Wednesday, April 08, 2009



In his poem A Certain Presence, Henry Braun wrote, "Names of places decay." But they decay only if we abandon them and allow them to fall into desuetude. I'm curious about earlier, lesser-known names of two places, the first where I now live (St. Paul, Minnesota) and the second where I hope some day to live (Farmington, Maine).

Charles A. Eastman, Indian Boyhood (New York: McClure, Phillips, 1902; rpt. New York: Dover, 1971), p. 101 (quoting Smoky Day, described on p. 99 as "widely known among us a preserver of history and legend"):
Our people lived then on the east bank of the Mississippi, a little south of where Imnejah-Skah, or White Cliff (St. Paul, Minnesota), now stands.
Jan F. Ullrich, ed., New Lakota Dictionary (Bloomington: Lakota Language Consortium, 2008), s.v. imníža (p. 206):
a rock, great rock, high cliff.
Id., s.v. ská (p. 461):
to be clear white; to be clean or pure.
In combination, these yield Imnížaská (id., p. 206, defined as St. Paul, Minnesota). The name probably refers to limestone cliffs along the Mississippi River.

Bruce J. Bourque, Twelve Thousand Years: American Indians in Maine (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001; rpt. 2004), doesn't list the Abenaki village of Amaseconti (modern day Farmington Falls) in the index, but it is mentioned or discussed on pp. 172, 178, 180 (with spelling Amasocontee), 182, 195, and 344 (with spelling Amesocontee).

On the meaning of the name Amaseconti, see J. Hammond Trumbull, The Composition of Indian Geographical Names, Illustrated from the Algonkin Languages (Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1870), pp. 23-25:
Abnaki names ending in -kantti, or -kontee (Mass. -kontu; Etchemin or Maliseet, -kodiah, -quoddy; Micmac, -kandi, or -aikadee;) may be placed with those of the first class, though this termination, representing a substantival component, is really only the locative affix of nouns in the indefinite plural. Exact location was denoted by affixing, to inanimate nouns singular, -et, -it or -ut; proximity, or something less than exact location, by -set, (interposing s, the characteristic of diminutives and derogatives) between the noun and affix. Plural nouns, representing a definite number of individuals, or a number which might be regarded as definite, received -ettu, -ittu, or -uttu, in the locative: but if the number was indefinite, or many individuals were spoken of collectively, the affix was -kontu, denoting 'where many are,' or 'place of abundance.'


Among Abnaki place-names having this form, the following deserve notice:—

Anmes[oo]k-kantti, 'where there is plenty of alewives or herrings;' from Abn. anms[oo]ak (Narr. aumsûog; Mass. ômmissuog, cotton;) literally, 'small fishes,' but appropriated to fish of the herring tribe, including alewives and menhaden or bony-fish. Râle gives this as the name of one of the Abnaki villages on or near the river 'Aghenibekki.' It is the same, probably, as the 'Meesee Contee' or 'Meesucontee,' at Farmington Falls, on Sandy River, Me.[49] With the suffix of 'place' or 'land,' it has been written Amessagunticook and Amasaquanteg.

[49] Coll. Me. Hist. Society, iv. 31, 105.

The alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) is an anadromous fish, i.e. a fish that lives in salt water but swims upstream to breed in fresh water. In our case, the salt water would be the Gulf of Maine, and the alewife route would be first up the Kennebec River as far its confluence with the Sandy River (between Norridgewock and Madison), and then up the Sandy River to Farmington Falls. There is a good map of the Sandy River watershed here (.pdf format).

For historical evidence of alewives on the Sandy River, see Stephen L. Goodale, ed., Abstract of Returns from the Agricultural Societies of Maine (Augusta: Owens & Nash, 1868), pp. 124-125 (from Report of Commission on Fisheries):
The Sandy river has very little dead water. Its sources are in a granitic region, and for some miles it is leaping over ledges and boulders. At Phillips its bed becomes stony, then gravelly, and when it reaches Farmington it is sandy. From New Sharon down there are many miles of pebbly rapids. In the lower part is a good deal of gentle current. Through a great part of its course it is winding through a sandy interval, where both its banks and its bed are constantly shifting. This is particularly the case in the town of Farmington. Altogether it has a great many miles of spawning ground for salmon, and but a limited extent suitable for shad or alewives. Both the latter, however, came into the river, and ascended as far as Farmington. The alewives appear to have bred in Temple pond. The salmon went much farther. The lower part of the river maintained an excellent shad fishery. Salmon were taken at various points with spear and net. Mr. John Tibbets of New Sharon, used to set a net for them, and had taken three while getting his net into the water. From several others in New Sharon we have information to the same effect. Seventy years ago they were plenty in Strong. But in 1804 the New Sharon dam was built. This stopped shad and alewives, but a fishway is said to have been maintained for a few years which permitted salmon to pass. A few years later another dam was thrown across the river nearer its mouth, and the fishways were no longer maintained. It is probable, however, that in high water the salmon could still pass all the obstructions, for Mr. David Hunter of Strong, took a salmon there only forty years ago. Into its mouth and lower tributaries they still came. In Sawyer's stream, in Stark, they spawned in great numbers. Mr. Levi G. Sawyer has seen and taken many of them there, but only in the fall and winter. In October they came, and were seen spawning; and sometimes were observed through the ice. They were diminishing for several years before 1837. That year Mr. Sawyer took two, and they were his last. A salmon weighing 22 pounds was caught in this stream.

The extensive gravelly rapids of the Sandy river fit it peculiarly for the production of salmon. The only drawback is the fact that in some parts its bed is occasionally shifted by the floods. Making all allowance for that, however, we shall still find an abundance of spawning ground for them. Shad and alewives also will be able to breed here as well as of old.

The obstructions that we have examined are the three dams at New Sharon, Farmington Falls and Phillips. There are no others in a distance of fifty miles; but above Phillips are several that we did not see. The dam at New Sharon is only seven feet high, yet it is rather difficult. There is no location for a fishway which will not be exposed to all the dangers of floods. Probably the best place is near the south end, but it must be well covered and heavily ballasted. At Farmington Falls is a dam seven feet high. The difficulty here, as at New Sharon, is the danger from freshets. The ice sometimes jams below the dam and endangers the whole structure. A fishway might be built alongside the sawmill on the south side. It must be very firm. At Phillips we apprehend less trouble, for although the height of the fall is not far from twenty feet, the ledge assists us. By blasting, a fishway can be easily made, where the water runs down in a crooked channel on the west side of the river.
Bones of alewives have been found at other archaeological sites in Maine, but I don't know if any have been found at Amaseconti. I haven't seen Rosemary A. Cyr et al., Farmington Falls Survey Project: Archaeological Phase I Survey (2003 = Maine Historic Preservation Commission Document 3328) or Harald E.L. Prins, Amesocontee: Abortive Tribe Formation on the Colonial Frontier (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Society for Ethnohistory, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1988).

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