Sunday, May 23, 2010

Local Iroquois names and their meanings.

In upstate New York, many of the local rivers, lakes and even roads derive their names from native words. I live in Chemung county, which is in the Southern Tier of New York. The Chemung River flows through Elmira, the county seat, and legend has it that a woolly mammoth tusk was unearthed in a dry part of the river stream bed, hence the name Chemung which means "place of the horn".

To the north of Chemung County, the Finger Lakes stretch out across central New York in long, thin, finger-like spans, the closest of which is Seneca Lake. The Iroquois word Seneca means "great hill people". Cayuga is the Finger Lake closest to Ithaca, and its name means "at the landing". Keuka is one of the smallest Finger Lakes, and the Iroquois translation is "canoe landing".

Our area is abundant in lakes and waterways, many of which retain their native names. Onondaga means "on the mountain". Waneta translates "hemlock" and Lamoka is a small lake whose meaning is "set off by water". Oneida is yet another lake name meaning "on the standing rock".

Streams and rivers were a major trade and transportation venue for the Iroquois with their pine bark canoes, so it stands to reason each bears a native name. Conhocton is a river whose name means "log in the water". And then there is Catherine Creek, to this day a major trout source to which fishermen flock. Catherine was a queen from the Montour Clan.

Indian names abound in New York to this day. Susquehanna River runs near the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Its exact meaning is unknown, but it is said to derive from two words, "Susque", meaning "long reach", and "hanna", meaning "river" or "stream" in Algonquin. The place where the Chemung River meets the Susquehanna was a great trading ground among the Iroquois tribes, where artifacts can be found to this day.

Finally, Singsing is an Iroquois word meaning "stone on stone". Aside from the infamous downstate prison bearing that name, there is a lovely road in Horseheads/Big Flats by that name with beautiful horse farms and some of the earliest farmsteads in Chemung County.

The sheer number of Iroquois names for the landmarks and waterways in upstate New York bears testimony to the first inhabitants of this beautiful land full of lakes, streams and rivers.


  1. I love this sort of thing, Kathleen! I enjoy learning languages in general, and I find Native American languages fascinating.

  2. Very interesting and nice post, Kathy. I'll bet where you live is beee-u-ti-ful!

  3. I used to live in Michigan and it was the same way with names up there, too. My university's mascot is the Chippewa Indian.

  4. We have a lot of names from Indian names and words as well here in the Carolinas.

  5. Kathleen, I love all your local history posts. You have an award waiting at Blessings!