The French-Snubbing Heiresses Who Gave Acadia National Park Its Name

How Lafayette National Park became Acadia.

Lafayette National Park becomes Acadia National Park
Photo Courtesy of Southwest Harbor Public Library
By Brian Kevin
From our January 2020 issue.

Among the gaggles of Gilded Age robber barons who preferred their pleasure domes with a view of Maine’s Frenchman Bay, John Godfrey Moore was the rarest sort — a genuine local boy. Born in Steuben in 1847, the son of a ship captain, Moore left Maine for New York City as a teenager. He started in lumber, then pivoted to the telegraph biz, rapidly scaling a startup and selling it to Western Union. In 1885, flush with buyout cash, he took the time-honored route of affluent young men who aspire to be more affluent and went into finance.

Moore’s investment firm moved money around for various WASPy tycoons — Morgans, Rockefellers, Whitneys — and he spent the next decade-and-a-half doing wealthy financier things: suing the federal government to avoid paying taxes, narrowly dodging indictment in a corruption scandal, building a huge, turreted vacation palace outside his hometown. When he died of a heart attack at 52, he left behind a wife, two grown daughters from a previous marriage, and several thousand acres on and around Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula, just across the bay from Mount Desert Island.

Fast-forward to 1922, when Moore’s since-remarried widow went out to dinner at MDI’s genteel Jordan Pond House. Six years prior, the feds had designated the surrounding hills as Sieur de Monts National Monument, which in 1919 became Lafayette National Park — named for George Washington’s French military sidekick and commemorating American solidarity with France at the end of World War I. Into the Jordan Pond House walked park superintendent George Dorr, largely responsible for acquiring and convincing others to donate the lands that constitute the park. Moore’s widow asked Dorr whether his trustees association might accept her late husband’s Schoodic holdings as a donation — it’d just be a matter of convincing her stepdaughters, Ruth and Faith.

The Moore heiresses were then living large in England. Just after her father died, Ruth had married a British military officer and diplomat, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lee, and moved across the pond with him and her sister. Lee leveraged his wife’s inheritance to quit soldiering and launch a political career, and Ruth and Faith pooled their funds to buy an Elizabethan manor called Chequers, which the Lees later donated for use as the prime minister’s summer home (it’s still the British equivalent of Camp David). After the war, Arthur Lee had received a peerage, and by the time Dorr was petitioning her in 1923, Ruth had become the Viscountess Lee of Fareham.

The park’s founder had been fond of the name ‘Acadia’ for decades.

Of course, if there’s one thing wanna-be British aristocrats don’t like, it’s the French. Or maybe the sisters liked the French just fine and it was the Viscount Lee who bore a grudge against his homeland’s fairly recent allies. Whatever the reason, the story goes that the daughters couldn’t truck with a moniker honoring the French, and they stipulated that Lafayette National Park be renamed before they would donate their Schoodic estate.

“Who knows what kind of prejudices they had?” asks Allen Workman, who, in his book Schoodic Point: History on the Edge of Acadia National Park, is one of many to relay the anecdote. “I can hypothesize that Lee was just such a proud descendant of the British Empire — you know, those French, they hadn’t run the war right and so on.”

So why did the Anglophile donors sign off on “Acadia,” a name that France had bestowed on its Atlantic settlements in the New World? Historians aren’t sure. Dorr’s biographer, Ronald Epp, says he knows of no source material explicitly mentioning the sisters’ antipathy for the French. Dorr writes of their “objection to the name of Lafayette,” but he doesn’t elaborate. The explanation, Epp says, has simply “appeared anecdotally over the decades.” Dorr, he points out, was an admirer of French history and culture, and it’s fair to assume such a request would have left him conflicted.

But the park’s founder had also been fond of the name “Acadia” for decades, and he may have sensed opportunity. Dorr was gifted when it came to parsing ideas and schmoozing wealthy donors.

“He could probably convince anyone that, for the general public, the word ‘Acadia’ is a toned-down expression of any associations that they bring to ‘Lafayette’,” Epp says. In their writings on the park, both Dorr and National Park Service director Stephen Mather played down the Frenchiness of “Acadia,” emphasizing instead its likely derivation from cadie, from the same Mi’kmaq root as quoddy (as in “Passamaquoddy”), meaning “place.”

However he won them over, Dorr obtained his limey patrons’ blessing for “Acadia,” and when Congress authorized the park to add new lands in January 1929, it conferred the new name. “Little did the Moore daughters know,” Workman says, “it would end up on hundreds of businesses all across Hancock County” — and on SUVs, outdoor apparel lines, and more nationwide. All named for an area with only a faint link to the French-derived culture of northern Maine and Canada now universally recognized as “Acadian.” That’s what Lafayette would have called l’ironie.

Timelines is a special monthly history column celebrating Maine’s 2020 bicentennial.

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January 2020
January 2020 issue