Indigenous Language Content in Place Names: Southern Algonquian Emphasis
Compiled by Buck Woodard
The Native language of the area surrounding Jamestown has today been traditionally referred to as Virginia Algonquian or Powhatan Algonquian. While there may have been several dialects divided by the Tidewater river systems, it is generally thought that the language was mutually intelligible from North Carolina to Maryland. From these closely related dialects, Europeans at Jamestown would begin a long term relationship with the Powhatan language. Because Jamestown formed the first permanent English speaking colony in North America, interactions with Virginia Algonquian comprised the majority of the European experience with Native languages in their earliest period of settlement. Hence, Powhatan enjoys the prestige of having provided more loan words into English than any other single Native language. Europeans naturally adapted Algonquian names for plants, animals, and land forms that they encountered in foreign territory.
Despite almost four hundred years of occupation by Europeans, the landscape of Virginia has retained some Algonquian in varous forms within the area of place names. Additional content can also be seen in various forms of Eastern Siouan, Southern Iroquois, and few stray Muskogean words for places within the state. The nature of this appendix is merely to illustrate the enormity of material present and to offer a list, available for further research. It can be said assuredly that there are errors and overlooked content, however the majority of the analyzation would eventually lie on the more studied linguists and archivist. For a further, more thorough investigation of place names retaining the original Algonquian in situ, see McCartney and Rountree (forthcoming).
The collection of contemporary place names for Virginia can be best observed in the form the United States Geological Survey. The Commonwealth can be viewed in full using topographic quadrangles and a complete index of all cultural and geographic names is available for analysis. Accordingly, this appendix follows the established categories of features used by the Department of Conservation and Economic Development, Division of Mineral Resources with some minor modifications. From the more than 30,000 names reviewed, six categories of indexed material have been listed. The first section is dedicated to a brief list of independent counties and cities. The next category is referred to as "Place Names". This section contains mostly man made features such as towns and landings. "Water Features" is the title of the following section, and is comprised of the waterways in the state including rivers, streams, swamps, inlets, etc. The fourth section is titled "Land forms", listing the various land masses such as hills, mountains, valleys, etc. The final two categories has been dubbed "Select Religious Features" and "Select Municipal Features". Within these categories, choice churches and roads have been mentioned according to their relevance in this survey. The "Municipal" section only gives two examples, the total state content needing further review.
While many names have been extant since contact, many others have been replaced or anglicized to conform to English speech patterns. The index includes not only those original Algonquian names for the features, but also Virginia Algonquian that has made it's way into names through loan and loan-blend words. In as much, "Moccasin Creek" is probably not the indigenous name for that water feature, but is included because "moccasin" is Powhatan Algonquian. No separation has been made between extant indigenous names for features and loan or loan blend Algonquian that has made way into Virginia place names. Additional language listings have been included because they represent other indigenous groups within the Jamestown arena during the seventeenth century. These mostly come in the way of non-Powhatan Algonquian, Eastern Siouan and Southern Iroquois. However, the non-Powhatan words have been marked as (*) and as a collective whole. That is to say there has not been a distinction made by this author to group non-Powhatan words into language families. Many names are much later additions and would not reflect indigenous names for the select features. The importance of including as many of these words as possible may allow further evaluation of non-Algonquian place names extant in the geographic record, as well as illustrate the prevalence of Native language content in the English language and within the state of Virginia. Further, many names that appear within the record are denoted as of questionable origin (**). These words are those that appear suspect, but may have not been fully studied and are included as a matter of curiosity. Some words appear several times in several areas of the state. These repetitive situations have been reproduced within each section as a means of being inclusive rather than exclusive. With that idea in mind, it would seem appropriate to illustrate not only the prevalence of the use of Native based words, but also complete indexing as a means to future evaluate multiple localities retaining the same Algonquian word for a feature i.e., "Rickahock, Rocky Hock, Ricahock", etc. While less relevant, multiple later additions (both Powhatan and non-Powhatan) have also been included for the same reasons and to remain consistent. Only select names have been listed for roads and churches as these are only relevant either in their locality or in their language content; roads and churches tend to be the least stable mapping cultural elements, tending to change and have more additions frequently. In the case of roadways, some extant Powhatan Algonquian appears in road names and is worth mentioning. Within the two examples mentioned, two types of relevance can be seen. "Arrahateck Lane" in Henrico Co. is an example where place names have left the geographical record, however the domestic road name is in place at the site of the former village. The same can be said for other sites, and further review is needed. The second example is "Acquinton Church Rd." in King William Co. This road is another type of resource database needing further investigation as well. "acquinton" is the Powhatan word for canoe and would represent extant Algonquian in the roadway networks. Very few other sites retains this name (not including an Elementary School nearby) and other examples of this type of naming activity are present in other areas, bearing merit for further investigation.
