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Betsy’s Corner: American Indian Place Names in the US

Do you know how many states in the US are derived from American Indian place names? Over 50 percent of our states use Native American words to describe the state names. Several examples are listed below. Some American Indian words are easy to remember like TUCK. It means land, as in Nantucket or Kentucky. Some Indian names are much more challenging to the memory banks.

As a child we used to visit Lake Webster in the southeastern part of the state of Massachusetts. We no longer use the Native American word because it is just too hard to pronounce and much too long to write down or even try to spell. Have you ever visited Lake Webster? The name means, “You fish on your side of the Lake, and I will fish on my side of the lake and we will both fish in the middle.” (Or conversely – neither fish in the middle).

This certainly sounds like a peaceful resolution to a potentially contentious situation. There is a famous sign using the original name, but when it was replaced in 2003 they got the spelling wrong and had to fix it again.

Lake CHARGOGGAGOGGMANCHAUGGAGOGGCHAUBUNAGUNGAMAUGG is what I learned to say as a small 6-year-old girl, but I never learned to spell it. The name is 45 letters long. My grandfather from Connecticut told me how to pronounce it correctly. The word is not for the tongue-tied, that’s for sure! Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger even used this word in an old song from 1954 titled “The Lake Song” but these days most say Webster Lake – but even the Webster town officials have to look up the Native American spelling.

There are 20 islands in the 1,442-square-acre lake. For decades, there were a few family cottages and most of these were rustic without heat. In the past decade or so, many of the trees in the forested northern hillside were cut down to accommodate several larger homes with heat and electricity.

There are now over 800 lakeside residences – some quite expensive. If you want to visit, it is close to the intersection of three New England States; namely, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

The translation I quoted above was actually made up in the 1920s by a local reporter. The real meaning is this “English knifemen and Nipmuck Indians at the boundary or neutral fishing place.”

Here is an extensive list of some notable Native American place names: Please try to remember them as you drive around this summer. It’s fun to think about researching even more of these names as time goes on using Mr. Google.

Alabama – Tribal Town
Arizona – Pima Indian origin – “Little Spring Place”
Connecticut – Mohican or Algonquin – “Long Tidal River”
Indiana – Land of Indians
Iowa – Beautiful Land
Kansas – Sioux word for “South Wind People”
Kentucky – Land of tomorrow or Meadow Land
Massachusetts – “Large Hill Place,” at the Great Hill which refers to a Milton, Massachusetts volcano from 400 million years ago
Matunuck – in Rhode Island, “Lookout”
Michigan – Chippewa tribe – “Great Water”
Minnesota – Sioux word for “Cloudy Water” or “Skytinted Water”
Misquamicut – Narragansett language or Algonquian language meaning Red Fish
Mississippi – Gathering of the Waters
Missouri – River of Big Canoes
Nantucket – “Faraway island” Where Macy, Starbuck and Folger families came from Narragansett – Tribe from Rhode Island
Nebraska – Broad Water or Flat River
Ohio – Iroquois word “Fine or Good River”
Oklahoma – Choctaw word meaning “Redman” or Okla humma meaning Red People
Quonochontaug (Quonnie) means “Blackfish”
Saratoga – “Hillside Country of the Quiet River”
Utah –Navajo word meaning upper/higher up or Shoshone tribe used the word “Ute”
Weekapaug – End of Pond
Wisconsin – “Grassy Place” in Chippewa, Ouisconsin or Mesconsing. The U.S. Congress changed the spelling to what we use today.
Wyoming – in Algonquin it means “Large Prairie Place”

Wherever we travel, by land, sea or air, authentic native names are everywhere. In New England, all the British names hark back to where some of our ancestors came from long ago.

New Have, New Hampshire, New London or the repetitive Manchester, Newton (MA and RI), Orange (MA or CT) or Alton (RI or NH) towns are in more than one state…yes, it can be confusing. I once had a teenage friend who drove all the way from New York City to Manchester, NH only to find she was supposed to go to Manchester, VT.

Between the Native American names and the British inspired names there is little room for much more, but there are some French names and unique names out there. We may have trouble spelling them, but we will never forget a name like the “real” name of Webster Lake. Notice the signs along the way and “Happy Travels” to you and your families.

– By Betsy Huber Port