Before Samuel de Champlain paddled out onto a large lake 412 years ago, he had heard Native Americans speak of it. They knew it by various names.
The Mohawk called it “Caniadari Quaront,” which has been translated as “wide lake” and “gateway of the good land.”
The Oneida called it “Oneadalote” or “Onyatalot,” which mean, respectively, “a lake” or “a wide lake.”
The Abenaki name was more descriptive, “Pe-ton-bowk,” which means “waters that lie between,” referring to the division between their lands and those of the rival Mohawk.
Despite the perfectly good names for this large body of water, Champlain gave it a new one: his own. As probably the first white person to venture into Vermont, he was starting a trend. The Europeans who followed over the next two centuries obliterated the native culture and most of the names Indians had given to the land.
Scholars have been able to identify a couple of hundred old Indian place names, some of which remain in common usage. The late John Huden, an education professor at the University of Vermont, spent decades tracing such names. His work was picked up by Esther Swift, who wrote “Vermont Place-Names” in 1977.
Huden admitted the shortcomings of his efforts. In writing about his research in Vermont History, the journal of the Vermont Historical Society, Huden conceded that “(t)his glossary of Indian place-names in Vermont is woefully incomplete, demonstrably inadequate, and in several places admittedly confused.”
Most of the Indian names that remain in Vermont came, not surprisingly, from the Abenaki, the tribe that had the largest presence at the start of the European invasion of the region. The Abenaki created nearly 100 names that Huden identified. Next come the Mohawk with about 50, followed by the Mohican with about a dozen. The Chippewa, Narragansett, Natick, Pennacook, Pocumtuc and Wampanoag each provided a few.
Huden and Swift note that the recording of Indian names on a map was an inexact science at best. Native Americans had no written language, and their languages had no linguistic connection with European languages.
So imagine what the process might have been. A European would ask an Indian what a certain place was called. Upon hearing the answer, the European, if he or she were literate, might have written down the name, trying to create a conglomeration of letters that would give readers some sense of how it sounded. Given the idiosyncratic spelling of the time, there were many ways the word might have been pronounced.
Over time, Swift pointed out, the Indian name for the Connecticut River has had roughly 50 spellings. Of course, if the settler who first heard the word was illiterate, this created another chance for distortion as the word was passed from person to person, no doubt mutating along the way, before reaching the ear of a mapmaker.
Europeans often named places in honor of a person or place — think of Rutland, which was either named after a town in Massachusetts or an English duke.
Indians typically took a more practical approach to naming areas and landscape features. They wanted to be able to find places again, so they named them after memorable details, like the color of the nearby rocks or the kind of plants that grew there. For example, the Winooski River gets its name from the Abenaki word for the wild onions (sometimes rendered as “winoskik”) that Indians harvested at its delta.
The names that have persisted seem most often to be those identifying water bodies. “Kwiniteguh,” meaning “the long river,” became the Connecticut River; “Obamaseen” or “Bomzen” and variations thereof, which may mean “keepers of the ceremonial fire,” apparently formed the basis for Lake Bomoseen in Castleton; and “Ottauquechee,” which could have meant “current coming out,” “cattails near current” or possibly even “place where land near muskrat lodges trembles,” lives on in the name of a river. The Mettawee River may have gotten its name from any number of sources. Huden suggests that it might be derived from an Algonquin dialect and mean “furthest away,” or from the Natick for poplar tree, or from Abenaki for the junction of two rivers.
The name of Chimney Point, a spit of land that juts into Lake Champlain in the town of Addison, is also subject to debate. It is often said to come from the chimney or chimneys that were the only remnants of a French fort that once stood on the site. But it also might come from what Huden said was a combination of Chippewa and Natick, “chemaun nayaug.” The words may have sounded rather like “chimney” but they apparently meant “canoe point,” perhaps because this was a spot where American Indians launched their canoes, or pulled them ashore.
The titillatingly named Ticklenaked Pond in Ryegate might also be the result of an old Indian word being mispronounced to make sense to a foreign ear. Huden believes its original name might have been “taugamochek,” a Delaware Indian word meaning “little beaver” or “little beavers.” Or possibly it comes from the word “Took-nock-ett,” which means “riverbank.” Whatever its source, the pond’s original name was not intended to conjure images of skinny-dipping.
Other landmark names might have had trouble sticking because of a difference of opinion between cultures. The Abenaki called a large mountain in central Vermont “Mozodepowadso,” or “mountain with a head like a moose.” European settlers looked at the same peak, decided it looked like a human face looking up at the sky, and promptly gave it the far less poetic name Mount Mansfield, after the town in Connecticut from which a major local landowner hailed.
For all the names like Missisquoi River, Okemo Mountain and Lake Memphremagog that dot Vermont maps with obvious Indian origins, some places have ancient ties to Native Americans that are less obvious. Sometimes the modern name for a place grew out of the meaning of the Indian name for it, rather than from an attempt to pronounce the original name, as with the Mohawk word “Dawinehneh” and the Abenaki word “Wonokakeetookeese,” both of which have been translated as “abode of the otters” and which referred to what we now call Otter Creek.
Samuel de Champlain was a cartographer as well as an explorer. During his 1609 tour of the lake that he named after himself, Champlain viewed the mouth of Otter Creek. His guides must have told him what the local inhabitants called this river, because on his map he identified it as “La Riviere aux Loutres,” or “the river of the otters.”
In this case at least, he showed a little humility and decided to leave well enough alone.