ELLSWORTH — What’s in a name? When it comes to a name like Negro Island, a whole lot of complicated history.
The Hancock County Commissioners in a virtual meeting Tuesday heard a request from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names for the commissioners’ input on changing the name of Negro Island in the Bagaduce River in Castine.
After some discussion and a failed motion to take a neutral position on the issue, the commissioners decided to defer any action until there had been more discussion of the name change within the Castine community.
“We had a request for a name change some time ago, and we elected to not take any action on the premise that we wanted the local community members to decide that,” said Chairman Bill Clark.
He moved to take a neutral position on renaming the island while allowing local discussions to continue.
Commissioners Antonio Blasi and John Wombacher were opposed to taking a neutral position, but Blasi said it was “expedient” to refer the discussion back to the community informally.
The island is technically two islands connected by a sandbar. Maine Coast Heritage Trust owns Lower Negro Island and Upper Negro Island is privately owned.
Lisa Lutts, executive director of the Castine Historical Society, said the island’s name appears to date back to the American Revolution. As for its origins, “the definitive answer is nobody knows for sure.”
She said the history of people of color has not been well documented. Local historians continue to search for a primary source concerning the name.
“In 1781, when the region was very much under British control, a group of African-American Loyalists were briefly dropped on the island before being put back on board ship,” Lutts said. “It may be that the ship was on its way to Nova Scotia where several hundred African-American Loyalists were settled. This may be where the name came from, but we cannot know for sure.”
Lutts said the earliest written reference to the island she’s found was in George Wheeler’s history of Castine published in 1875. The island is referred to as Negro Island in a remembrance by William Hutchings, who took part in the Penobscot Expedition during the American Revolution.
This isn’t the first time a name change has been proposed.
In conversations with Maine Coast Heritage Trust staff, Matt O’Donnell of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names said that he learned “many people wanted to retain the name at the time — at the two times — they looked into changing the name.”
“We heavily want to rely on local stakeholder input,” said Caleb Jackson, a regional land steward with the trust.