The Surprisingly Complicated History of How Portland Got its Name

By Viraj Shankar

The Origin of Portland’s name includes coin flips, Englishmen, and even Romans. 

We all love our city of Portland and its vibrant, colorful atmosphere. And while Portland is not necessarily the most interesting name, the city behind it is quite great. But how did Portland, actually, get its name?

Well, as commonly known by almost every elementary student in Oregon (as well as most Oregonians in general), two explorers came to Portland, each from different cities in the Northeast. Asa Lovejoy desired to name the newly built city after his hometown of Boston, MA. The other, Francis Pettygrove, was from the great state of Maine and wanted to name the settlement after his hometown, Portland. Unable to come to an agreement, the two decided to settle the argument with a coin toss. Pettygrove won, and thus the city of Portland, OR was born.

I was (somewhat) satisfied by this explanation until I was not. If Portland, OR got its name from Portland, ME, then where did Portland, ME get its name from? Well, it turns out, the Portland of Maine has a much more complicated history than one would expect. Native American settlers, who had inhabited the region for more than 11,000 years, had named the city Machigonne. However, when English settlers arrived, the city went through many different names before finally becoming Portland.

One of the first settlers of Maine, Christopher Levett, desired to name the settlement after his hometown of York. But upon returning to England, he failed to regain support for the settlement and never returned. After going through a few other name changes, such as Casco, and then Falmouth, the citizens of the settlement finally decided to name the city Portland, after the Isle of Portland, situated on the English Channel. The island is very tiny, measuring 4 miles long by 1.7 miles wide, and only has 12,400 inhabitants. That isle was originally discovered by the Romans, who named it Vindelis.

So, to sum it up, Portland, OR got its name through a bunch of Romans who discovered an island which eventually gave rise to the English people who eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come to America. Then once in America, they decided to take a 3,000-mile trek to the other side of the country to flip a coin in order to decide Portland’s name. And you thought you knew the whole story!