Naumkeag and Wingaersheek

Naumkeag and Wingaersheek

Naumkeag has been translated as “still water dividing the bay” (Nahumbeak) or simply “the fishing grounds” (Na[u]m = “fishing” + keag = “grounds, land, place”). Based on Western Abenaki roots, however, this place name more likely meant “Eel land” or “Here are eels (to fish for)” (Nah(u)m = eels +  keak = locative suffix (“here”). Atlantic Eel, a much-prized catch, is a catadromous species that goes from fresh to salt water to spawn and favors smaller rivers and still waters. Eels were eaten as a delicacy, the spine was dried and powdered for culinary use, and the soft strong skins were made into hair ribbons, tumplines, and cradleboard ties. According to colonial accounts the eels grew to great size. Algonquian appreciation of eels was remarked upon by several early observers, including Champlain, Wood, and Josselyn. Though smaller today, they are still abundant in the rivers that empty into Beverly and Salem harbors. The Pawtucket probably called their major village between the Bass and North rivers Nahmkeak, or Nahumkeak.

The Pawtucket did not call Cape Ann “Wingaersheek”, however, as early historian John Babson claimed in 1860, without citing his source. The source would have been John Winthrop via John Endecott, as reported by Endecott’s surveyors, sent to Cape Ann to  describe the lay of the land in 1637. Their report is lost, but the story is that they encountered Indians, asked them the name of Cape Ann (a geographic construct that would not have figured in Pawtucket reckoning), and were told “Wingaersheek”. As written, however, Wingaersheek is not a native New England Algonquian word. It also does not mean “Beautiful breaking water beach”, as Robert Pringle, a local journalist and Cape Ann publicist, had it in 1890, based on Henry Schoolcraft’s faulty attempts at ethnolinguistics. Historian E. N. Horsford claimed that the name is a corruption of a 17th-century loan word from German Low Dutch: Wyngaerts Hoeck for “Wine (or grape) garden peninsula (or land)”.  The Dutch left this name on a map, in the sea off the Massachusetts coast, but it had nothing to do with the Indians. The Dutch had little or nothing to do with Cape Ann, and if they had, more than one place name here would be attributable to them today.22

Horsford based his claim on this 1671 map of “New Belgium” by the Dutch explorer, Arnoldus Montanus, in an etching by John Ogilby published in 1673. Wingaerts Hoeck is below Witte (White) Bay, our Sandy Bay.

The full title of the work in which the map appears is The New and Unknown World: or Description of America and the Southland, Containing the Origin of the Americans and South-landers, remarkable voyages thither, Quality of the Shores, Islands, Cities, Fortresses, Towns, Temples, Mountains, Sources, Rivers, Houses, the nature of Beasts, Trees, Plants and foreign Crops, Religion and Manners, Miraculous Occurrences, Old and New Wars: Adorned with Illustrations drawn from the life in America, and described by Arnoldus Montanus. Montanus, in turn, based his map largely on Capt. John Smith’s 1624 map of New England.23

 Wingaersheek is most likely an English corruption of an Algonquian word. In “extinct” Algonquian dialects of eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and southern Maine, the /r/ and/or the /l/ phone was not used in speech, as noted by early settlers. Explorers at Sagadahoc on the Kennebec River noted in 1622, for example, that nobsten was the closest pronunciation for lobster that the Native Americans there seemed capable of saying. In 1654, 1674, and 1721, Indians—undoubetly Abenaki speakers—were reported as referring to the Merrimack River as the Monumach (Monomack, Monnomacke, Monumack). Likewise, the Pawtucket name for the beach at the mouth of the Annisquam River would not have included the /r/ sound at the center of Wingaersheek.24

Elizabethan and Tudor English speakers, however, often added an /r/ sound to syllables ending in /a/.  Listening to Yankee grandparents, for example, one may hear that Anner had a good idear. Thus the middle syllable in Wingaersheek may have been an Englishism or an error in transcription, and the word more likely is a corruption of a Pawtucket placename in their Abenaki-related Loup language, perhaps something like Wingawecheek.


