According to the Maine State Library, in 1639, King Charles issued a charter declaring that this northeastern corner of the United Kingdom’s “New World” territories “shall forever hereafter be called and named the Province or County of Mayne and not by any other name or names whatsoever.”
The reason King Charles was so adamant was that he apparently really hated explorer Fernando Gorges’ new suggestion of “New Somerset,” and the king was doubling down on the name used previously since 1622.
Of course, the name Somerset ultimately lived on as the name of a county within the state.
But despite the king’s foot stomping on the issue, that really wasn’t the final say on it.
In addition to New Somerset, there were still three other names bandied about for the territory we now call Maine — two of which appeared as late as 1820, when Maine was on the verge of becoming a state and having its name etched in stone.
According to the Maine State Library, those alternate names were:
- Yorkshire: In 1652, the people of Maine asked to be taken under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts, a request many nascent Mainers later regretted. In any event, Massachusetts named their new northeastern county “Yorkshire,” presumably after a northern England county, and the name apparently almost stuck.
- Lygonia: Around 1630, Gorges picked this name for a 1,600-square-mile part of pre-colonial Maine as a way of honoring his mother, Cicely Lygon. The province of Lygonia encompassed most of what’s today southern-to-mid-Maine, from Cape Porpoise to the Kennebec River. Lygonia greatly overlapped the area chartered eight years earlier as Maine, and was considered at the time a threat to overtake the province of Maine as the primary designation for the territory which would later become a state.
- Columbus: From a 1926 article in the Lewiston Journal: “A debate in the constitutional convention of 1820, creating ‘the State of Maine’ lasted two or three days and a strong argument against ‘Maine’ was its lack of euphony. So they almost called us ‘Columbus’ and almost voted ‘Ligonia’ on us. So they compromised on ‘the State of Maine.’ Not ‘the Commonwealth of Maine’ because that took too long to write and because as one of the speakers remarked, ‘He’d be [damned] if he’d vote for any name that Massachusetts had ever used.'”
It’s not immediately clear to me when or why “Mayne” became “Maine,” although it’s possible the spellings were effectively interchangeable for a long time, went back and forth depending on who was writing about the area.
As the Maine State Library reports, that name may have ties to the traditional French province of Maine, or perhaps more likely an English village at the time with the same name. Another theory is that the name came about more naturally, as European sailors sought to distinguish the mainland — “the main” — from the nearly 5,000 islands along the coast.
Featured main page portrait of King Charles I, done in 1628 by Gerritt van Honthorst, in public domain.