Quascacunquen and Wonasquam

Quascacunquen and Wonasquam

Most Agawam place names are no longer in use or have been corrupted almost beyond recognition. An example is Wessacuçon, said to be named for a waterfall on the Parker River. It was used as the name of the English plantation that became Old Newbury. Wessacuçon was also transcribed as Quascacunquen and was recorded as the Pawtucket name for the Parker River, its falls, and the Pawtucket village upon it. The word is retained today as the name of a Masonic lodge. The meaning of Quascacunquen did not have anything to do with a waterfall or the Parker River, however. Based on present-day reconstruction from Western Abenaki, the name would be written Kwaskwaikikwen and would mean “just right for fields [for planting corn]” or “best fields to plant” or “perfect cropland for growing [corn]”. Interestingly, Quascacunquen encapsulates the Abenaki word for corn [ska]. In all of Agawam the upland intervales of the Parker River tributaries provided the best soils and conditions for farming. The location of the village was preserved in the name Indian Hill in West Newbury.14


Kwask = state of being

wai = “best”, “ideal”, “perfect”

kikwen = “fields”, “planting ground”, “cropland”


Indian Hill, West Newbury, Likely Site of Kwaskwaikikwen Village


Another example of difficulty with language is attempts to explain the meaning of Wonasquam, seen on the earliest colonial maps and assumed to be a corruption of the original Pawtucket place name for Annisquam. According to Josselyn in his account of his second voyage to New England in 1663 (transcribed here by me from Restoration English):15

“To the Northward of Cape Ann is Wonasquam, a dangerous place to sail by in stormie weather, by reason of the rocks and foaming breakers. The next Town that presents itself to view is Ipswich….Six miles from Ipswich Northeast is Rowley, most of the inhabitants have been Clothiers….Nine miles from Salem to the North is Agowamine, the best and spaciousest place for a plantation…. Beyond Agowamin is situated Hampton near the Sea coast….Eight miles beyond Agowamin runneth the delightful River Merrimack or Monumach, it is navigable for twenty miles….”

The existence of an Indian village named Wonasquam in Gloucester is attested in a letter written in 1696 by John Dunton, a London bookseller visiting Ipswich to see friends to to determine if New England could constitute a new market for his wares. He describes an overland trip to Gloucester with an Indian guide and a woe-begone village in which the Indians were in black faceprint mourning an unidentified great loss. Dunton also noted that most people in Gloucester were illiterate and had no need of books. 16

The linguist William Bright, following J. Hammond Trumbull’s 1860s studies of Native American languages, determined the meaning of Wonnasquam to be “at the top or point of the rock” (wanashque = “at the top of” or “at the extremity of”, or wunnashque or the variant annaqua = “at the end of”, + omsk = “rock”). Geography supports this interpretation, as anyone will attest who has visited Cape Ann’s giant glacial erratics or has stood on the massive pluton outcrops (intrusions of igneous rock through the bedrock) overlooking Ipswich Bay. 17

 Tablet Rock in Stage Fort Park, Squam Rock, and Pole Hill in Riverview are the eroded remains of ancient plutons.




Peter’s Pulpit and Whale’s Jaw are examples of deposits of glacial erratics. Translating Wonasquam as having something to do with rocks is certainly tempting on Cape Ann!



Trumbull’s analysis of “rock” in his 1870 work, The Composition of Indian Geographical Names included source information from John Eliot’s Algonquian Bible, Roger Williams’s and John Winthrop’s journals, and the dictionaries of French missionaries:

