Chesapeake Bay stems from an Algonquian word meaning “great shellfish bay,” and the rivers that feed the Chesapeake were just as important to the Native Americans who lived along their shorelines for thousands of years.
Rivers served as important highways and provided fish and animals for sustenance. Consequently, many of the region’s largest Native American settlements were found on floodplains.
From Werowocomoco on the banks of the York River—discovered by archaeologists in 2003 and is where legend has it that Pocahontas saved John Smith—to the major settlement of Tioga—a Cayuga word for “at the forks”—where the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers met, Native American villages dotted major Bay tributaries.
Most settlements were relocated every couple of decades as soils and local firewood supplies became exhausted. Many sites have vanished beneath the soils, and others have been lost to development. But the legacies of the watershed’s original settlers live on in many of the names they gave to rivers and other resources.
Stephen A. Runkle, a consulting hydraulic engineer with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, recently compiled a report listing the meanings of Native American names for more than 300 waterbodies and places in the region.
Some of the Native American origins for waterbodies in the Bay watershed include:
- Potomac: from Powhatan for “something brought,” a reference to the tribute brought by other tribes to the powerful chief “Potomecke” of the region. Nanticoke: from Delaware for “tidewater people,” a closely related tribe living along the river.
- Chemung: from the Seneca word “a horn” or “antler,” also a chief’s “headgear.”
- Antietam: from Piscataway for “swift water.”
- Mattawoman: from Piscataway for “where one goes pleasantly.” Choptank: from the Choptank, meaning, “It flows back strongly,” a reference to tidal changes.
- Monocacy: from Delaware for “A stream with several large bends.”
- Susquehanna: Delaware for “the long reach river,” “muddy river” or “winding river.”
- Juniata: from Seneca for “a projecting rock” or “standing stone,” a reference to a geologic formation near Huntingdon, PA, where several Native American trails intersected.
- Wicomico: from Piscataway for “pleasant dwelling or village.”
Runkle’s full document, “Native American Waterbody and Place Names Within the Susquehanna River Basin and Surrounding Subbasins,” is available on the SRBC’s web site, www.srbc.net/nativeamerican.htm