Friday, 17 August 2012


The Susquehanna River that flows through New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, was called the 'Ga-wa-no-wa-neh Gehunda' by the Onondaga Tribe of Native Americans. It has been translated as the 'Great Island River'. The Lenape called it the Siskewahane which in the Lenape language means 'Oyster River'.

In his book, 'The Composition of Indian Geographical Names' the author Hammond Trumbull states, "... many Indian (Native American) geographical names, after their adoption by Anglo-American colonists, became unmeaning sounds. Their original character was lost by their transfer to a foreign tongue. Nearly all have suffered some mutilation or change of form. In many instances, hardly a trace of true original can be detected in the modern name. Some have been separated from the localities to which they belonged, and assigned to others to which they are etymologically inappropriate. A mountain receives the name of a river; a bay, that of a cape or a peninsula; a tract of land, that of a rock or a waterfall".

Of the Native American names he says, "Every name described the locality to which it was affixed. The description was sometimes topographical; sometimes historical, preserving the memory of a battle, a feast, the dwelling-place of a great sachem, or the like; sometimes it indicated one of the natural products of the place, or the animals which resorted to it; occasionally, its position or direction from a place previously known, or from the territory of the nation by which the name was given,—as for example, 'the land on the other side of the river,' 'behind the mountain,' 'the east land,' 'the half-way place,' etc.".

Native Americans river names have very often - one of the following three suffixes: -hanne, tuk or sepy. Example: Susquehanne, Connecticut and the Mississippi Rivers. Their original names were Siskewahana, Quinni-tuk-ut and Missi Sipi. For more on Connecticut river click here. A post on Mississippi is coming up next. This post is about the Susquehanna and the suffix -hanne.

The name Susquehanna or the Siskewahana as it was called in ancient times translates as Oyester river - an example of the hanne suffix as mentioned above. But what is the source of the Lenape word 'hanne'.

The Lenape talking Dictionary at a site run by the 'Delaware Tribe of Indians', Susquehanna is written as Siskewahane and split as Siskew-a-hane with the meaning 'muddy river'. Click here for the Lenape Dictionary.

However if one were to split Siskewahane as Siske + Wahane, we have the suffix 'wahana' or the Sanskrit 'vahana' (वहन) which means 'to flow'. Hanne may be the Sanskrit 'vahana' with the first syllable dropped. The root word 'vah' has two meanings 'to flow' and 'to go'.

Says Trumbull," 
It would be surprising if some of the translations which have been hazarded in this paper do not prove to be wide off their mark. Even English etymology is not reckoned among the exact sciences yet,—and in Algonkin, there is the additional disadvantage of having no Sanskrit verbs 'to go', to fall back on as a last resort." That may not be entirely true!

Suggested Links:

The Old new York Frontier by Francis Whiting Halsey
2. Indian Geographical Names by Hammond Trumbull
3. Native American Place Names of the United States

4. American Indian Languages

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