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.


Also spoken in eastern Connecticut was Narragansett, the language of the Narragansett people, whose headquarters was in Rhode Island, but also of the Nipmucs (“fresh-water people”), who inhabited numerous small, independent, self-governing, agricultural hill villages in an area the stretched from northeastern Connecticut through central Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire. With no access to the sea and its resources, the Nipmucs were poorer than the Pequots and Mohegans. Their villages were smaller and more scattered. They ate less protein and more grain. Pequot-Mohegan and Narragansett were closely related languages, however, with many words in common.

By contrast, most of the natives who lived in the western part of Connecticut probably spoke a tongue that scholars call variously Quiripi, Wampano, or Mattabesic-Paugussett-Schaghticoke. The Quiripi-speakers, too, were farmers and fisher folk like the Pequots and Mohegans, but less is known about them. They were probably poorer and less numerous. In any case, most of the Quiripi-speakers died in the 1600s, the victims of disease and war, and although a few of their descendants remain, most of their language has been lost. A few natives who lived in the far northwestern Litchfield Hills spoke Mahican, a common language among the New York tribes. Mahican was probably closely related to Quiripi (indeed, it may have been the same language), but was quite distinct from Pequot-Mohegan and Narragansett. Another small group, living in the Greenwich area, spoke Munsee Lenape (also known as Minisink), closely related to Lenape, the language of the native peoples of New Jersey, Delaware, and eastern Pennsylvania.

But the Algonkian placenames found in eastern Connecticut today could just as easily have been invented by neighboring tribes, like the Manhattans, Wampanoags, or Massachusetts, describing the territory of their enemies. The name “Pequot,” for example, means “destroyers” in Wampanoag. The historical record is usually silent about exactly which languages the names came from.

As this c. 1910 postcard shows, the banks of the Willimantic River rise steeply where it descends through the Willimantic gorge. Although this photo was taken from a footbridge, high cliffs along the banks provide good views. “Willimantic” might mean “at the lookout.”   From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Nor is it possible to tell the origins of the names simply by looking at their modern construction and spelling. Because none of the Algonkians had writing, and because so many of them died in the 1600s from disease or conquest, or were assimilated in the 1600s and 1700s by the Europeans, only portions of their languages remain, a fact that makes translation difficult, if not impossible. Today, Quiripi is essentially a dead language; only a few words remain, and scholars are doing little more than guessing when they hypothesize that it was related to Mahican. Even Pequot-Mohegan is no longer a fully living language. Several years ago the Mohegan tribal historian told us that while much of the vocabulary still exists, some of the words and much of the grammar have been lost. No fluent native speakers still live.

In addition, because the victorious Europeans were intent on demonstrating their conquest of Connecticut by bestowing new English placenames on most of its features, they retained only a fraction of the old names, and what they left may not have been a representative sample. What’s more, when the colonists did keep the old names, they inevitably mispronounced, mistranslated, or otherwise mangled them almost beyond recognition – a process that cultural geographers call folk etymology. The colonists tried to render the names phonetically, but because the toponyms were so strange and alien, and because English colonists were notoriously bad at picking up sounds from other languages, and because the English-speakers themselves did not have dictionaries and rules of spelling until more than a century after contact, what one colonist thought he heard and wrote down could differ vastly from what another recorded.

For example, the official Web site for Connecticut’s Hammonassett State Park translates the name “Hammonassett” (an estuary and beach along Long Island Sound, as well as the name of the park) as “where we dig holes in the ground,” a reference to a native farming village that once existed along the estuary. But over the years the name has been spelled variously as “Hamonossit,” “Homonoscitt,” “Homonasak,” “Homonasuk,” “Hommonasset,” “Homonoscet,” “Woothomonasak,” “Wuthommonassak,” and several other ways, a fact that makes any translation uncertain at best. Simply translating the suffix is problematic. Was it “-et” (a generic locative), “-auk” (place, land, area), “-ask” (grass), “-set” (a locative meaning “near” or “close to”), or something else entirely? Was it Pequot-Mohegan or Quiripi? And did those suffixes mean the same thing in Quiripi, a language about which little is actually known, as they did in Pequot-Mohegan, where much of the vocabulary at least is still available? (Here and throughout this article, we follow the spelling and translation of southern New England Algonkian words used by C. Lawrence Bond in his Native Names of New England Towns and Villages. We point out, however, that several other spellings and translations also exist, including a recent grammar of Pequot-Mohegan written by an anthropologist and posted on the official Web site of the Mohegan tribe.)