 Winga = “snails, periwinkles, whelks

wechee = “ocean, sea”

k = (locative) at, on, here =

“Here are sea whelks (of the kind used to make white wampum)”

When asked the name of Cape Ann the Pawtucket replied with the name of their settlement or camp where they were no doubt collecting shell to be made into wampum beads and other things as part of their resource procurement cycle. The wigwams would have been located mostly likely at the site of Old Coffin Farm between the dunes and the Jones River outflow. Another Pawtucket Contact-period  archaeological site, the Matz site, was found behind Wingaersheek Beach off Atlantic Street, facing the Jones River Salt Marsh. Artifacts from the Matz site, including whelk shells, are in the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge. “Sea snail place” or the like would have been an apt name geographically, and whelk shells were certainly an important cultural and economic resource. The coastal Algonquians used whelk shells to make white wampum beads, and quahog shells to make the purple ones, a subject taken up in more detail in another chapter. Wampum shells, beads, strings, and belts were central to many social and political practices, were traded from the coast as far inland as the Mississippi Valley, and at one time served as official currency in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.25

Dog Whelks from the Matz Archaeological Site

Single wampum beads were made from what we call periwinkles, while several bead blanks could be cut from the cores of channeled and knobbed whelks. The Matz site under Cape Ann Campground was excavated in the 1970s. In the 1940s amateur collectors discovered extensive evidence of long-term Native occupation of the site that became Old Coffin Farm.

Aerial View of Wingaersheek and Annisquam

In this view the Jones River Salt Marsh, the site of Old Coffin’s Farm, and Wingaersheek Beach are on the Annisquam River, facing Lobster Cove, Planter’s Neck, and Ipswich Bay.



As with corruptions of other Algonquian place names, such as Wonasquam, Wingaersheek has other defensible interpretations. For example, it could have been derived from an enemy’s name for the beach where they staged raids on the Pawtucket. Cape Ann had a long history of coastal raiding from the north by the Tarrantines of the Canadian Maritimes, who spoke a Mi’Kmaq-related Eastern Algonquian language. Tarrantines were hunter-gatherers of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia—traditional enemies of the agricultural Pawtucket. For as long as 500 years prior to European contact they swept down the coast in their ocean-going canoes to steal corn, kidnap women, and generally wreak havoc. The long sandy beach on the west bank of the Annisquam River, which wraps all the way around to Two Penny Loaf at the western end of today’s Coffin’s Beach, was a good landing place and perhaps the only one with any hope of concealment. The enemy’s name for that beach may have stuck; that is, Wingaersheek could conceivably derive from the Mi’Kmaq— Winnaguntwecheek:  win = “along/in the vicinity of” + nagunt = “sand” + wecheek = “at the ocean/sea” = “Along the beach (where we gain access to the enemy’s river)”.26

Alternative translations of Algonquian place names are common, depending on the source language used and interpretations of the landscapes on which place names are based. Pennacook, for example, begins with syllables /penna/ that have been construed as “low hill” or “foothill” or “bottom of a hill”, followed by a construction for continuousness /coo/ and a locative /k/. Several hills in the southern White Mountains have been offered as candidates, for example, Sugar Ball Hill, a favorite place of the New Hampshire grand sachem Passaconnaway. Another way to read that word, however, is with syllables for groundnuts (Apios), /pennak/, potato-like tubers, a survival food for Indians and colonists alike. The construction for “continuous”, /cocoo/, refers to surface area, as in Chebacco, but also means “ongoing”, “rolling,” “undulating,” “plentiful,” and “abundant,” depending on context. 27

A more likely translation for Pennacook is “Here are abundant groundnuts”.




In addition, many Native American names for tribes and places are exonyms—other peoples’ names for them. Mohawk, for example, is derived from the Narraganset phrase mohowaùuck’  which meant “man-eaters”. The Mohawk’s real name for themselves in their native Iroquoian language was Kanien’kehá:ka (“People of the first flint”), referring to the eastern-most geological presence of flint in New York state, which is rare in New England. In any case, it is clear that “Wingaersheek” originally was an Algonquian, not a Dutch, placename.28

But that’s the challenge with history, it seems: We have to give up what we think we know to consider new interpretations. And we have to look beyond our borders—go over the bridge, so to speak—and Cape Anners will know what I mean by this—to really understand who we are and what’s in a name. We have to go off island to find out how we are part of these ancient places called Agawam and Squam.

Map with Pawtucket Place Names on Cape Ann (to come)