Claire Gobeil Leduc of Brunswick wants to learn as much as she can about Maine’s French because she is proud to be a Franco-American. When discussing herheritage with her father, Amadee Gobeil, he told her about the French name of the benefactor who helped to establish Bowdoin College.
Leduc later learned from her sister, a genealogy hound, that the Bowdoin name underwent several spelling changes since 1686, when the family name was recorded as Baudouin.
Leduc asks if the Bowdoin family may have intentionally anglicized their name.
James Cross is an information source about Bowdoin College who helped me to research the name’s origin.
Cross recommended a history published in 1993, titled “A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin” by Charles C. Calhoun. Evidently, from the very beginning of the family’s written records, the name was spelled in different ways. Up until 1720, the Bowdoin name goes through several phonetic or anglicized spellings.
Cross says the first spelling is found in Boston in 1686, when Pierre Baudouin, a refugee and French Huguenot, arrived in America from Ireland. Baudouin, a protestant, probably fled France to find religious refuge in Ireland following the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes in 1685 by King Louis XIV. French protestants experienced religious persecution after the protective treaty, signed by King Henri IV, was revoked.
It’s likely Baudouin arrived in Boston with some financial means because he quickly became engaged in real estate. A 1687 land survey described as located “in the land of Casco in the county of Mayne” records his name as Peter Bardwine.
In another surveyor’s report of 1687, his name is Peter Bodwin. His final will probated in 1719, gives his name as both “Peter Boadwin and “Peter Boadwine,” says Cross. When Baudouin’s wife Elizabeth died in 1720, her obituary said she was the widow of Peter Bowdoin. Thereafter, it appears Pierre and Elizabeth’s descendents kept the present spelling of the Bowdoin name.
Bowdoin College was founded in 1794 and named after James Bowdoin II (1626-1790), who was a French Huguenot and the second governor of Massachusetts. He was the grandson of Pierre Baudouin. After Governor Bowdoin’s death, his son James Bowdoin III was asked if a new college in Maine could be named after his father. Bowdoin III responded by giving money and land (later he gave works of art and books for a library) to establish the college in his father’s name.
Governor Bowdoin is described as a warrior statesman and aggressive entrepreneur. Unfortunately, he was the governor in 1785, when the new American colonies were experiencing an economic depression. His gubernatorial administration was also embroiled in a military debacle called Shays Rebellion, a conflict pitting his administration against indebted farmers in Western Massachusetts.
Bowdoin lost his re-election in 1787 to John Hancock. In fact, the Bowdoin family was initially hesitant about applying their name to the college in Maine because they thought political rivals like John Hancock might disapprove, Calhoun writes.
Bowdoin’s political career notwithstanding, he was a dignified man who became interested in learning about natural history. He is one of the founders of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences started in 1780.
To answer Leduc’s question, it appears to be the result of colonial era spelling preferences. Although some Franco-Americans have anglicized family names or changed spellings to sound more English than French, this does not appear to be the case with regard to the Bowdoin name.
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