This photo, taken March 5, shows the Maine State House in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine. 

Why is Augusta named Augusta, and why was it chosen as Maine’s capital?

There are differing accounts over the last two centuries of why Augusta is named Augusta. But one thing does seem clear: Residents here, when they separated from Hallowell in 1797, weren’t at all happy with “Harrington.” That was the first name designated by the Massachusetts Legislature for what would later become Maine’s capital city of Augusta.

James North Photo courtesy of The Kennebec Historical Society, Augusta, Maine

Harrington was selected by the area’s representative, Amos Stoddard, in honor of Lord Harrington. James W. North, in his “History of Augusta” published in 1870, described Harrington as a distinguished English patriot who had supported the country’s cause during the American Revolution.

The northern, upriver portion of what was then Hallowell was designated as Harrington in February of 1797. By May, according to local history expert Anthony Douin, who addressed the subject in a 2006 newspaper column, residents of the newly formed town wanted the name changed. In advocating to the Legislature for the change, officials from what would become Augusta didn’t specify why they wanted the change. They only stated “that for many reasons which operate in the minds of your petitioners they are desirous that the name of Harrington may be changed for the name of Augusta,” according to North.

They later acknowledged, according to Douin, not wanting to be called Harrington because residents of Hallowell made fun of the newly formed Harrington by instead referring to it as “Herring Town.”

Daniel Cony Photo courtesy of The Kennebec Historical Society, Augusta, Maine

So the citizens of Harrington sent the prominent Judge Daniel Cony to the Massachusetts Legislature to get the name changed, according to David Cheever, former state archivist and vice chairman of Maine’s Bicentennial Committee.

“The citizenry of Harrington didn’t want to be called Herring Town, so they told Cony to go take care of it,” and get the Massachusetts Legislature to make the change, Cheever said. “When they asked what name should be given, he said Augusta.”

Why Augusta was his choice, however, is still debatable.

Cheever said theories include that it was named for the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar.

A more widespread theory has it that Cony was quite smitten with one Augusta Dearborn, daughter of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Henry Dearborn. Henry Dearborn was among Benedict Arnold’s men who marched through the area in 1775, and later returned to settle in Gardiner.

An 1880 Portland Press Herald report on the death of Augusta Dearborn’s daughter, P.A.S. Dearborn, cited by Douin, stated: “So beautiful was she and so charming that when Augusta was founded the late Judge Cony insisted that the town should be named for her.”

Charles Nash Photo courtesy of The Kennebec Historical Society, Augusta, Maine

Charles Nash, in his “The History of Augusta: First Settlements and Early Days as a Town,” published in 1904, suggests a third possibility: that Augusta was named after an earlier settlement called Augusta by the Pejepscot Company, at Small Point on the coast.

But Nash notes, “The substitute name of Augusta was probably chosen by Dr. Cony, but the reason of its selection has ever remained unknown; the secret, if it was, does not appear to have been shared with anybody else, and undoubtedly it is forever lost.”

In 1895, Capt. Henry F. Blanchard gave an address to the Kennebec Historical Society on the origin of Augusta’s name Douin wrote. He concluded the town was named for Augusta Dearborn, the daughter of Gen. Henry Dearborn.

Cheever said there is still not clarity on that matter.

Former Maine Gov. Enoch Lincoln, who served as governor from 1827 to 1829. Photo courtesy of The Kennebec Historical Society, Augusta, Maine

What does seem clear is how Augusta ended up being designated as Maine’s capital city 200 years ago, after Maine achieved statehood in 1820,  with passage of the Missouri Compromise. While Portland was initially designated Maine’s capital, Augusta was named the capital after Maine Gov. Enoch Lincoln, on Feb. 24, 1827, signed a bill. The legislation proclaimed that, beginning Jan. 1, 1832, the permanent seat of state government would be established at Augusta.

Cheever said officials didn’t want to keep Portland as the state’s capital because they wanted the capital to be closer to the center of the state. He said a number of towns were considered but Augusta was chosen, in part due to having a prime, prominent location – Weston Hill – where the state capitol building could be built with a beautiful view and a commanding presence over the valley.

The state Legislature convened in the newly completed State House for the first time on Jan. 4, 1832.

The original Maine State House painted by Charles Codman in 1836. Courtesy of the Maine State Museum (catalogue number 72.19.56)

  • The place we live in is an endless source of small mysteries. Whose idea was that? Where’d that come from? What’s up, when and why? Tell us what’s puzzling you about Maine or your local community using the form here. We’ll pick questions that have broad interest, find the answers and report back. So, got questions, Maine? We know you do.
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