ROCK. In composition, -PISK or -PSK (Abn. _pesk[oo]_; Cree,_-pisk_; Chip. _-bik_;) denotes _hard_ or _flint-like_ rock; -OMPSK or O[N]BSK, and, by phonetic corruption, -MSK, (from _ompaé_,’upright,’ and _-pisk_,) a ‘standing rock.’ As a substantival component of local names, _-ompsk_ and, with the locative affix,_-ompskut_, are found in such names as…Wanashqui-ompskut_ (_wanashquompsqut_, Ezekiel xxvi. 14), ‘at the top of the rock,’ or at ‘the point of rock.’ _Wonnesquam_, _Annis Squam_, and _Squam_, near Cape Ann, are perhaps corrupt forms of the name of some ‘rock summit’ or ‘point of rock’ thereabouts._Winnesquamsaukit_(for_wanashqui-ompsk-ohk-it_?) near Exeter Falls, N.H., has been transformed to _Swampscoate_ and _Squamscot_. The name of Swamscot or Swampscot, formerly part of Lynn, Mass., has a different meaning. It is from _m’squi-ompsk_, ‘Red Rock’ (the modern name), near the north end of Long Beach, which was perhaps “The clifte” mentioned as one of the bounds of Mr. Humfrey’s Swampscot farm, laid out in 1638._M’squompskut_ means ‘at the red rock.’ The sound of the initial _m_was easily lost to English ears.18

Other interpretations of Wonasquam are possible, however. For example, the Algonquian root word for Atlantic Salmon was m’squammaug, often shortened to m’isquam, or ‘isquam, because English speakers tended to omit the initial -m’- and did not produce glottal stops. An alternative origin for Annisquam thus could be Nam’isquam (salmon fishing), with the addition of won-, a prefix for “good” or “abundant”. Thus, Wonasquam, could have meant, literally, “good salmon fishing”. The Annisquam River empties into Ipswich Bay beside Wingaersheek Beach, and until around 500 years ago (and before the Cut), it is not impossible that Atlantic Salmon entered the river to spawn, along with alewives and shad.

Trumbull cautions, however, that interpretations of Algonquian place names must observe certain rules. First, every letter or sound had its own value; the omission or addition of a letter for “euphony” (the quality of being pleasant or smooth sounding) is a sign of misinterpretation. So, where in Wonasquam is the /psk/ or /bsk/ sound required for “rock”? Second, even when abbreviated, words retain their significant roots rather than appearing as fractions of words. So, if /ompsk/ is the root word for “rock”, wouldn’t it have been retained in the name at least as Wonasquompsk (“good rock-top” or “good summit”)?

Squam Lake in New Hampshire in the heart of Pennacook territory is derived from asquam, a Western Algonquian root for “water”, referring to fresh water lakes. Using that root, Wonasquamsauke would translate simply as “good water outlet” or “good water entrance”, but it would have the wrong geographic context as it refers to lakes rather than to the sea. Henry Schoolcraft translated that name incorrectly as Wonne (“beautiful”) asquam (“water”) (s)auke (“place”), with the /s/ thrown in to make a pleasing sound. Sau actually meant “outlet or mouth of a river”, however, not “place”, which was denoted instead by the locative suffix ohke, ahke, ake, keki, or k. Neither does squam mean “harbor” (in any language), as Cape Ann web sites and tourist brochures claim. So, having Wonasquam (and thus Annisquam) derive from “Beautiful Water Outlet” or “Pleasant Harbor” works no better than “Top of the Rock”.19

Winnesquam is said to be Abenaki for “good salmon fishing”, and there is a lake by that name in New Hampshire today near Laconia in the Pawtucket-Pennacook homeland. However, this name probably is not based on the word for salmon but on combined elements for “fishing” and “fresh water”: nesquam. In Abenaki, win/winni- is not a variant of won/wonne and thus does not mean “good” or “beautiful”. Rather, win/winni- is a prefix for “hereabouts” or “in the vicinity of”. Thus, Winnesquam more likely means “there is fresh water (lake) fishing around here”.

You can see the problems we have knowing for certain what words in unwritten extinct or near-extinct languages mean. All the above alternatives are moot, however, because the original term on which all our Squam place names are based was not Wonasquam. It was Wenesquawam.