Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to email@example.com.
As a state with some of the oldest examples of European colonization in U.S. history, most towns and cities in Maine have been around for around 200 years — even 300 or more years in some cases.
York, Kittery, Wells, Kennebunkport and Scarborough were all incorporated in the 17th century and have had the same names that whole time.
Almost all of what is now Maine had place names from the languages of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq and Maliseet in eastern and northern areas, and the Abenaki tribes in western Maine. A list of many of the places and their English translations can be found in this 2021 Bangor Daily News article.
Many other towns kept their original Wabanaki names — Kenduskeag, Madawaska, Damariscotta, Norridgewock, Wiscasset and Skowhegan, to name a few.
But some towns have had at least one other name before settling on what they are currently called.
Here’s a list of some of those places — a list that is by no means comprehensive but offers an interesting look into some unique and little-known parts of Maine history.
Albion: This Kennebec County town was founded as Fairfax in 1806. After some negotiations with neighboring municipalities on town lines, in 1821 it was renamed Ligonia, possibly for a short-lived province of Massachusetts during the 17th century in what is now Maine. In 1824, it was renamed Albion.
Augusta: Maine’s capital city started off as the plantation of Cushnoc, and was later incorporated as part of the town of Hallowell under that name in 1771. In February 1797, it was set off as its own town under the name Harrington, but six months later was changed again to Augusta, named for the daughter of Revolutionary War Col. Henry Dearborn. Today, Cushnoc is the name of a popular craft brewery in Augusta.
Bar Harbor: Arguably the most well-known example of a Maine town changing its name, Bar Harbor was known for its first 122 years as Eden. Though it’s commonly thought that name was a reference to the idyllic natural beauty of Mount Desert Island — as in the biblical Garden of Eden — it actually was named for English statesman Sir Richard Eden, when it was first incorporated in 1796. In 1918, Eden was renamed to Bar Harbor, for the sandy bar that connects the town to nearby Bar Island at low tide.
Boothbay: This scenic Lincoln County town started off as Townshend, where a number of families from what is now Northern Ireland settled in the mid-18th century. It was named for an English statesman, Charles Townshend, and was incorporated in 1764. In 1842, it was renamed Boothbay, after a British village named Boothby.
Glenburn: Originally incorporated in 1822, Glenburn was first named Dutton, for Samuel Dutton, a Bangor resident and one of the co-founders of the Bangor Theological Seminary. It was renamed Glenburn in 1837, which the town says was a combination of two Scottish words, “glen” and “burn,” which refers to the valley through which the Kenduskeag Stream flows.
Pittsfield: Before it was incorporated as a town, Pittsfield was known as Plymouth Gore and then the Plantation of Sebasticook. In 1819, it was incorporated as Warsaw, named for the Polish capital city. In 1824, the town opted to rename itself Pittsfield, for William Pitt, a major landowner in town. Massachusetts already had a Pittsfield, but with Maine’s independence from that state in 1820, the town was free to claim that name.
Westbrook: Today Westbrook is the eighth largest city in Maine, but when it was first settled by Europeans in the 18th century, it was known as Saccarappa, which a rough translation from the Wabanaki means “falling toward the rising sun,” referring to the waterfall on the Saccarappa River. It was incorporated in 1814 as Stroudwater, named for the Stroudwater River, but the following year it was renamed Westbrook, for Col. Thomas Westbrook, a Maine militia officer during Dummer’s War, also known as the Wabanaki-New England war.
Windsor: This town was first incorporated in 1809 as Malta, presumably named for the island in the Mediterranean. It was already the site of a heated dispute between property owners in the town, and squatters that were cutting down timber on their land, eventually resulting in some of the squatters murdering a town surveyor. They were arrested, and a mob descended on the Malta jail, with the Maine governor sending militia to confront the mob. No one else was killed, but the dispute is known today as the Malta War. In 1820, the town was reincorporated as Gerry, named for founding father Elbridge Gerry. It was reincorporated for a second and final time in 1822 as Windsor.