CHAPTER 1  What do our Algonquian place names really mean?


CHAPTER 1  What do our

Algonquian place names really mean?

 The Native Americans who lived on Cape Ann most recently, known as the Pawtucket, were also called the Agawam and the Wamesit by colonists and early historians. All three names refer to places—villages—rather than to people or territories, however, and they were all the same people. Confusion over group names arose partly because the Algonquians of New England usually referred to themselves simply as belonging to a village, or as “the people”(Ninnu) or “the real/original people” of whatever place or landscape they were in at a given time (Ninnuock, “the people here”). Place names usually were not unique, furthermore, but could apply to any location where the landscape had the same geographic or ecological features. There are other places called Agawam and Pawtucket, for example. People understood from local context the particular place of the same name that was being referred to. Another source of confusion in Algonquian place names is European observers’ mistakes in hearing, transcribing, and translating the words.1

In Essex County, most translations of Pawtucket place names we have today are not correct. One reason is that linguists have theorized on the basis of the wrong languages—John Winthrop’s notes on Pokanoket, for example, or Roger Williams’s dictionary of Narraganset, John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Massachuset, John Trumbull’s dictionary for Natick, and later linguists’ work, for example on Delaware and Wampanoag. However, the Pawtucket of Essex County originally came from New Hampshire and southern Maine and spoke a different language, a dialect of Western Abenaki. Abenaki-derived languages thought to have become extinct include Nipmuc and Pennacook, known as Loup languages (Loup A and Loup B) in French ethnographic terms. It is unlikely that the Pawtucket knew the languages of southern New England except as needed for trade and alliance. Early explorers observed as much.2


  Another reason that we have incorrect translations is that in writing Algonquian words Europeans not only did not understand the intricate grammar but also had difficulty speaking and transcribing phonetically the unfamiliar sound combinations they were hearing. Algonquian word order is object-subject-verb, Yoda-like, and pluralization is accomplished by a k sound in the middle of a word for singular, and g sound for plural (e.g., wikwam, wigwam). Algonquian languages are highly nasalized and include glottal stops, for example, which French, Dutch, and English speakers transcribed variously and inconsistently as /qu/, /k/, /g/, or /’/, making it difficult to know from transcriptions exactly how Algonquian speakers pronounced words. (A chapter appendix offers a pronunciation guide for saying Algonquian names.) In using present-day reconstructions of Abenaki dialects to analyze Pawtucket words and introduce new translations, my work departs from a large body of earlier linguistic research.3

Colonial observers who met “the people” at Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River between Lowell and Lawrence, where they gathered in spring in large numbers to harvest river herring, or alewives, called them the Pawtucket. This history chooses that term to refer to the Native Americans who occupied Cape Ann and the rest of Essex County during the last thousand years or so. Pawtucket or Pautukit means “At the falls on the tidal river”, in this case referring to the Merrimack (Abenaki Molodemak). The people fished there in April en route from the winter village of Wamesit to their summer camps and villages on the shores of Essex County. Pawtucket is a place name in other areas as well, notably Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which topographically is also on the Atlantic fall line. (Pawtuxet, with the diminutive /s/ sound in the middle, referring to another site in Massachusetts, means “At the falls on the small tidal river”).4

Pawtucket Falls near Lowell, MA

The fall line marks the drop in elevation between the Appalachian piedmont and the coastal plain all along the Atlantic seaboard. To Native Americans the fall line represented the place on tidal rivers and streams where fresh water and salt water meet, an optimal site for fishing and the location of many villages. In New England topography and Pawtucket place names, the histories of Native Americans and Europeans intertwine, and these intertwined stories move forward and backward together in time. River sites had economic importance for both groups. River junctions where natives camped or erected villages became the sites of the first colonial trading posts, for example, and falls where the people fished became the sites of the first watermills.5

The Atlantic Fall Line

Cities of the East are located along the Atlantic Fall Line, which extends from Alabama to the Canadian Maritimes. Native American villages and the earliest European settlements also were sited on falls, which often required portages to travel further inland by water. On the North Shore of Massachusetts the fall line is near the ocean, with the coastal plain broadening to the south.

Colonists who encountered “the people” in their permanent winter village of Wamesit (Wah me sit) in what is now Lowell at the junction of the Merrimack and Concord rivers, (which was part of Chelmsford, Billerica, and Dracut in colonial times), called them the Wamesit after the name of their village of around 2,500 acres. Wamesit (also Wamoset) was said to mean “Here is space for all”, referring to all the people who otherwise lived on the coastal saltmarshes. Wam (or wamph) was the root for “submerged land” or “land overflowed with water”. Agawam, referring both to a Pawtucket village on Castle Neck River in Ipswich and the larger territory of which it was a part, means “Other side of the marsh,” and WenesquawamWonasquam on old maps and the name from which Annisquam is derived—means “End of the marsh.”6

Wamesit Village Today

Today, the site of the Pawtucket village of Wamesit is partly buried under a Home Depot but otherwise remains largely undeveloped, framed by rock piles and overgrown with new forest.






The marsh referred to is the Great Salt Marsh that stretches down the Gulf of Maine from Hampton, NH to Cape Ann. In present-day reconstructed Abenaki, the “End of the marsh” name for Cape Ann would be written as Wanaskwiwam. Because of the nature of Algonquian place name construction, places are purely descriptive of the environment or its resources and thus are not uniquely named. There are other places named Agawam, for example, and Wamesit is also a present-day place name for a neighborhood in nearby Tewksbury, a street in Billerica, and a town near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.7

The village of Kwaskwaikikwen (Newbury, West Newbury, and Newburyport) was in the north of the area outlined in red. The village of Agawam was in Ipswich on the other side of the marsh, and the village of Wanaskwiwam was in Gloucester at the end of the marsh.

The English settlers who encountered the Pawtucket in Ipswich, Essex, and Cape Ann in the summers called them the Agawam Indians, a term still used today. Agawam is also a place name on colonial maps for an area that encompasses Gloucester and Rockport and the rest of eastern Essex County, including Manchester, Beverly, Essex, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham, Rowley, Georgetown, Topsfield, Boxford, Newbury, and Newburyport. The last recorded Contact-era sagamore of Agawam, whom the colonists called Masconomet or Masconomo and later Sagamore John, and his descendants signed over the deeds to these towns. This history thus is incomplete without the local histories of these other towns and beyond, for they were all part of the Pawtucket story.8