Native American Placenames in Connecticut and the Meaning of “Willimantic”: Swift Waters or Cedar Swamp?
Jamie H. Eves and Katherine L. S. Eves
Windham Textile and History Museum
When we tell people that we live in Willimantic, Connecticut, they often ask about the meaning of the name. We usually tell them that the residents claim that “Willimantic” is Pequot-Mohegan for “swift waters,” a reference to the Willimantic River, which drops 90 feet in less than a mile as it courses through a narrow gneiss gorge. Strictly speaking, we have told the truth – the residents do claim that “Willimantic” is Pequot-Mohegan for “swift waters.” But there are other possible meanings, as well.
The Willimantic River at Willimantic, Connecticut, an industrial city in the town of Windham. Some people think “Willimantic” comes from a Pequot-Mohegan phrase meaning “swift waters.” More likely, it means “at the cedar swamp” or “at the lookout.” From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum. Photo by Stephanie Conforti.
True enough, “Willimantic” is probably derived from Pequot-Mohegan (although it might instead be from Narragansett, a related language), but the original word or phrase has been garbled beyond recognition, and the meaning is now unclear. It might mean “swift waters,” but it could also mean either “cedar swamp” or “lookout.” (Impatient readers can scroll down to the last paragraph to find out more about the meaning of “Willimantic.” Readers interested in learning more about Native American placenames in Connecticut generally should keep reading.)
One reason for all this confusion is that the native peoples of Connecticut, who came up with the original versions of these names, spoke several different variations of a diverse family of languages known as Algonkian (or Algonquian). In 1600 Algonkian-speakers occupied a vast expanse of territory in eastern North America, stretching all the way from northern Canada, to the Carolinas, to the Great Plains. They were divided into dozens of independent groups or tribes, most of which spoke their own distinct version of Algonkian. Each version differed from the others as much as English does from German or Swedish, French from Spanish or Romanian, or Polish from Russian or Slovenian. In order to translate a specific placename, one has to know which version of Algonkian it came from. Two different groups of Algonkians lived near Willimantic: the Pequots and Mohegans (who were really one people) to the south, and the Nipmucs to the north. It is impossible to be sure which of them – if either – first coined the name “Willimantic.” Still, the early English colonists who arrived in the 1600s knew the Mohegans better than they did the Nipmucs, so it is likely that the word came from them.
In fact, in 1600, on the eve of European colonization, the various native peoples of Connecticut probably spoke five different languages. The majority of those who lived in the eastern half of Connecticut – including many of those living in the Connecticut River valley and all of those residing along the eastern coast – spoke a tongue that scholars today call variously Pequot-Mohegan, Mehegan-Pequot, or just Mohegan. The Pequots, Mohegans, Niantics, and other “wolf people” (which is what they called themselves) lived along Long Island Sound and its tidal estuaries in large, prosperous fishing and farming villages of several hundred people each. In the early 1600s these powerful and populous people dominated the region, collecting tribute from their smaller, weaker, poorer neighbors.
This photo of the Willimantic River was taken just after the Hurricane of 1938, when the river was at flood stage. In the photo, water pours over one of several dams that span the river was it flows through the narrow, rocky Willimantic gorge, descending more than 90 feet in less than a mile. The swiftness of the water as it churns through the gorge has made the translation “swift waters” seem plausible to many. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.