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What Does Piscataqua Mean?

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

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