Before the construction of this dam, the area near the base of the Willimantic gorge was low and marshy. Much of what was once a swamp was filled in with gravel dug out of nearby Carey Hill when it was partially leveled to make room for Iverton, a village of worker houses built by the Willimantic Linen Company in the mid-1800s. “Willimantic” might mean “at the cedar swamp.”     From the collection of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Despite these problems, though, it is possible to make good guesses about the meanings of at least some of Connecticut’s Native American placenames. And doing so tells us a great deal about how the Nipmucs, Pequots, Mohegans, and others interacted with their environment. Historians, geographers, linguists, and other scholars of placenames agree that naming places is a common cultural mechanism for asserting control over the land. When people name places, they symbolically take possession of them, stamping them with the imprimatur of their own culture, history, and identity. “Geographic names connote power and ownership,” writes the geographer Mark Monmonier. Placenames are important, agrees J. Timmons Roberts, another geographer, because “the name carried by a place affects how we perceive it and how we perceive ourselves.”

Yet, if Native American placenames connoted ownership and control, they also reveal that the Indians defined ownership and control in ways that differed greatly from Europeans. “What the Indians owned – or, more precisely, what their villages gave them claim to – was not the land [itself] but the things that were on the land during the various seasons of the year,” writes the pioneering environmental historian William Cronon. “It was a conception of property,” he continues, “shared by many of the … agricultural peoples of the world, but radically different from that of the invading Europeans. In nothing is this more clear than in the names they attached to their landscape, the great bulk of which related not to possession but to use.” Algonkian placenames thus referred to the resources that the Indians could find in particular places, not to the names of any persons or groups who claimed ownership. There was no Algonkian equivalent of “England” (“the Angles’ land”), “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea,” what the Romans called the Mediterranean), or “Charleston” (“the town of King Charles”). Even the placename “Massachusetts,” for an Algonkian tribe, was coined by the English colonists, not by the natives.

What the native names did refer to was natural resources. Like “Hammonassett,” many of the toponyms denoted farmland, an especially valuable resource. In his 1909 Indian Place and Proper Names of New England, the amateur linguist R. A. Douglas-Lithgow cited several variants of “Poquonock,” meaning “land cleared for agriculture”: “Poquonock” (a village in Windsor), “Pequonnock” (an are in Bridgeport), “Poquonock” (a plain in Groton), “Paquanauge” (in Glastonbury), “Poconock” (in Milford), “Poconnuck” (a mountain in Sharon), “Poquahog” (Charles Island), “Poquetannuc,” “Paugwonk” (a pond in Salem), “Paukyowohhog” (a brook in Canterbury), and “Pauquapaug” (a brook in New Milford). European colonists frequently appropriated abandoned native “old fields” for their own use after the original inhabitants died or were driven away, which may be one reason why such placenames survived.

Unlike northern New England, few Connecticut placenames refer to canoe routes. This is probably because Connecticut did not have many white birches, which means that the Nipmucs, Mohegans, Pequots, and other Connecticut tribes lacked lightweight birch bark canoes. Their heavier dugout canoes were difficult to portage, so canoe routes were less common. However, a few canoe-route names can be found: “Naugatuck” means “one tree,” probably a riverside landmark that indicated which turn canoeists should take to leave the Housatonic River and enter its tributary, the Naugatuck. “Hoccanum” means “hook,” perhaps a reference to a hook-shaped gravel bar that identified the mouth of the Hoccanum River.

Bodies of water were important in other ways, though. We have already mentioned that “Connecticut” means either “at the long estuary” or “at the long river.” More likely it is the former, as Algonkians rarely, if ever, conceived of a river the way we do, as one continuous watercourse from source to mouth, a European perspective. In the natives’ minds, tidal estuaries were very different types of environments from fresh water rivers, so they viewed them as separate bodies of water, in much the same way that we would make a distinction between the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. The two ecosystems – estuaries and fresh water rivers – yielded different kinds of fish, birds, shellfish, and other resources. Besides, the fall line also marked the boundary between the Pequot and Mohegan fisher folk on one side and the Nipmuc farmers on the other. For Europeans, rivers were either highways or boundaries, so they viewed them as continuous. For Native Americans, however, they were ecosystems and sources of food and other materials, and waterfalls were the boundaries, so they viewed their different parts as separate units. Their placenames reflected this view.

