave state.
1Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, edited by Philip Babcock Gove (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1993), 874;
Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names, edited by Kelsie B. Harder (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), 179.
2Maine State Library, Origin of Maine’s Name. 2005, Maine State Library, accessed 24 Dec 2008
3A.D. Mills, Dictionary of English Place-Names (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 53.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton