Second in an occasional series answering your questions about Maine.

AskME: Why does Maine have so many towns named for foreign countries and cities?

Fight for your freedom, get a Maine town named in your honor.

This unlikely sounding chain of events was actually a trend in the early 1800s. The western Maine towns of Mexico and Peru were named shortly after those countries won their independence from Spain, according to historians in both towns.  The town names of Moscow and Belgrade were bestowed because those cities had faced invaders or oppressors recently, namely Napoleon and the Turks, according to town histories. The tiny western Maine towns of Sweden and Denmark, according to stories passed down over the years, may have gotten their names because those countries had recently fought powerful enemies, France and England.


Of Maine’s 500 or so municipalities, more than 25 are named for foreign countries and cities. While the specific reasons are often different and not always well-documented, the common thread is that the people living here in the late 1700s and early 1800s were thinking globally for inspiration. The United States had recently won its own independence and the residents of what is now Maine wanted to pay tribute to other freedom-loving folks, or aspired to the greatness of world cities known for their beauty, culture and historical impact.  The towns of Rome, Athens, Naples, Madrid, Verona, Vienna and Palermo fall into the latter category.

Some town names had a more direct route from Europe to Maine. Dresden, Bremen, Stockholm and New Sweden are four towns created in areas settled by people from Germany and Sweden. Paris was named as a thank you for France’s help during the American Revolution.

“America’s had been the first great revolution, and other revolutions and struggles of the time captured people’s imaginations here,” said Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine’s state historian. “In the education of the day, there was a strong classical and European component as well. Mainers at that time would have been very interested in reading newspapers and books about what was going on in the world.”

THINK GLOBALLY, NAME TOWNS

Maine’s abundance of worldly town names makes it stand out compared to its neighbors. Most New England states have a ton of towns named for places in Great Britain, because they were largely settled in the Colonial period. Those can’t really be considered foreign, though, given that the New England states began as British colonies. Maine has at least a couple dozen place names borrowed from Britain and its empire, too.

But what is now Maine tripled its population between the Revolutionary War and statehood in 1820 – from less than 100,000 to about 300,000 – which led to a lot of new towns being founded and named after the region was no longer part of a British colony, said Shettleworth.  New York was another state that saw its population rise sharply between 1790 and 1820, from 340,000 to 1.3 million.  New York has a list of towns named for foreign places that rivals Maine’s, including: Amsterdam, Antwerp, Athens, Batavia, Bethlehem, Cuba, Delhi, Denmark, Dresden, Dunkirk, Elba, Florence, Geneva, Genoa, Hamburg, Lima, Lisbon, Milan, Naples, Orleans, Palermo, Paris, Peru, Rome, Rotterdam, Russia, Stockholm, Sweden and others. A perusal of Massachusetts place names reveals far fewer with an international flavor: Berlin, Canton, Monterey, Orleans, Peru and Savoy.

Maine’s earlier communities, those founded before the American Revolution, tend to have British-sounding names and were often along the coast. So it stands to reason that the foreign-sounding towns, founded mostly in the early 1800s, are usually inland. And they are often near each other, such as Mexico and Peru, Belgrade and Rome, China and Palermo, Norway and Paris and Denmark and Sweden.

The Mainers who were naming their towns for foreign lands 200 years ago, for the most part, had never been to those places and couldn’t use the Internet to find out how the names were actually pronounced. That’s why, in Maine, Calais, a city in France, is pronounced “cal-lis.” The Spanish capital Madrid is spoken “mad-drid” and the Austrian capital of Vienna is “vie-enna.”

But there were people in some foreign-sounding Maine towns of the 1800s who knew exactly how to pronounce them. Samuel Waldo, who was granted settlement rights for an area around Broad Bay, in what is now Waldoboro, recruited some 1,500 German settlers to the area beginning in the 1750s, according to various historical societies.  The nearby towns of Bremen and Dresden are both named for German places, and to this day the area still has many families with German last names.

More than 100 years later, Maine state government took official action to settle remote Aroostook County with the help of hardy people from northern climates. William Widgery Thomas, who was the state’s commissioner of immigration under Gov. Joshua Chamberlain, had worked in Sweden and decided Swedes could handle Aroostook County’s remoteness and frigid winters. So, around 1870, he brought to Maine about 50 Swedes, who established the town of New Sweden, near Caribou. They also founded the nearby town of Stockholm, named for the Swedish city.

HYMNS, MISTAKES AND GREATNESS

The famous Maine sign giving distances and direction to a number of towns that share names with foreign cities and countries has been cut down and stolen multiple times. It stands at the intersection of routes 35 and 5 in Albany Township. Staff file photo by John Ewing

Most Mainers are aware of the state’s slate of globe-trotting town names because of the famous sign post at routes 35 and 5 in Albany Township, south of Bethel, which lists the mileage to nine of the towns. The sign was originally erected as a way to promote tourism in the 1930s, and has been replaced several times since.

Two of the names on that post, China and Poland, are actually not named for countries. They’re named for hymns.

In 1818, voters from what was then known as Harlem, about 20 miles east of Augusta, voted to incorporate as the town of Bloomville. Since Maine was still part of Massachusetts, the town sent a representative to Boston,  Japheth C. Washburn, to formalize the process. But when he got to Boston, a week’s journey, he was told he couldn’t use Bloomville because there was another town somewhere in the country with that name, according to the China town website. Instead of letting the matter wait, he made a snap decision and picked China, the title of his favorite hymn by Connecticut composer Timothy Swan. Lyrics to the hymn are on the town’s website.

The Poland town website has a similar story, about an early settler who was given the honor of naming the town in 1795 and picked the name because “he had always had a peculiarity for an ancient melody called ‘Poland’ found in most of the collections of ancient psalmody.”

Norway is one of the more familiar Maine town names of seemingly foreign origin, but it was actually a clerical error, said Herb Adams, a Norway native who teaches history at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. Adams said that the citizens of an area then known as Rustfield petitioned Massachusetts officials in 1797 to name the town Norage, likely a Native American word for waterfalls. Adams said the petition clearly said Norage, but that officials in Boston “figured we didn’t know how to spell” so they unilaterally changed the name on the petition to Norway.

Officials in Denmark and Sweden say there is not firm documentation as to why their towns  were named, but that the Norway mistake might have something to do with it. One opinion passed down through time is that those towns were following Norway’s lead in creating a Scandinavian theme in western Maine. Norway was incorporated in 1797, followed by Denmark in 1807 and Sweden in 1813. Also passed down from generations were the stories that Sweden was named to show respect for the Swedes’ involvement in the third Napoleonic War, and that Denmark was named to honor the Danes fighting the British in 1807 at the second Battle of Copenhagen. Americans, of course, had fought the British not that long before.

“There are stories that the governor of Massachusetts, Caleb Strong, randomly named our community in the incorporation ceremony,” said Lee Ann Shand, curator of the Denmark Historical Society, in an email. “And others say that the Battle of Copenhagen was fresh in his mind.”

In the town of Paris, next door to Norway, the town’s naming is so well-documented it’s drawn visiting groups from France, said Ben Conant, curator of the Paris Cape Historical Society. The town was incorporated in 1793 and town fathers, the American Revolution fresh in their minds, wanted to pay tribute to France’s military aid. A few years ago when the French were preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of their own revolution, a group of French scholars came to Paris for a visit, Conant said.

“They were on a mission to visit all 13 places named Paris around the world,” said Conant.

In Peru and Mexico, both near Rumford, town historians say records show both towns were named for countries that had broken away from the Spanish empire, just as America had freed itself of the British empire. The country of Peru declared its independence in 1821 and the town was incorporated the same year. Mexico began its war of independence in 1810 and the town was incorporated in 1818.

Inhabitants of Sheepscot Great Pond Settlement – later named Palermo –  were among those Mainers in the early 1800 who believed that naming their town after a world capital was a way to show they “had the highest expectation of future greatness,” said Peter Golden, of the Palermo Historical Society. The settlers first asked Massachusetts to name the town Lisbon, around 1802, but it was already taken by a town near Lewiston. So they chose Palermo. A local resident, Dr. Enoch P. Huntoon, also had the middle name, Palermo.

“One way to get off to a good start was to borrow something of the grandeur of a foreign capital by using the name,” wrote Golden in an email to the Press Herald.  “Thus, throughout Maine we have, for example, Rome, Paris, Madrid – and Lisbon. ”

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