While the principal of this index is to compile all relevant Native words within the state place names, some exclusions have taken place. Those localities that have the words "Indian" or "Redman" have not been included. Language being the content and not Indian styled names is the sole reason for this choice. Inferences can be made about these localities on an individual basis.
The word list is organized alphabetically by feature. County names appear in the column to the right, Native based words appear on the left. When a feature stretches over more than one county or city, all of the joining areas are listed; the right hand column lists them alphabetically as well. In some cases, alphabetizing the list proves elusive for some names. Such a case would be a "C" listing for "Camp Pocahontas" as opposed to the "P" listing one would expect.
From reviewing this simple list, several observations can be immediately made while others require more perception. It is hoped that future evaluation of these features can continue to produce a comprehensive review of Eastern Algonquian feature names from the Maryland Eastern Shore south to the Pamilco Sound in North Carolina. The collection of Algonquian words is truly amazing and could expand some word lists that we have from the seventeenth century chroniclers. While we do not have definitions or adequate evaluation, we do have large collections of Algonquian available to study phonological patterns and possibly meaning can be gleaned from those that have continued in situ. Further, it can be said that additional heavy research and development is needed in this immediate area (Mid-Atlantic) by the studied Algonquianist trained in Eastern Language patterns and culture. To date it has only been truly investigated at length, with convincing concrete results in phonology, by one linguist Frank Siebert, Jr. Other evaluations have been carried out by other researchers, but they have only evaluated the surface of the language (there is so little to work with) or left more questions than answers. Solid research in Proto Eastern Algonquian migration patterns and geographic variations in dialects would help to begin the evaluation of the Powhatan grammar. Jack Forbes began work in this area in the 1970's but published little on the subject and left even fewer references for his findings.
Of the naming pattern itself, it is interesting to look at the frequency of Algonquian names in the landscape. By far the heaviest county would be Accomack on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Additional counties with high name counts are Westmoreland, Northampton, Fairfax, and King William. As can be imagined, predominance of Algonquian is centered in areas of Powhatan occupation; the majority of Iroquoian name content is more prevalent in areas of Southwestern Virginia; Siouan name collections are found in places where Siouans had higher numbers in the piedmont. However, names of some features defy that immediate generalization. This trend can be seen as situations where Algonquian language is used to describe a Siouan group or feature, hence placing the Algonquian outside of the traditional area of influence ("Nottoway" in Lunenberg Co). Another situation that has already been mentioned is Native loan words and loan blends. By the eighteenth century, the western part of the state was being settled and many generations of Europeans had been exposed to indigenous languages. Some transfer of words occurred early and by the time some features were named, the Indian words had become common in the developing American dialects of English. Hence, names such as "Hickory Run" (from Powhatan: pawcohiccora) and "Coon Branch" (from Powhatan: Ararahcun) had transferred into English and Anglicized to suit English needs very early in the settlement. Other names from Cherokee (Iroquoian - like Stonega Gap) and Creek (Muskogee - such as Osceola) had been adapted through the centuries and used across the region as well (i.e. Paw Paw from Arawak word for a papaya).
By far, the Native name list is heavily tilted toward the Algonquians along the Eastern Seaboard. This can be attributed to the initial reception of the Native culture and language. The English were unsure of their footing and attempted to moderate the usage of local and European names, even if subconsciously. As the colony grew and a stronghold developed, names tended to be more European inspired and ironically named for those families or benefactors involved in occupying the new settlements. So, in the beginning, Powhatan was often used to describe and name places, objects, living things, etc. As the Powhatan became less populous than the English, Powhatan names were replaced, anglicized, or kept depending on the area. The Lower and Middle Peninsula were the major areas of expansion and they accordingly lost Powhatan inhabitants and interaction earlier. The Northern Neck was farther along in the settlement pattern and thereby retained Native culture and interaction for a longer period of time. The final Eastern area to be heavily (by the period's standard) settled was the Eastern Shore. Hence, a larger foothold of Native names has been retained. That is to say, the Natives stayed on the Shore longer than the other areas because of the isolation created by the Chesapeake Bay. They were contacted and settled among, but not nearly as heavily. Low European population over a longer period of time and continued interaction with Natives in the area produced the Algonquian names being established, understood, and accepted by the English. Today, the Eastern Shore Algonquian names are more numerous than any other area, or any other specific group in Virginia. The next heaviest concentration lies on the Northern Neck. The lowest Algonquian name collection appears along the James and York River drainage. The naming practices in pattern would of course be apparent:
1) Eastern areas heavily occupied by the English quickly, contain less names than areas that were gradually or later settled.
2) Areas that lost the Native population and where interaction declines quickly, retain less Native inspired or original names in the physical features.
3) Areas that are settled by the English but remain "remote" and continued to be occupied by Natives for longer have more Indian names in the landscape.
