SWAN’S ISLAND — To apostrophize or not, that is the question.
What seems like an easy question for residents of the territory six miles off the shore of Mount Desert to answer is not so obvious to others.
About 350 people reside year round on the unbridged island that is served by the Maine State Ferry Service.
For most of them, the answer is easy: include the apostrophe.
As we all learned in elementary English class, a possessive takes on an apostrophe to show ownership. In its most recent iteration the island is named for Revolutionary War Colonel James Swan, who purchased the island in either 1786 or 1790, depending on which historic document is being referenced.
“We are, of course, named for Col. James Swan who purchased the island in 1786,” said Dexter Lee, longtime former selectman for the town of Swan’s Island, in an email. “The federal government, in its infinite wisdom, with the sole exception of Martha’s Vineyard, does not accommodate the use of apostrophes in place names.”
Actually, there are five such places in the United States for which the apostrophe is included in the name, according to Nick Perugini. He is office of coast survey inquiry manager for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Unfortunately, Swan’s Island didn’t make the cut.
“It’s not a call that we make,” said Perugini who is based in Maryland. “It’s really a call that this board of geographic names make.”
The US Board on Geographic Names has the final say on such things as nautical maps and territory labels.
“They have a policy where there are no apostrophes that will be designated in names of territories,” Perugini said. “Things are locally known as one thing but geographically known as another.”
Different branches of the Maine state government list the name with or without an apostrophe and it is not always clear why the inconsistency. There may be discrepancies when referring to the island or the municipality, both of which have been established in Maine archives to include an apostrophe.
The municipality of Swan’s Island in its current form was established by an act of the state legislature in 1897. The text of the bill includes the apostrophe.
If one is looking through historic state records or recently updated ones, there are discrepancies.
“The apostrophe was always there, even before it was officially a plantation,” Maine State Archivist Dave Cheever told the Islander.
One of the state’s earliest records within the Hancock County Registry of Deeds, he said, has the purchase of the island by Swan recorded in 1790.
Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands maintains a Coastal Island Registry, first created in 1973 by the 106th Legislature.
It was last updated in 2015 and has the town of Swans Island listed without an apostrophe. The name of the island is listed as Swan’s Island, with an apostrophe.
“The primary purpose of the CIR is to distinguish between public and private ownership – not to maintain a current record of owners,” states the MBPL website.
Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth points to “The Length and Breadth of Maine” written by Stanley Bearce Atwood, published in 1946 as the standard for correct Maine place names. Atwood was a city editor for the Lewiston Daily Sun, now called the Lewiston Sun Journal, and a member of the Maine Historical Society.
“Atwood uses Swan’s Island with an apostrophe,” Shettleworth noted in an email.
Residents of the island typically refer to H.W. Small’s book, “A History of Swan’s Island, Maine,” published in 1898.
Small states Swan purchased the island in 1786 along with several other islands within the Burnt Coat group.
When French explorer Samuel de Champlain first documented the island it had recently been charred by a fire and thus was named Brule Cote. The English translation of that name was Burnt Hill, which further became distorted into Burnt Coat.
This was the name of the island when Swan purchased it. Col. Swan owned the island for a time, but never actually lived on it.
For many years residents of Swans Island would read ‘Welcome Home to Swans Island’ across the top of the entrance to the ferry terminal from the ocean. It didn’t feel welcoming.
“There’s been quite a few people complaining about this,” said resident Albert Buswell. “It is not right. We are Swan’s, apostrophe ‘s,’ that’s who we are.”
It is not clear whether the state responded to complaints or just decided it was time to reflect the state’s legal name for the island, but there is now an apostrophe on the sign.
“The state has changed this within the past year,” said Kimberly Haller, island resident for nine years. “Even the roadside signs have the apostrophe now.”
When the Mount Desert Islander was founded in 2001, Editor Earl Brechlin decided to go by way of the nautical charts of NOAA and official US Geological Survey maps when identifying Swans Island. Brechlin, who had been the editor at The Bar Harbor Times before founding the Islander, said he brought the tradition from the town’s historic paper to the new one.
The Islander’s sister paper, The Ellsworth American, includes the apostrophe when referring to Swans Island.
“First of all, we’ve left it out at the Islander out of respect for local tradition,” said Publisher Alan Baker. “We put it in the American because that’s what it is legally called.
“Most often when we are writing about the island, we are writing about the town,” he continued. “We’ve always used the apostrophe because it is the legal name of the town. I don’t call the shots. I inherited the tradition and I maintain it.”
Editor’s note: The Islander is pleased to accommodate the requests of current residents and selectmen and begin using the apostrophe when the names of the town and the island appear in the newspaper.