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What Does Piscataqua Mean?

Indian_Figurehead_from_Peter_HillHISTORY MATTERS  

Portsmouth, NH historian Ralph May spend five years searching for the best definition of the placename “Piscataqua.” But to understand the meaning of the name, you really need a canoe, not a dictionary. Here’s the story of his journey, and ours, to a place where many rivers and lives have parted. (Continued below) 

Every now and then someone asks me point blank – What does “Piscataqua” mean? We say it all the time.  I used to hem and haw and regurgitate the old explanation that “Piscataqua” is a Native American word meaning “swift river,” or “rivers parting,” but I never did the research.    

Our Piscataqua River divides New Hampshire and Maine and is reportedly the third fastest-flowing navigable river in the world. Or is it the United States? I don’t really know what that means, other than that the current can be treacherous. Innocent victims have been pulled out to sea in little boats, never to be seen again. I discovered that first hand 20 years ago when the river almost slammed me and my new Alden rowing shell into a bridge on Great Bay. Serious sailors, I later learned, have died, battling the Piscataqua tides.  

Lost in translation  

Portsmouth historian Ralph May (1882-1973) battled the mighty Piscataqua too, although not the actual river. He tackled, instead, the elusive derivation of the word “Piscataqua.” in his 1926 book entitled Early Portsmouth History. Ralph May grappled with the word. Forty years later, at age 84, Ralph May was still puzzling out the meaning.  

In 1966 he published a 20-page booklet entitled “Piscataqua: The Correctness of Use and the Meaning of the Word.”  The booklet opens with a daunting three-page poem about the river. There are many romantic poems about the swift Piscataqua River by local writers from John Greenleaf Whittier and Thomas Bailey Aldrich to balladeer John Perrault.  

May’s poem shows his emotional attachment to the river and it begins like this:

    “Of all the rivers that adjoin the sea
     Piscataqua is fairest unto me.”

It gets worse. Originally published in the Portsmouth Herald, May’s poem runs on for 86 lines, and clearly demonstrates why historians should stick to writing history. 

CONTINUE to define Piscataqua

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Saturday, February 24, 2018 
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