Whose Name, Whose Place? Native Place Names in Southern New England

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Aquidneck, Natick…. Native names dot the map of New England, mingling with the English imports the Puritans used so eagerly to rename their new abodes. How many Native place names names remain? How many were lost to colonization? In this fascinating presentation, Frank O’Brien explored the meaning of individual Algonquian words to reconstruct, where possible, the landscape- and culture-specific meanings hidden within many colonial versions of Native names placed on the New England landscape, and to rescue those thought long lost.

(Above, left) Host Roxanne Reddington-Wilde introduces sociolinguist and place name expert Frank Waabu O’Brien (above, center), Abenaki and former president of the Aquidneck Indian Council; and Mashantucket Pequot and Pokanoket respondent Rashad Young (above, right). They took a unique look at the history of Native place names, their linguistic mangling by colonists and both their slow erasure and survival. Click here for the September 25, 2022 86-minute video of their presentation.

What was lost in this re-naming, as Shawmut (in fact, probably originally Mashauwomuk) became “Boston” and Hassanemesit became “Grafton”? Did erasing the original names serve to erase, culturally, the people? Did new names become a claim to the land itself? Should we be restoring the original names to their places? And how do we even know what those original names were?

Place names have the power to convey the lived history of a people and their languages. Despite the distortions of time and renaming, recognizing Native names reminds us that this was originally, and is now, a Native place.

Click here for a pdf copy of Frank Waabu O’Brien’s Understanding Indian Place Names in Southern New England.