Many archeologists believe that the Munsee, a branch of the Lenape, a Native American tribe of Algonquin culture, may have lived along the banks of the Upper Delaware as early as 12,000 years ago, …
Many archeologists believe that the Munsee, a branch of the Lenape, a Native American tribe of Algonquin culture, may have lived along the banks of the Upper Delaware as early as 12,000 years ago, hunting, fishing and eventually farming, growing corn, squash and beans. They held great council fires and annual green corn festivals along the Delaware River—which they called Lenapewihittuck—and celebrated the region’s natural beauty and its healing qualities. They referred to the area as Lenapehoking: “land of the Lenape.”
Ongoing clashes with the more aggressive and populous Iroquois tribes to the north and growing tensions with the ever-increasing number of Europeans moving into the region prompted the Munsee to move westward, abandoning this area by about 1730.
But a legacy remains in the form of local place names still in use today.
The two branches of the Lenape—the Munsee, or Wolf tribe, which inhabited this area, and the Unami, or turtle tribe, which lived farther south—were closely related and spoke similar, but not identical languages. Neither used a written language, so the meanings of many of their words have been lost to time. Both languages are considered endangered today, although there are small groups of tribal descendants attempting to reconstruct and preserve them. Still, precise translations of many terms are difficult to ascertain, and most are speculative at best.
There are places in our region that are named for revered Lenape leaders—Tammany Flats and Lake Teedyuscung come immediately to mind—but there are also local names derived from the Munsee language. These words typically include one of three suffixes, although because of the absence of a traditional written language as a guide, they are not always spelled consistently. Those suffixes are -unk (sometimes appearing as -ung, –onk or -ong); -ink (sometimes –ing); and –ack (occasionally –eck).
While the common use of these suffixes to designate “places” makes it fairly easy to identify place names derived from the Munsee language, accurately translating them is much more difficult.
The –unk suffix (and its variants) seems to typically apply to mountains, cliffs, or lofty places. Derivatives still in use in the region today include Shawangunk, which is often translated as “southern mountain” or “salty mountain,” the latter of which is possibly due to the whitish appearance of some of its rock faces. The place name Cochecton is another derived from the Munsee language, and most scholars believe it was originally pronounced Cushetunk, a place name that also survives in the region. There have been many translations suggested for this over the years, but no consensus. Perhaps the most plausible might be “place of the red hills.” Equinunk is another of these Munsee-derived place names, although there is little agreement as to its meaning.
Place names that end in the –ing suffix or its variants are typically low-lying areas, valleys, or streams. In this category, we find Minisink, Neversink (originally Navasing), Mamakating, Papakating and Wawarsing. Another common local place name that originally derived from Munsee, although it might not at first appear so, is Mongaup, believed to be a truncated version of Mongauping, which is sometimes translated as “stream (or valley) of the dancing feather.”
Some who have studied the Munsee language have suggested that when the tribe repeated a syllable, as in Mamakating, Papakating and Wawarsing, it was to emphasize a feature. For example, a widely accepted translation of Wawarsing is “very winding stream.”
Munsee words ending in the –ack suffix are also typically valleys or streams, such as Walpack, Paupack, Homowack, Lackawack (and Lackawaxen) and Mahackamack.
Interestingly, there are also local place names in use today that are claimed to be of Munsee origin but are likely more modern inventions intended to evoke some romanticized vision of the Native American culture.
Tennanah Lake is said to be named for the Lenape chieftain Tennanah, but the truth of the matter is that there was no such person. Instead, in the early 1900s, when the region began to solicit tourists in earnest as the tanning and timber industries waned, the residents of Woodville, located at Long Pond in the northern part of Sullivan County, decided they needed a more picturesque name for both their hamlet and their body of water. The Tanana River in Alaska had just been the scene of a gold strike and was in the news, and that became the inspiration for the name. The Native American connection was concocted to appeal to prospective tourists.
Likewise, the claimed origins of both Kauneonga Lake and Kiamesha Lake are probably apocryphal. Kauneonga Lake, which is supposedly translated as “like the wings of a bird,” is said to be the Munsee name of the body of water we commonly call White Lake. Although we can’t be sure, the word—and the story surrounding its use—is likely the invention of the poet, Alfred B. Street, who wrote often and lovingly of the natural beauty of Sullivan County, where he grew up.
“Kiamesha” is said to be a Munsee word meaning “crystal-clear waters,” but it, too, is likely a 19th-century creation. In his “History of Sullivan County,” published in 1873, James Eldridge Quinlan says as much, noting that the lake’s original name, Pleasant Lake, likely dates back to 1795. Kiamesha, he writes, “is an alleged word of the Lenape tongue signifying clear water. We suspect that the aboriginal cognomen is a modern invention.”
These are just a few samplings of local place names that can be traced back to the Munsee language. There are many others not listed here. For more examples and a better understanding of this complex subject, Robert S. Grumet’s 2013 book, “Manhattan to Minisink: American Indian Place Names in Greater New York and Vicinity” is a great resource. Just don’t expect any definitive translations.
John Conway has been the official Sullivan County, NY Historian since 1993. He wrote the curriculum for and taught the History of Sullivan County at SUNY Sullivan for 18 years and currently teaches six-week courses in both Sullivan County and Upper Delaware history sponsored by the non-profit history education group, The Delaware Company.