On “Skaneateles”

Glen Haven

William Martin Beauchamp, in his Aboriginal Place Names of New York (1907), wrote on the origin and pronunciation of Skaneateles as follows:

“Skan-e-at’-e-les, long lake, is one form of this frequent name. Morgan gives this as Ska-ne-a’-dice in Onondaga and Seneca, Ska-ne-a’-dice in Cayuga, Skon-yat-e’-les in Tuscarora, Ska’-ne-a’-dal-lis in Mohawk, the last being nearest the usual local pronounciation. The Moravians wrote it Sganiatarees in 1750, having a Cayuga guide.

“Clark gave the Onondaga form as Skehneahties, or very long lake, and I received it as Skaneaties. It is Lac Scaniatores on the map of Charlevoix. Spafford made a note on this name: ‘Skaneateles, in the dialect of the Onondaga Indians, signifies long, and the lake has its name from them… The inhabitants say I must write this Skaneateles, but why they do not tell me.

“It will be observed, however, that the present name has the Mohawk form. There is a groundless but persistent belief that this means beautiful squaw, but all good authorities, including the Onondagas, assert that it means merely long lake. So strenuous was the local opposition to this prosaic definition, that Mr. Clark put on record the testimony of two principle chiefs of the Onondagas on this point in 1862. Among other things they said:

‘We would here distinctly state that we have never known among the Indians the interpretation of Skaneateles to be “beautiful squaw,” nor do we know of any tradition among the Onondagas, connected with Skaneateles, that has any allusion to a “beautiful squaw,” or “tall virgin,” or any “female of graceful form.” The Onondagas know the lake by the name Skeh-nae-a-ties, which, literally rendered, is “long water.” Nothing more or less. We have inquired of several of our chief men and women, who say that it is the first time they have ever heard that Skaneateles meant “beautiful squaw.” They, as well as ourselves, believe such interpretation to be a fiction.'”

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One account, contemporary with Beauchamp’s book, was “Ode to Skaneateles Lake,” in Indian Legends of Early Days (1905) by Nettie Parrish Martin. In her poem, Martin ascribes the name to a beautiful maiden named Skaneateles who is struck by lightning whilst in her canoe, and her grieving father, the chief, names the lake for her — sort of a Maid of the Mist legend only with lightning as the hand of Nature. Ms. Parrish was a writer of imaginative fiction. My money rides with William Beauchamp, an expert in Onondaga lore who actually spoke the language.

* * *

Photo: The steamer Glen Haven, plying the water of Skaneateles Lake.

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