“Swift Waters” or “Cedar Swamp”? The Meaning of “Willimantic” and Other Indigenous Place Names in Connecticut
When I tell people that I live in Willimantic, Connecticut, they often ask about the meaning of the name. I usually tell them that residents claim that Willimantic is Pequot-Mohegan for “swift waters,” a reference to the Willimantic River, which drops 91 feet in less than a mile as it courses through a narrow gneiss gorge. Strictly speaking, I have told the truth – the residents do claim that Willimantic is Pequot-Mohegan for “swift waters.” But the full story is a lot more complicated.
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 about the meaning of Willimantic. Readers interested in learning more about indigenous place names in Connecticut generally should keep reading.)
In addition, because the victorious Europeans were intent on demonstrating their conquest of Connecticut by bestowing new English place names on most of its features, they retained only a fraction of the old place 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 indigenous place names phonetically, but because the toponyms were so strange and alien to them, 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 for their own language 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 indigenous place 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 attempt at translation uncertain at best. Simply translating the suffix alone 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, I 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. I 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 website of the Mohegan tribe.)
Despite these problems, though, it is possible to make good guesses about the meanings of at least some of Connecticut’s indigenous place names. 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 place names 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. Place names 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 indigenous American place names connoted ownership and control, they also reveal that the natives 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 indigenous people 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 place name Massachusetts, for an Algonkian tribe, was coined by the English colonists, not by the natives.
What the indigenous 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 area 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 place names survived.
Unlike northern New England, few Connecticut place names 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, sea-worthy dugout canoes were difficult to portage, so canoe routes were less common. However, a few canoe-route names can be found: Naugatuck supposedly means “one tree,” perhaps 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. 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 Europeans did, as one continuous watercourse from source to mouth. In the natives’ minds, tidal estuaries were very different types of environments from fresh water rivers, so they viewed them as separate kinds of bodies of water, in much the same way that today 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 approximate boundary between the Pequots and Mohegans on one side and the Nipmucs on the other. For Europeans, rivers were either highways or boundaries, so they viewed them as continuous. For Algonkians, 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 place names 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 Europeans. 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 indigenous peoples 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 place names 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 place names. 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 place names 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”). I admit that “swift waters” has a nice ring to it. But there once was a fairly large swamp at the mouth of the Willimantic River, where it joins the Natchaug to form the Shetucket, and it seems logical 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 place names, sometimes one guess is as good as another.
Bond, C. Lawrence. Native Names of New England Towns and Villages.
Cronon, William. Changes In the Land.
Douglas-Lithgow, R. A. Indian Place and Proper Names of New England (1909).