4) Areas where there is longer interaction and more even populations for longer periods tend to carry more Indian place names.
5) Once the English become comfortable with their place in the Virginias, dominate the Native population, less Indigenous names are used or kept in naming practices. Mostly loan words from Virginia
Algonquian are used after this period.
There is a segment of the Native word list that is Algonquian from outside of Virginia. In some cases it is unclear whether the names were loaned into English before they become place names or if the words were used in relationship to the cultural experience on the frontier. Some words included in this category would be "Wabash, Shawnee, Pecan, Wigwam, Shenandoah, etc.".
Iroquoian and Siouan content is marginal in comparison to the overwhelming Algonquian material in the state. Of that content, most of it comes in the way of marginal place names in a virtual "sea" of European feature names. Of the first section in the index, "Independent Cities and Counties", none retain a Siouan or Iroquoian language component Virginia Algonquian carries 9 cities and/or counties, Algonquian language materials from outside the state claim 2 counties. Most Iroquoian or Siouan names are remnants of important cultural features or place names, as opposed to arbitrary Algonquian retained names in situ. Cherokee words like "Keokee and Hiawassee" are found in the far southwest as indications of their town's place in the region. "Sappony and Totero" are Siouan based words that have retained some indigenous placement, even if they are not the original Indian place names in situ. However, the ratio of Indian to English is extremely different from the Tidewater to the Piedmont. In the Piedmont, and Western part of Virginia, the Europeans dominate the landscape, historically and linguistically.
By far the most valuable recommendation would be funding for future research in Eastern Algonquian grammar reconstruction, especially material that would help shed light on Southern Algonquian languages like Powhatan. While some small amounts of investigation have been done, a working formula for sentence reconstruction is absent from the record. In relation to Virginia place names, many of the extant and loan words are actually composite words combined to create meanings much like short sentences or phrases in English. The ability to review words in the landscape and historic word lists with ideas about sentence structure and grammar would be invaluable to the descendant community and academics alike. Research in those areas would help revise the way in which the Algonquian material can be viewed from a Native perspective at a specific point in time and a specific place in the geography.
A more comprehensive look at the extant Algonquian place names has been conducted by Dr. Helen Rountree and Martha McCartney. That volume is dedicated to historical research for each Algonquian name from it's earliest recording to the present. Publication of that research will be a great addition to what we know of the Algonquian content from Virginia, as well as a better understanding of the transformation of Virginia's place names over time. By looking at each place name in time and space, speculation can be made about the way in which land and power have been transferred over four hundred years. That is to say, one could see how the names either changed, morphed, or stayed the same and review the transfer of ownership through time. By evaluating the results of such research, conclusions can be made about the greater Tidewater area and the various ways in which marginalization of the Native people occurred both in land holdings and language usage. A more concise record can be established using the exhaustive historical research methodology.
In the area of exhibit use for the National Park Service, the place name list can be used in more than one facet. While the intention of the target area is the first one hundred years of the Jamestown Settlement, the Native word list could be used by NPS at any exhibit that deals with pristine landscapes on the Eastern Coast of Virginia Chesapeake and/or Atlantic. An immediate use of the word collection might be to highlight Native names from a contemporary map of the region in focus. This concept would be best served in an exhibit space centered on the Native impact or placement in the landscape. Further evaluation of each selected name may reveal more information pertinent to the exhibit outlines. Additional recommendations of exhibit features may be to trace earliest place names from a select area to present. In some watershed areas, a pattern of change would be established, as slowly, Native based names are anglicized and/or replaced by Europeans just as the people themselves would have been. Ideally several small period to period maps would show the landscape ownership population change, the place names change, and eventually a shift in power across the board. Further use of the place names as language attributes would be to include them as a display themselves. Visitors to any National Park Service facility could appreciate the place names as examples of remaining Native content in the exhibit focus area. Visitors familiar with Virginia will recognize the place names and thereby associate the familiar with an area that may be unfamiliar Powhatan Algonquian. One suggestion would be to use the words as design elements by themselves. Any exhibit wall could be used to layout the language elements, differing in scale and possibly font. The design could be a background for other 2-dimensionsal or 3-dimensional exhibit materials. Ideally the names would flow across a large area of exhibit space, possibly grayscaled or muted close to the exhibit wall colors. These types of layouts would allow NPS to use language in a complimentary way, bringing Virginia Algonquian back into a contemporary agenda. The use of Native language is a valuable resource component and an important way to view landscape feature from the people who inhabited in the past as well as the present.
(*) denotes non Powhatan Algonquian (probable Iroquoian, Siouan, Muskogean or non Southern Atlantic Algonquian Families)
(**) denotes questionable origin or clarification needed by author
Last Updated: 22-Nov-2006