If you’re a native Mainer living in Maine right now, you probably never wondered how your home town got its name. You’re content to live in Passadumkeag or Molunkus knowing they’re from the original native tongues, something your Penobscot neighbor might be able to translate (or maybe not, times being what they are). If you’re the sort who asked questions when you were young, you’ve probably moved away by now; I know, because that was me. Asking too many questions makes folks uncomfortable, I’ve found, so nowadays I do it in a big city where everyone already ignores me anyway.
Trouble is, if you don’t ask, you never learn. And so many fine old tales that ought to have been told over and over have started to die out over the years. This is one I heard when I was very young; not long ago I ran across a variant of it in one of the Histories of Paarfi of Roundwood (as translated by Steven Brust) and bethought myself to track down the original, just to make sure I had the details right. Well, wouldn’t you know it, the fellow who first told me had the audacity to kick off while my back was turned. He was one of those relatives that turns into a perpetual houseguest; I never thought he was going to leave until he up and went. And now he’s gone, and so are some of his stories.
Well, I confess that kind of shook me. Worse was finding out nobody else remembers this particular tale, not the way I heard it. I found one fellow who has most of the telling but puts it in the wrong town, another who has the right place but tells it back to front and sorta sideways-like in places. So I took what they told me and meshed it with the notes I wrote down at the beginning, and this is the tale I ended up with:
There’s a famous town in Belgium with a remarkable name.
It wasn’t always in Belgium; not that it moved, but there was a time when Belgium didn’t exist, and other times when it did but it was somewhere else. The borders shifted a great deal, and so did the native language. So when it was named Furd, it was just as a point on the map, and “Furd” meant “ford”, or a river crossing. But then of course the Germans conquered it and built a bridge, naming it Furdbrugge, or “ford bridge”. It was liberated by a band of Scots fighting for King Louis, who promptly called it Firdbrig Drochaid (“ford bridge bridge”); the Frisians who garrisoned it next named it Fedro-brääch, since “brääch” was Frisian for “bridge”. The French force that moved in simplified that to Fedron and added Pont to the beginning (for “bridge”). Then the Germans came back and burned the bridge but failed to capture it, leaving it in the hands of the surviving locals, who called it Ponfred from that day forward. When they rebuilt the bridge, it was Ponfred Brugge.
Of course, then everyone died in the Black Death, and the river having changed course, nobody went near the place again until they drove an eight-lane highway over the long-uninhabited ruins. It’s now known as the Maasmechelen Off-Ramp. This is actually true.
And if you believe that, just wait until I tell you about North New Portland.
Long and long ago, there was a spot on the coast the natives called Machigonne, or Great Neck, from the shape of the spit of land that stuck out into the sea. One group of settlers came from England and tried to call it York, but that didn’t stick; rumor has it they traveled west until they found another Machigonne, which they also tried to call York, but the locals insisted on Detroit. The fight continued until 1812, when… Ah, but that’s another tale.
Back on the coast of Maine, another flock of bright-eyed optimists had come to the same ground. They abandoned the old name as ill-omened, and set up a trading camp called Casco, short for Aucocisco, the native name for the great island-studded bay. The next wave of immigrants named their new home Falmouth, and that name survived the town being attacked, burned to the ground, and all but wiped out in the Abenaki raid of 1676 and again in 1690. The replacement settlers, plus a couple of survivors (among them two of my own ancestors), kept Falmouth as the new name and established Fort Loyal nearby to protect them.
But then came Mowat and the HMS Canceaux of hated memory. In 1775, out of spiteful revenge for a minor embarrassment some months before, Mowat shelled Falmouth and burned the town, which until then had been a Loyalist bastion. By the time he was done, there were some two thousand fire-eating revolutionaries in Falmouth and nary a Loyalist was found. When they rebuilt, they called the new town Portland, and it stands to this day — as does a different Falmouth, a couple of miles up the coast; some folks only wanted to rebuild just the once, and so put a bit of distance between themselves and the ocean.
In an effort to appease the enraged citizenry, the Massachusetts legislature (Maine was a part of Massachusetts in 1775, though we soon rectified that error) granted the residents a large tract of fine timberland on the Carrabassett River in the back country. Once the War was over, a handful of hardy veterans moved up there and, rather than call it “New Falmouth”, which was already the name of the new Falmouth, they went with “New Portland”.
Turns out, some of the Falmouthians didn’t much care for the other folks that settled there, and they went over to the west side of the river, founding West New Portland. Still others, disdaining the company of either group, moved to North New Portland. There was the normal bickering and rivalry, and it was compounded by the fact that, while the river water was pristine (and still is), the soil was useless for growing anything other than trees (and still pretty much is). So, after several decades of near famine, the locals turned gradually to timber harvesting, and inventing ever-more-potent mixtures to drive off the local mosquitos, which grow to the size of a young albatross.
And then along came the opening up of the West, and a different, newer Portland was founded. Frank Pettygrew, from Calais, put together a stake and started a mercantile out at what then was a clearing called Oregon City. He sent back to recruit lumbermen, and won a coin toss with his then-partner to name it after their home town — but rather than call it West North New Portland, they just went with Portland, ostensibly to prevent confusion, but in truth because they wanted to keep the name all on the same sign.
Today, nobody remembers about the other other Portland; they even get Frank’s name wrong and call him Pettygrove, which is fair enough; his cousins went with Pettygrove too. And there’s a park in old Portland dedicated to him, even though he named the new Portland (as opposed to New Portland) after a different town entirely (which, if you recall, wasn’t New Portland either, but rather North New Portland). But nobody really cares enough to make a fuss, because North New Portland is a great place to be from, but not all that great a place to be, which is why they left in the first place.
Now, the preceding is a true story. Which is to say, it’s a story, and there’s a lot of truth in it, but I wouldn’t go reciting it as fact to your eighth grade history teacher, who believes in the power of books and curriculae but not so much in stories. Which is too bad, really, because you can learn a lot from stories, which are about people, and not so much from a curriculum, which is a made-up word about an imaginary racecourse, and therefore about nothing at all.
We offer two options: You can send cash to PayPal in order to help support us, or you can buy us a coffee. We can use the morale boost — and the caffeine, particularly now that post-COVID fatigue has set in.