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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

Who said it first?  

According to Ralph May, Captain John Smith first used a version of the word for this region. The precise modern spelling "Piscataqua" first appeared in English writing in 1623, Ralph May says. This was the same year that the Thompson family established its fishing camp at Rye. Portsmouth has since stolen this as its founding date. The Piscataqua River is labeled on a map as early as 1634. May says.   

Historian_Ralph_MayEarly writers refer to this region as "Pascattaway" or "Pascataquack." Spelling didn’t matter in the 17th century when words were written phonetically and spelling dictionaries were unknown. Ralph May catalogued 30 variations of the spelling for “Piscataqua.” Here, I believe, his propeller got snagged in the seaweed for years.  

Down the wrong river  

Ralph May was looking for meaning wholly in the word itself. He briefly latched on to the theory that the meaning came from two Latin words -- "Pices" (fish) and "aqua" (water). That translated to "place of many fish." Makes sense since fish were abundant here.  

But why would Native Americans be speaking Latin? Perhaps, according to the theory, they learned it from the early explorers like Martin Pring who reportedly sailed down the Piscataqua River in 1603. Not likely. It’s hard to swallow the theory that Pring jumped off his ship and taught the natives Latin, even though by his own written account, Pring met no Natives in this region.  

This “anglo-centric” view that interprets everything from a white European perspective is painfully common in American history, even today. Early amateur histories of New England, including Portsmouth, often depict this area as a raw “savage” world simply waiting for the arrival of civilized white settlers. Ralph May wisely rejected the idea that Indians were sitting around here for thousands of years waiting for Martin Pring to give them the perfect Latin phrase to describe their homeland.  

May also rejected other translations for Piscataqua like “the great deer place” and "dark or gloomy river" that he found in a number of sources. He also found the definition "meeting of the waters" too vague, but this one was close to the mark.  

Too much homework  

A determined scholar, Ralph May tracked down every other river, town, mountain and county in the East with a name resembling Piscataqua – all before the arrival of the Internet. He contacted every local library and historical society by letter. He diligently reported the results in his 1966 essay, quoting entire letters from reference librarians and local historians. Most of them knew nothing.  

The town of Pascataway in New Jersey, May discovered, took its name from settlers who came there from the Piscataqua region of New Hampshire in 1668. His research had taken him on the lexicographical equivalent of a wild goose chase, right back to where he started.  

On this issue, to borrow a phrase from George Bernard Shaw, May could hook every reference librarian in New England together and they wouldn’t reach a conclusion. The problem was that none of them were Abenaiki speakers. The people who knew the answers were driven forever from their ancestral homeland by white settlers long before the American Revolution.  

CONTINUE search for PIscataqua River

Back to the source  

 At some point in history, white explorers asked Natives what they called this region. That spoken term – whether understood or misunderstood – was written down phonetically. All of the English language spellings have come to us from this Abenaki language root (also spelled Abnaki, Abnaque, Wabanaki, etc.). So to understand the term Ralph May needed a canoe, not an Oxford English Dictionary. 

In short, Piscataqua appears to describe a place where a river separates into two or three parts. Native Americans defining the word, Ralph May wrote, often extended an arm with two or three fingers splayed apart to illustrate the concept. May eventually offered this definition for Piscataqua -- "a place where boats and canoes ascending the river together from its mouth were compelled to separate according to their several destinations."  Not bad, but a little long.  

It is, metaphorically, a place from where people take their separate paths, and in reverse, a place where they come together -- a sort of prehistoric airport or bus terminal. This concept was important for migrant natives who lived in family and tribal groups, moved with the seasons, traveled by river and came together for annual ceremonies and celebrations.  

The sea was less interesting to them than the many tributaries of the Piscataqua further inland.  That’s where the fish were easier to catch and the fur-bearing animals came to hunt. For thousands of years before the Europeans came, Native Americans had spent part of each year at the falls of the many rivers that lead toward the Piscataqua -- at Cochecho, the Bellamy, the Lamprey, the Exeter, the Oyster rivers and at Salmon Falls. These were their separate destinations branching at Dover Point where the highway rushes above the entrance to Great Bay, our central tidal lake.

Where the swift river branches 

In his early research in the 1920s Ralph May wrote to the respected Indian language expert and folklorist Fanny Eckstorm in Canada. She didn’t respond until 1929, three years after May’s history of Portsmouth was published. There was no proper way of spelling “Piscataqua” she told him in her letters. All of the spellings, read aloud, would have been recognized as proper by an Indian listener.  

"Peske", she said, means "branch", and "tegwe" is a river with a strong current, possibly tidal. Piscataqua, or “peske-tegwe” to an Abenaki speaker, would likely mean the portion of the river between Great Bay and the sea.  

The term  "Piscataquack,"  Eckstorm said -- most likely refers to the branching off point. To an Abnaki speaker, that might have been the point where Great Bay meets Little Bay.  

She knew best. Eckstorm based her research, not on English-language books, but by traveling on rivers with Native-speaking guides. She asked questions, listened to the sound of words, and tried to relate the sounds to the land itself and its importance to Native peoples.  

For Ralph May, nailing down the meaning of his favorite river was a long and winding scientific journey through a mountain of books. But eventually he came to think like an Indian, rather than a white scholar. The branching point of this swift flowing river is both a visual and a spiritual description.  

Piscataqua is the point where decisions must be made and families must part. The river demands no less. After searching four decades, the author came to an understanding of the word, rather than a definition. One does not have to spell or pronounce a word precisely, he learned, in order to recognize the great Piscataqua or to feel its supernatural power.  

Revised version copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online

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