What’s in a Name…

Seventy or so years ago this highway sign reminded drivers on what is now Route 7 of New Milford’s Native American roots. CHS 2003.165.1

Seventy or so years ago this highway sign reminded drivers on what is now Route 7 of New Milford’s Native American roots. CHS 2003.165.1

The Connecticut landscape is filled with place names based on Native American antecedents, from towns and villages like Naugatuck, Niantic and Scitico to rivers such as the Housatonic, the Shetucket and, of course, lest we forget, the Connecticut. Many of these names are based on words in various Algonquian dialects spoken by Native inhabitants during the 17th century, when first contact with Europeans occurred. Lacking a written language, Native Americans’ names, stories—their history—was handed down orally from generation to generation.

It turns out many of these place names were in fact descriptions of specific physical landscape features in a particular location, understandable in a culture so closely attuned to the land. English settlers recorded these spoken words using what they thought were reasonable phonetic translations, now handed down to us. What we end up with, in fact, is a mish-mash of words bearing varying degrees of accuracy; which nonetheless add a distinctive flavor to our present day state.

A detail of an 1853 map of New Milford shows the brook (highlighted in blue) flowing between the hills, but not its twenty-nine letter name. CHS 1949.21.0

A detail of an 1853 map of New Milford shows the brook (highlighted in blue) flowing between the hills, but not its twenty-nine letter name. CHS 1949.21.0

An example of these translations is Naromiyocknowhusunkatankshunk Brook, a small stream with headwaters in the town of Sherman, flowing northward into the Housatonic River near the Gaylordsville section of New Milford. The best available translations of this word are given as “fishing place in the gravelly stream near the big hill” or alternately “water flowing from the hills”.  At twenty-nine letters, this must be among the longest, if not the longest, Native American place name in the state. And while it is not the longest such place name known (a Webster, Massachusetts, lake bears a Native American name with 45 letters) it is certainly noteworthy in its length. In the 1940s the State Highway Department produced a pair of signs to mark where present day Route 7 crosses the brook. CHS was fortunate to acquire one of these now discarded signs some years ago. After marking the crossing for a number of years these painted wooded signs were replaced with newer examples.

While not the longest place name in America, a slightly misspelled Naromiyocknowhusunkatankshunk still managed to make it into “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” nationally syndicated newspaper feature on June 12, 1935. This image was printed in the Hartford Courant.

While not the longest place name in America, a slightly misspelled Naromiyocknowhusunkatankshunk still managed to make it into “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” nationally syndicated newspaper feature on June 12, 1935. This image was printed in the Hartford Courant.

If you conduct a Google Earth search you will not find Naromiyocknowhusunkatankshunk Brook, but rather a stream labeled Morrissey Brook, probably named after James Morrissey, a prominent local tobacco grower in the late 19th century. Based on the approximate age of the sign (as mentioned I believe it dates to the 1940s) the name change likely occurred mid-century. However (and with apologies to Mr. Morrissey), for the record, a 2001 act of the state legislature included a provision reinstating the name Naromiyocknowhusunkatankshunk Brook. While I have not been to New Milford myself to verify that the highway signs reflect this fact, I feel confident that the local citizenry have made certain that the correct name is now posted for the benefit of travelers. So, Google Earth, take note!

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