Agawam and Agamenticus

Agawam and Agamenticus

Agawam was not the name of an Indian tribe but an anglicization of an Algonquian place name for a presumed sovereign territory and its village seat. The concept of sovereignty—like those of clan, tribe, nation, chief, king, and queen—is a European construct based on European history. European contact agents imposed these constructs to such an extent that they altered reality as Native New Englanders began to adopt them for themselves.

Detail from John Smith’s 1628 Map of New England

 Early explorers, such as John Smith, whose 1616 and 1628 maps show Tragabigzanda and Cape Anna respectively, and colonial mapmakers, such as William Wood (1635), wrote Aggowom, Agawammin, Agawanus, or Igowam on their maps or in their accounts.9 




Detail from William Wood’s 1635 Map of New England

According to Wood (See note 17 on the detail map):

Agowamme is nine miles to the North from Salem, which is one of the most spacious places for a plantation, being neare the sea; it aboundeth with fish, and flesh of fowles and beasts, great Meads and Marshes and plaine plowing grounds, many good rivers and harbours and no rattle snakes. In a word, it is the best place but one, in my judgement, which is Merrimacke, lying eight miles beyond it, where is a river twenty leagues navigable, all along the river side is fresh Marshes, in some places three miles broad. In this river is Sturgeon, Sammon, and Basse, and divers other kinds of fish….10

Today Agawam appears in other place names, such as the town of Agawam, Massachusetts, on the Connecticut River; a district in Wareham; and a Connecticut town. In its entirety, Pawtucket territory extended from the Merrimack River Valley on the north to Salem and Marblehead on the south and to the Concord and Danvers Rivers on the west. English colonists later reserved “Squam” for Cape Ann and “Agawam” (later Ipswich) for the larger territory. To the Pawtucket the name for the larger territory probably referred to the Great Marsh, the salt marsh that starts south of Portsmouth New Hampshire, runs down the Gulf of Maine, and ends at Cape Ann.

 Colonists tended to ascribe the meanings of Algonquian place names to the activities they observed there, deriving “fish securing place” or “fish curing place” for Agawam, for example. Algonquian place names all describe landforms or resource sites, however, not activities. Furthermore, the Algonquian root words for “fish/fishing” (nam/nahm/nahum) do not appear in Agawam. The word is also defined as “low land beneath water” (or marshland, [wam(ph]), as “ground overflowed by shallow water”, and as “a place where one must unload canoes for portage”. These definitions apply to all places so named and probably are more accurate as translations or interpretations than “fish curing place”.

I decided that Agawam must mean “Other side of the marsh,” referring to the location of Agawam Village on Castle Neck River in Ipswich.11  According to my language coach Sasachiminesh, however, in Algonquian the irreducible root for “other side/beyond” is kom, appearing with extension particles in constructions such as akomink.  This means that Agawam itself is a corrupted word and the placename and its meaning remain uncertain. Based on reconstructed Abenaki, the original name perhaps was Akomiwam or Agominam and most likely meant “Other side of the marsh” or “other side of the fishing”, in the latter case referring to the string of landforms on the seaward side of Plum Island Sound. 

The interchangeability of descriptive elements for geographic locations, such as akomin- (“beyond/other side”), can be seen in the place name Agamenticus. According to the Boston Archives, settlers referred to Gloucester as Agamenticus, and West Gloucester as Agamenticus Heights, after native appellations. What did this mean? There was also an Agamenticus in Maine, plus a mountain and a river by that name, and the Massachuset referred to the Charlestown area as Agamenticus as well!12

This is a good example of how Algonquian place names worked. The syllables that made up the name of a place described that place. Elements of a place name also could vary grammatically depending on the speakers and intent and whether the subject was regarded as animate or inanimate, which helps account for the many variations in spelling of Algonquian names that Europeans attempted to record phonetically.

Translations into English are equally diverse. For example, Maine’s Mt. Agamenticus has been translated to mean “Beyond-the-hill-little-cove” (in this case, the cove where the Little York River meets the sea). The term could have described the opposite, however: “Beyond the hill rising from the small tidal river when viewed from the cove”. The assumption that viewpoints were toward the sea from the land is a European perspective. Algonquian place names tended to describe landforms as viewed from bodies of water.

Deconstructing Agamenticus

Algonquian Agamen tic us
Dialectical & spelling variations Akomin, Accomen tik  (tick), tuc (tuck)


es, -s
English translation Beyond, other side, below, beneath (the) tidal river (that is) small

Thus, Agamenticus in Maine may mean “Beyond the Little York River viewed from where it empties into the Gulf of Maine”. The description distinguishes this location from beyond the larger York River just to the south. Agamenticus in Charlestown may mean “Beyond the Little Mystic River viewed from where it joins the Mystic and flows into Boston Harbor”, distinguishing that locations seen from the mouth of the larger Charles River just to the south. As Agamenticus, Gloucester may have been “Beyond  the Essex River (which is a smaller tidal river than the Annisquam just down the coast) as viewed from Essex Bay. The place name Agamenticus could be used to describe any location beyond any comparatively small tidal river, the specific identity of which would be clear to the speakers in local geographic context.

 Questions about the derivation of the state name of Massachusetts illustrate the challenges of reconstructing Algonquian place names. For Massachusetts there are three candidates: 13

  1. Messatscosec (mess/mass = “great” [size]+ atsco = “continuous high land or chain of hills” + sec/sac/saco (also sauk) = “mouth” = “Entrance to the great hills”), possibly referring to what is now the Blue Hills State Park.
  2. Massawachuset (massa = “great” [feature] + (w)achu/(w)adchu = “mountain” + s = “small” + et = “at/on/in” = “At the great(est) small mountain”), probably referring to Great Blue Hill (635 feet and the highest of the 22 hills).
  3. Moswatuset (mos = “great” [person] + watus = “chief’s hill” + et = “at/on/in” = “At the great chief’s hill”), referring to the sachem there at the time of contact. Moswatuset was also a term for “arrowhead”. Moswatuset Hummock in Quincy is an actual place in the Blue Hills—an arrowhead-shaped mound in the National Register of Historic Places that was the sachem Chickatawbut’s seat of power. It was Chickatawbut (or Chickataubut, Chikkatabet) whom Myles Standish and Squanto met in 1621 on what is now Quincy Shore Drive.

The earliest colonial accounts use diverse spellings for Massachusetts; for example, one refers to Mattachusit Bay Colony and another to the Masswatuset Bay Colony! The name of our state thus is perhaps a mash-up of the Algonquian placenames Massawachuset and Moswatuset.