Six Nations Names, Traditions, And Reminiscences

Indian nomenclature almost invariably has a distinct and suggestive meaning, especially in geographical locations, relations, and peculiarities. Only a few of those, which relate to the accompanying maps are supplied. The location of Bill Hill’s cabin, near the foot of the Onondaga reservation, was called Nan-ta-sa-sis, “going partly round a hill”. Tonawanda creek is named from Ta-na-wun-da, meaning “swift water”. Oil spring, on the Allegany map, was Te-car-nohs, “dropping oil”. The Allegany River was O-hee-yo, “the beautiful river”, and the Geneseo was Gen-nis-he-yo, “beautiful valley”. Buffalo was Do-sho-weh, “splitting the fork”, because near Black Rock (a rocky shore) the waters divided, uniting and dividing again at Date-car-sko-sase, “the highest falls”, on the Ne-ah-ga River. The modern Canajoharie was Ga-na-jo-hi-e, “washing the basin”; Chittenango creek, Chu-de-naang, “where the sun shines out”; Oriskany creek, Ole-hisk, “nettles”; Onondaga, O-nun-da-ga-o-no-ga “on the hills”; Cayuga Lake, Gwe-u-gweth, “the lake at the mucky land”; Canandaigua, Ga-nun-da-gwa, “place chosen for a settlement”. The Indian meaning for other names finds expression in recognized English substitutes. Thus, “the place of salt” becomes Salina, and “Constant dawn” becomes Aurora.

Personal names were given from peculiarities or sudden fancies, and upon elevation to chieftainship a new name was given. The eloquent Red Jacket, O-te-ti-an-i, “always ready”, became Sa-go-ye-wat-ha, “keeper awake”. So special uses and qualities are supposed resemblances entered into their nomenclature. “It sheds its blush” describes the watermelon. The white ash was the “bow tree”. The corn, bean, squash, strawberry, and maple were classed as “our life supporters”.

At present, through adoption of English customs, the names of John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore, General Scott, Ulysses, Rutherford B. Grover, and Benjamin Harrison have appeared on the Tonawanda list. The name of Washington escapes use. On this same Tonawanda list the Bible names of Abram, Adam, Andrew, Benjamin, Cephas, David, Elijah, Eli, Enos, Elizabeth, Eunice, Esther, Hannah, Isaac, Joshua, Jacob, Jesse, John, Lydia, Mary, Moses, Martha, Noah, Norah, Peter, Reuben, Samson, Samuel, Shrum, Simeon, and Stephen are both christian names and surnames, in contrast with those of Big Fire, Blue Sky, Hot Bread, Big Kettle, Black Snake, Silverheels, Spring, Ground, Stone, and Steep Rock on the Allegany reservation and elsewhere. Bone, Blackchief, Bucktooth, Cornfield, Fatty, Hemlock, Halfwhite, Redeye, Logan, Longfinger, Ray, Snow, Twoguns, and Warrior have companionship with Beaver, Crow, Deer, Eel, Fox, and Turkey.

With the exception of old family names of traditional value, names are less frequently given than formerly through some distinct association. Many do not even know their proper Indian name. The tribal relation itself has become so immaterial a matter, through daily association with the white people, that in hundreds of inquiries for “tribe or clan” the first response was good-humored laughter, and often a reference to some one else to give it. Even the most conservative of the old party are losing their relations to the past, except through their religious rites. No single item more impressively shows a social transition in progress than this indifference to old names. On the Onondaga school register only 4 ancient Bible names are opposite 29 such names of parent or guardian, and throughout the Six Nations the names of the young children, especially those of the girls, are selected from the more euphonious ones in general use among the white people.

Incidental reference has been made to the principal characters who have figured in the history of the St. Regis Indians. Thomas Tarbell 1 , the only surviving grandson of the elder captive Tarbell, now at the age of 89, retains a fresh recollection of his childhood and the stories of his grandfather’s experience. He was baptized on the day of his birth, March 2, 1802, as Tio-na-ta-kow-ente, son of Peter Sa-ti-ga-ren-ton, who was the son of Peter Tarbell. One of the family, living on the summit of the Messena road, was known as “Tarbell on the Hill”, giving the name Hill to the next generation. Old Nancy Hill, a pensioner, and 76 years old, thus “lost her real name”. Chief Joseph Wood 2 lost his name through turning the English meaning of his Indian name into a surname. The first Indian who was persuaded to abandon moccasins slept in the boots he had substituted, and was afterward only known as “Boots”, his children perpetuating that name. Another, who was surrendered for adoption on consideration of “a quart of rum”, thereby secured to his descendants the name of “Quarts “. Louis Gray, the son of Charles Gray, who figured in the war of 1812, gives the story of his grandfather, William Gray, who was captured at the age of 7 in Massachusetts, and at the age of 21 was permitted to visit his native place, but returned to the Indian who had adopted him, to live and die where Hogansburg is now located. Elias Torrance exhibits the silver medal given to his grandfather by George III, displaying the lion and church, in contrast with a cabin and a wolf, without a hint as to the meaning of the design. Louis Sawyer tells the, tale of the early days of St. Regis, learned from his grandmother, Old Ann, who died at the age of 100. Louis has 3 sons in Minnesota, and a French wife, so that he has much trouble about the time of the annuity payment. He is a Methodist, can read and write, and thinks he pays a penalty for these distinctions.

The St. Regis Indians have a strangely mixed ancestry of French pioneers, white captives, and 1 colored man, with well-preserved traditions of all, but with few memorials of their purely Indian history. One wampum, now owned by Margaret Cook, the aged aunt of Running Deer, represents the treaty of George I with the Seven Nations. The king and head chief are represented with joined hands, while on each side is a clog, watchful of danger, and the emblem is supposed to be the pledge: “We will live together or die together. We promise this as long as water runs, the skies do shine, and the night brings rest”. Hough describes Tirens, one of the sources of the name Torrance, as an Oswegatchie Indian, known as “Peter the Big Speak”, because of his bold oratory, as a son of Lesor Tarbell, the younger of the captive brothers. Here again the confusion of names finds its result in the various names culminating in the surname Lazar.

The surroundings of St. Regis are named with singular fitness to their properties, and yet these, as elsewhere, have gradually lost their title in order to honor some ambitious white man, whose life is crowned with glory if the word “ville” or “burg” cart be joined to his name, sacrificing that which the red man so happily fitted to its place.Citations:

  1. The recent work of Dr. Samuel A. Green, secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, entitled “Groton Spring Indian wars”, cites the action of the Massachusetts legislature toward redemption of the Tarbell captives and their sister Sarah, who was subsequently educated at a Montreal convent. It appears that the name “Loser”, now used as a surname, was the familiar name for Eleazur.[]
  2. A striking fact is, that the Indian name for “wood”, which Chief Joseph Wood’s father perpetuates as a surname, was an original rendering from English to Iroquois, and, incidentally, back to English, without knowledge of the family up to this day of the reason for either change. The Groton town records, where the family is still largely represented, show that the maiden name of the mother of the captive Tarbell was Elizabeth Wood. Joseph (Tarbell) Wood there fore perpetuates the names of both white ancestors, proportionately less in value each year, as the Indian’s condition constantly exacts a greater outlay to meet increased cost of his changed mode of living.[]

Boots, Hill, Quarts, Tarbell, Wood,

Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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