Notes and Documents
By Halvdan Koht (Volume XIII: Page 186)
The town of Norway, in the state of Maine, is the oldest place of that name in the
United States. It received the name in 1797, and as yet no one has been able to explain
why it was chosen.
An inhabitant of the town, David Noyes, published there in 1852 a book entitled the History
of Norway: Comprising a Minute Account of Its First Settlement, Town Officers, the Annual
Expenditures of the Town, with Other Statistical Matters; Interspersed with Historical
Sketches, Narrative and Anecdote, and Occasional Remarks by the Author. It is
interesting that nowhere on the title page is a reference to the state of Maine given, an indication
that the town that was the subject of the book was the only one of that name in the
The book is a very carefully documented story of this town, and in particular it
contains the full text of the act of incorporation by which, on March 9, 1797, several
tracts, or grants, of land situated in the county of Cumberland were incorporated into a
town called Norway according to a resolution adopted by the general court of Massachusetts
(it was only in 1820 that Maine was made a separate state). The author, however, makes no
attempt to explain the origin of the name.
No part of the town bore the name "Norway" before this act of incorporation.
The names of the particular districts that were incorporated into Norway were Waterford,
Rustfield, Lee's Grant, and Cummings' Grant. The first settlement of these districts began
in 1786, and in the lists given by the author of the settlers of the first years and of
the taxable residents at the date of the incorporation there are no names but of British
origin, either English or Scotch. All the settlers had come from other parts of
Massachusetts. Thus, nothing in the story of the settlement suggests why the name of
"Norway" should have been given to it.
Among the old settlers of Massachusetts one will often hit on names that have a truly
Scandinavian look, such as Gunnison, Harelson, and Iverson. But upon tracing their origin,
one discovers that their bearers without exception had come from Great Britain; and if
such names are Scandinavian--Norwegian or Danish--they rather point back to those days
when Norsemen settled in the British Isles. No tradition about Norway could have been
carried along by such settlers.
In the summer of 1942 I made a trip to Norway, Maine, chiefly in order to search for
the reason that had motivated such a choice of name at so early a date, long before the
Norwegian immigration to America started. I was happy to find a copy of the rare book
published by Noyes, and I talked with many people about the question. Since Noyes said
nothing about the origin of the name, they were unanimous in their opinion that no
document existed that gives an explanation. It was said to be generally believed that the
name was given by mistake, although no one could explain how such a mistake could have
been made. Some suggested that the character of the land, with mountains and woods, rivers
and lake, might have seemed to the early set-tiers to resemble that of Norway in Europe.
This suggestion presupposes that the settlers had read about that distant country or seen
pictures of it. Personally, I made the guess, in a letter from Maine published in Decorah-posten
for September 4, 1942, and in Nordisk tidende for September 3, that the
romantic ideas of Norway as the original home of freedom that were current in Europe in
the second half of the eighteenth century might have had echoes here when Americans fought
for their freedom. At any rate, I had to state that there was no trace of Norwegian
settlers in this town; even today, extremely few Norwegians live in this truly Norwegian
environment, though a whole colony of Finns have settled there and even brought with them
the art of skiing.
I am now able to throw a little more light on this perplexing question. Through the
courtesy of Mr. Frederic W. Cook, secretary of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, I have
been informed that in the original petition signed by the inhabitants of the district, the
name they proposed for their town is given as "Norage." Thus it is evident that
they had no idea either of the natural or of the romantic suggestion implied in the name
of Norway. "Norage" appears rather as a fabricated name, inspired by the feeling
that their district was far to the north. In the offices of the commonwealth, however, the
name of "Norage" met with no favor, and in the bill as presented to the general
court it was changed to "Northam." Nor was that name found satisfactory, and in
the written bill it was crossed out and replaced by "Norway."
Nothing in the documents suggests a reason why the authors of the bill finally stopped
at this name. We may imagine that they simply thought this form more appropriate or more
attractive for a mountainous district in the northern parts of the state than the other
forms suggested. Or we may believe that they had been influenced by what they had heard or
read about old Norway. Anyhow, it now seems clear that this name was not chosen by the
settlers, but by officers or public representatives of the state of Massachusetts. Later
it became a tradition of Maine to select the names of foreign countries and cities for its