Thus “Yantic” (the name of a fresh water river in eastern Connecticut) means “where fresh water flows into the estuary,” which distinguished it from the tidal Thames River. “Housatonic” means “at the place beyond the mountain,” a name that differentiates the inland, fresh water portion of the river from its estuary. “Quinnebaug” means “long pond” (“quinne-paug”); most likely the name originally referred only to a limited stretch of the river, perhaps where it ponded above some waterfall, rapids, or long-vanished beaver dam. Still, that the Algonkians viewed a fresh water river as a kind of pond is another way in which they differed from us. Considering that ponds and small, fresh water rivers have similar ecosystems, with similar aquatic plants and animals, their way of looking at it makes a lot of sense.

“Natchaug” comes from the Pequot-Mohegan for “in-between land” (nashoue-auk), and may have referred to the area between what are now the Fenton and Natchaug rivers. “Shetucket” (nashoue-tegw-et) has a similar etymology, and probably meant the area between the present-day Shetucket and Yantic rivers. In both cases the colonists not only garbled the pronunciation of the names, but also completely misunderstood their meaning, thinking that they referred to the Natchaug and Shetucket rivers instead of the uplands just beyond them. The names indicate that the natives viewed upland as yet another kind of ecosystem, distinct from fresh water rivers and estuaries. Such “in-between lands” would have had different resources – plants, animals, rocks, trees, soils – than lands directly on the riverbanks or seacoast.

Other Algonkian placenames referred to hills. Hills and mountains had both religious and economic significance; they were homes for spirits and sources of wood and stone. “Quaddick,” the name of a hill in Thompson, may be derived from “kodtuh-auk,” or “high place.” “Cos Cob” means “high rock” (kodtuh-obsk). “Owunnegunset,” a hill in Lebanon, may come from the Pequot-Mohegan words “wunnaug” (“bowl-shaped”), “-un” (a suffix meaning “beyond”), and the locative “-et” – “at the place just beyond the hollow.” “Tatnic,” the name of a hill in Brooklyn, is usually translated as “hill place,” but could just as easily be derived from “teig-et,” or “at the woods.”

Forests and woods also figure prominently in Algonkian placenames. “Taconic,” a village in Fairfield, means “at the wooded place” (teig-et). “Mashantucket,” today the site of the Pequots’ main village, means “at the great woods” (mess-um-teig-et). (The prefix “um-“ turns an adjective into a noun, just as “-ness” does in the English word “righteousness.”) “Mystic,” a village in Stonington and the site of Mystic Seaport, possibly has a similar meaning (mess-teig-et), although it has also been translated as “great estuary” (mess-tuk).

Finally, many Algonkian placenames referred to specific resources: “Abaquage,” a pond in Eastford (“a place where flags grow”); “Ahyohsupsuck,” a pond in Stonington (“place of hemp”); “Chickamug,” on the Pawcatuck River (“fishing place at the weir”); “Egunk,” a brook in Plainfield (“cold spring”); “Mehantic,” in Newtown (“evergreen swamp”); “Manatuck,” a hill in Granby (“lookout”), and “Menunkatuck,” an estuary in Guilford (“menhaden place”) are examples.

So what does “Willimantic” actually mean? It’s hard to say. It’s been spelled at least five different ways: “Willimantic” (the present spelling), “Waramanticut” (1684), “Wallamanticuk,” “Wewemantic,” and “Weammantuck” (1705). One possible translation is “place near the lookout” (wewe-man-et, or literally, near-lookout-locative). Another is “place near the evergreen swamp” (wewe-mahant-et). And a third could be “place near the loud river” or – stretching it – “swift waters” (wewe-paw-tegw-et), although Pequot-Mohegan speakers usually simply used the word “paw” (“loud”) to mean a waterfall, without adding the “tegw” (“river”). We admit that “swift waters” has a nice ring to it. But we know that a fairly large swamp probably once existed at the mouth of the Willimantic River, where it joins the Natchaug to form the Shetucket, and it seems logical to us that Pequots or Mohegans seeking to convey the river’s location to anyone heading inland from their principal villages downstream, might have identified it by the first thing the travelers would see when they reached it – not the rapids a half mile upstream, nor some high lookout somewhere beyond that, but by the clearly visible swamp at the river’s mouth. But that’s just a guess. And when it comes to deciphering the meaning of Connecticut’s Native American placenames, sometimes one guess is as good as another.