Following up on my recent request for information about Toronto/tkaronto (and my much earlier query about Wampanoag), I have a question arising from this very interesting half-hour talk in which Amy King, Julia Bloch, and Tom Pickard discuss Basil Bunting’s reading of Whitman’s great “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (they only play a few bits, but the whole thing is available [mp3]). I note with pleasure that Bunting stresses the middle syllable of Paumanok, as I have always done myself; it seems the only reading that fits the rhythm of Whitman’s lines. But I got curious about that native name for Long Island, and I find that Whitman says, in a footnote to Specimen Days, “Paumanok, (or Paumanake, or Paumanack, the Indian name of Long Island,” and the 1846 Proceedings of the New York Historical Society (p. 126) says “The following variety of names occur, either as referring to the Island, or its inhabitants, as well before, as at the period of its settlement by the white people, namely — Paumanake, Matanwake, Metoacs, Meitowax, Metanwack, and Sewanhack, or Sewan-hacky. The first of these is most frequently met with in old deeds…. It would therefore seem that this was the more favorite and general designation, while at the same time the natives themselves were called Metoacs.” Do any of my Americanist readers have any further information about this old toponym?

Addendum. I found this in Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin People of New York, by Evan T. Pritchard (Council Oak Books, 2002):

In ancient times, Long Island was called Matouac by some, Paumanok by others. Matouac means a “young man,” or “the young warriors,” referring to the younger tribes of the western half of the island. Paumanok is a term in the Renneiu language indicating “land of tribute,” in reference to Long Island’s role as a main source for the quohog and conch shells used in the manufacture of sewan or wampum, often used to pay tribute or taxes to another tribe.

Elsewhere in the book, Pritchard says “The Matinecock language was the new Matouac-type, what I call the Renneiu language, rather than the older, more traditional Munsee as spoken in Manhattan.”


  1. Very little, and of unknown accuracy. But I heard in my youth that in some local language it meant “fish”, because of shape of the island, in particular the two-fluked “tail”.

  2. Another of Whitman’s poems begins (accents added): “Stárting from físh-shaped Paumánok whére I was bórn”.

  3. Jeffry A. House says

    There is a town in Quebec called Maniwaki; Algonquin people apparently lived in that general area.

    Also, Margaret Lawrence wrote a series of well-regarded novels set in a town called Manawaka, invented, but supposedly in Manitoba. The name is evocative for Canadians in a way perhaps analogous to Yokapatawpha County, or Winesburg, Ohio.

  4. Here’s an old reference (1894). Note that the interpretation is based on Massachusett.

  5. Great link, thanks!

  6. Pritchard’s stuff makes me wonder. Where on earth did the name Renneiu come from? He doesn’t have much by way of sources on his website, and the only other refrences to the name I found are in books quoting him.
    Despite the Massachusett etymology, which is the one I’ve seen with any sort of etymology attached to it, I’m not 100% convinced. Would people really call their own land “land of tribute”? Not saying they wouldn’t, but it’s puzzling.

  7. I agree on both counts.

  8. marie-lucie says

    Y: Would people really call their own land “land of tribute”?

    It could be a name coined by neighbours/enemies of the original (or at least long-term) occupants, (enemies) who used to receive tribute from them and then took over their land.

  9. The name appears in the deed of sale of Gardiner’s Island, from “Yovawan, Sachem of Pommanocc and Aswaw Sachem, his wife, ffor ten coates of trading cloath…” It’s not clear if Gardiner learned the name from the locals or from someone else.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Y, why not from the locals? Sometimes people will tell you that a certain name “means” such and such, when the word is actually from a different language in which the name is analyzable. For instance, many Americans will tell a foreigner that Mississippi means something like ‘mighty river’ or ‘father of rivers’ or something similar, while they are unable to say which part of the word means what, they are just repeating what they have been told. On the other hand, they would not feel a need to tell a foreigner the meaning of Red River, since it is obvious to them. It is quite possible that paumanok, pommanocc and other variants mean ‘land of tribute’ in a language slightly different from that of the current inhabitants. It is also possible that the part translated as ‘tribute’ does not mean quite what the English word means, or that the meaning has been lost over the centuries as social conditions have changed.

  11. The spelling Pamunke at Y’s link brought to mind the Pamunkey River in Virginia, named after the Algonquian tribe of the same name. Wikipedia says that the name of the river is also recorded as Pamoeoncock, but alas has nothing on the etymology of the name of the tribe. “Tribute-payers” does not seem impossible for the name of a tribe that was a member of the Powhatan paramountcy.

  12. marie-lucie says

    VinnyD: “Tribute-payers” does not seem impossible for the name of a tribe that was a member of the Powhatan paramountcy.

    Indeed, although that description would have applied to other people as well. The word is supposed to refer to the land, not to the people, and the land produced materials used in the making of things considered appropriate for “tribute”. My point that although the name is considered to mean ‘land of tribute’, it is not analyzable as such in the language of the people in question, so that it might be either from an older form of the language or from a different language in which it is or was analyzable.

  13. VinnyD, here’s another reference regarding Pamunkey, which seems completely unrelated. This is by the same author as the oter reference, W. W. Tooker.

    I am very surprised to see that thereseems to be no modern scholarly compilation of U.S. Algonquian placenames. Gudde and Bright’s Califrornia Place Names, for example, is all these things, despite having to deal with about a zillion language groups, not just one well-studied one. For East Coast Algonquian, even Bright’s own Native American Placenames of the United States uses Tooker as one of its main authorities.

  14. The reference from Y goes back to John Smith, who wrote that the term Pamunkey referred to a piece of land in Virgina, one that happened to be a neck or triangle of land between two tidal rivers. Y, what reason do you give for saying Pamunkey seems completely unrelated?

  15. ryan, in Tooker’s essay about Pamunkey and other names (p. 58-59) he derives the word, ultimately, from a root meaning ‘to hide’. In the essay on Pomonok, he derives that name from a root meaning ‘to pay tribute’.

    Again, I can’t comment on any of this myself. I don’t know how valid Massachusett is as a source for interpreting these two other languages, how careful Tooker’s phonology is (though he is clearly aware of the need for phonological precision), or how to interpret the various transcriptions of these names.

  16. The Massachusett etymologies are, I’m afraid, bogus–though the Narragansett one might be more solid. ‘Paupaumenumwe’ (cited from Numbers 8:21) doesn’t mean ‘offering’; it means ‘waved around’ (the reference is to a ‘wave offering’, and the same word shows up in other places (e.g., Ezekiel 32:10) to mean ‘brandish’ a weapon. In ‘Paumunog’ “if we pay thee”, the -un- is a ‘theme sign’, indicating that the subject is 1st person and the object 2nd: the verb is ‘pa-um’, arguably a borrowing of the English verb ‘pay’ together with a (very common) suffix that marks verbs as transitive with animate objects.

    I don’t know much about Narragansett, but the form he cites does indeed seem to have the meaning he attributes to it, in Williams’ grammar. It looks decomposable into ‘pum-‘, which is an initial describing movement along a path, ‘-un’, a final involving actions done with the hands, and then ‘-um’, which is one of several endings for transitive verbs with inanimate objects (different -um from the one in the previous paragraph, in a different slot in the verbal morphology). So the verb would literally mean something like ‘hand things along’, which I guess could end up meaning ‘contribute’.

  17. Thanks very much, Norvin.
    Do you think Tooker’s etymology of Pomonok is still plausible, if the verb root is right? What about Pamunkey?

Speak Your Mind