All Things Maine
All Things Maine

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Origins of Burnt Coat

Swan's Island was called "Burnt Coat Island" when James Swan bought it and two dozen adjacent islands sight unseen, July 7, 1786. In his History of Swan's Island, Maine, Herman W. Small offered an explanation of the earlier name:
Champlain gave the name of this island on that early map as Brule cote, "brule" meaning burnt, and "cote" hill—Burnt-hill. It is supposed that Champlain designated the island by some hill that had been burnt over. Some later discoverer translated "brule" burnt, but did not translate "cote", hence on his map he incorrectly gave this island the name Burnt Cote. Another, more stupid still, thought the former had made a mistake in spelling, and on his map had Burn Coat by which name it is called in a deed given October 28, 1790, as recorded in Hancock registry, book 1, page 28. Later it was generally known as Burnt Coat or Burnt Coal Island. [Link]
Brûle côte is more commonly translated as "burnt coast," and suggests that the island had been scorched by wildfires before the arrival of the French explorers.

An alternate theory attributes the name to Thomas Kench, "the island's first permanent resident."
Driven mad by the violence of the American Revolution, Kench deserted the Continental Army in 1776 and escaped to this remote place, where he lived as a hermit, far from the drums and destruction of war. As a deserter, he was said to have "burned his coat" or uniform: hence the name. [Link]
The island's name was again changed in the late 19th century, when the United States Geographic Board (consistent with its opposition to apostrophes) declared that it would be called Swans Island in official charts and documents—"Not Burnt Coat, Swan, nor Swan's."

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