How Every Maine Town Got Its Name

A new book reveals the historical quirks, Native words, civic ambitions, and personal whims behind the names of Maine’s cities and towns.

By Will Grunewald

In a state where Mexico is less than an hour’s drive north of Norway, with Paris wedged in between, it’s easy to wonder why towns are called what they are. John McDonald and Marion Fearing’s compendious new book What’s in a Name?: The Story Behind Every Town Name in Maine details the historical quirks, Native words, civic ambitions, and personal whims that endure on every map of Maine.


Maine’s Down East villages are first in the country to see the morning sun, and Aurora was ancient Romans’ goddess of the dawn, riding her chariot through the sky and sprinkling dew upon the earth at daybreak.


A nod to Alfred the Great, the Anglo-Saxon king whose martial prowess thwarted ninth-century Viking invaders. Ironically, a community of Shakers — pacifists — made Alfred their home from the 1790s to the 1930s.


En route to besiege Quebec City during the Revolutionary War, American officer (and future traitor) Benedict Arnold planted a flag in the ground, hence Flagstaff. After completion of a dam on the Dead River in 1950, Flagstaff Lake submerged the abandoned town.


The tiny farming community incorporated during the War of 1812 and stuck it to the Brits with a name invoking good old American ideals.


Sometimes, a name is just a name — story has it that an early settler opened a book, pointed to a page at random, and landed on a reference to Italy’s Mount Etna.


In Passamaquoddy, Machias means something like “bad little falls.” Today, Bad Little Falls Park offers a fine view of that spot where the Machias River tumbles seaward.

What’s in a Name? is out this month from Islandport Press. $17.95. Softcover.