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What Does Piscataqua Mean?

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 Amazon.com. He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online

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