The recent discovery that a small village on the coast of England was once called Maine is the key to solving a 380-year mystery of the origin of the name of our state. The name Maine has long been an enigma, with the quaint distinction of being one of the oldest names of the 50 states (Massachusetts and Virginia predate Maine) and one of the few state names with such an unclear origin.
The reverence with which the name Maine is held by both its residents and “people from away” was beautifully demonstrated to me last summer when my 6-year-old niece in Texas got on the phone and exclaimed, “We’re coming to Maine, Aunt Carol!” She did not say that we’re coming to Maine to see you and Uncle Ken; instead, the word Maine had already taken shape in her young mind as being something very special indeed. Truth be told, we are downright haughty with the use of our name.
The origin of “Maine” has baffled historians since “Ye Province of Maine” had its birth in the Aug. 10, 1622 charter, during the reign of England’s King James I. A reconfirmed and enhanced 1639 charter from England’s King Charles I gave Sir Ferdinando Gorges (pronounced in two syllables gor’-jiz) increased powers over his new province and stated that it, “shall forever hereafter, be called and named the PROVINCE OR COUNTIE OF MAINE, and not by any other name or names whatsoever…”
The mystery of why Sir Ferdinando of Somersetshire, England, chose the name of Maine for his new province has been researched so often without result that interest in it seems to have been abandoned. With the help of the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society in England, and a dedicated Dorsetshire member, Delia Horsfall, new light has been shed on the English origin of our beautiful state name.
The history of the name of Maine began with James Sullivan’s 1795 “History of the District of Maine.” He made the unsubstantiated allegation that the Province of Mayne was a compliment to the queen of Charles I, Henrietta Maria, who once “owned” the Province of Maine in France. This was quoted by almost all Maine historians until the 1845 Strickland biography of Queen Henrietta Maria established that she had no connection to the Province of Maine in France. This is clear from the fact that Henrietta Maria married King Charles I in 1625, three years after the name Maine first appears on the charter. Nevertheless, this French connection seemed to stick, and to this day many people still believe that our Maine is connected with the province in France.
A second hypothesis, of nautical origin, contends that our state was named by early sailors, who often referred to our coast as the Maine or Mainland or the Meyne or the Maine Land. There are numerous early examples to confirm this hypothesis, but how does one explain that the rest of the East Coast was also referred to by these names? Why would Sir Ferdinando, who also “pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor” to settle this area for England, name his beloved province by the meaningless name derived from the Mainland? Sir Ferdinando was relentless in his pursuit of his Province of Maine and was passionate in his belief that his mission was not only driven by financial gain for crown and country, but rather a mission being guided by God.
This brings me to a third possibility. My newly formulated hypothesis is that Maine was named for the nearby village of Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ English ancestral home. Last October, I sent a letter to the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society in England to see if they could offer any further clues to the origin of our Maine. I wanted to see if one of Sir Ferdinando’s ancestors might be connected with the name Maine since he named Lygonia for his mother, Cecily (Lygon) Gorges.
To my surprise, Mrs. Horsfall, of the above mentioned historical society, wrote back that in the area of an ancient ancestral estate of the Gorges family, known as Shipton Gorges in Dorset, lies a small village called Broadmayne. Sir Ferdinando Gorges is a direct descendant of Ralph de Gorges, who came from Coutances of Normandy, France, during the time of William the Conqueror, in 1066. His family’s English roots took hold near a small Anglo-Saxon village today called Broadmayne.
The following information was recently obtained from the Dorset County Archives in Dorchester, England. The village, known today as Broadmayne, just southeast of Dorchester, was listed as Maine in the year 1086 in the Domesday Book (England’s first census). In 1200 the name of the village was Meine, and then in 1201 it split into Brademaen (Broadmayne) and Parva Maen (Little Maine). From Broadmayne and Little Maine, to Maine in the Domesday Book – this is more than a curious coincidence. A powerful case of circumstantial evidence for an English-Maine origin can now be made. For a probable motive, the fact that Gorges ancestral English homeland appears as “Maine” in the Doomsday Book speaks for itself.
To obtain definitive proof we now need to discover a letter written by Sir Ferdinando Gorges to King James I, requesting and explaining the name of Maine for his province. In 1658 Sir Ferdinando’s grandson wrote that his grandfather chose the name Maine for his new province, but offered no explanation. With the destruction of his grandfather’s property and important documents during the turbulent role of Oliver Cromwell, his grandson evidently did not know why his grandfather named his province Maine. By 1658, not one of the key players in this saga was alive.
The discovery of yet further definitive proof may one day be forthcoming. Until that time, does it not ring true that our 17th century English knight would want to bless the future American homeland of the Gorges family with the ancient name of their first English village – Maine.
Carol B. Smith Fisher of Brewer has written on Maine history and material culture.