Monday, May 11, 2009

Naming the Land: What's Your Local Place Name I.Q.?


Every place name in the lower Hudson Valley holds a fascinating story waiting to be told. For the benefit of newcomers to this historic corner of Westchester--and perhaps a few old timers--here are accounts about the origins of some local place names.

The naming of places and natural features began well before the first Dutch traders arrived in the 17th century. As might be expected, many place names originated from names used by the American Indian tribes that once inhabited this area. Readers should note that the politically correct term “Native Americans” has not been used because many so-called Native Americans prefer the designation “American Indian.” The term “Native American” also ignores the evidence from DNA showing that American Indians are not native to the Western Hemisphere, but originally came from Asia. In that sense, we are all immigrants from somewhere else. They just happened to have arrived here earlier than the rest of us.

Tribes of the Wappinger division of the Mohicans occupied the land for thousands of years. These included the Weckquaesgeeks, a name that early settlers soon converted to "Wicker's Creek." The principal Weckquaesgeek village was at the present Dobbs Ferry; another was located at what would become Tarrytown. Farther north were the Sint-Sincks, whose main village was named Ossin-sing. Still farther north, at the mouth of the Croton River, lay the principal village of the Kitchawanks. Another Kitchawank village nestled where Peekskill now stands.

It should come as no surprise that modern communities now occupy what had once been Indian villages. Each site had been chosen originally because it afforded shelter from the elements, fresh water, abundant stocks of game, fish and shellfish, and easy access to well-worn trails. Because Indians kept no written records, their place names could only be retained through repeated use. Today's surviving Indian names of tribes and places are phonetic approximations at best. Missionaries more intent on saving souls than in preserving grammar, syntax or vocabularies often recorded Indian languages. Sounds in Indian languages were unfamiliar to European ears, and transcription of words was haphazard.

Despite formidable obstacles, Westchester's Indian heritage has survived in its place names. In an interesting linguistic project a few years ago, Nicholas A. Shoumatoff, of the Trailside Museum at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, traveled to Canada to interview descendants of Hudson Valley Indians who still spoke the local Munsee dialect of the Algonquian language.

Presented with a series of Westchester place names, one woman easily identified their Indian meanings: Katonah ("principal hill place"), Ossining ("place of stone"), Chappaqua ("rustling or rattling land"), and Kisco ("muddy place"). Only a few Dutch place names have survived in Westchester. In part, this is because the pragmatic Dutch preferred to appropriate Indian names and change a few letters to make them resemble Dutch. Hoboken, Poughkeepsie and Schaenhechstede (Schenectady) all emerged from Indian equivalents. And Kensico, Pocantico, Tappan and Tuckahoe have also come down to us in the same way.

Names from American Indians
A descriptive local Indian name that translates to "the place where the reeds make a rustling sound when you walk through."
Croton-on-Hudson. Incorporated in 1898, the village takes its name from the name of a local chief, Kenotin or Knoten. For many years an Indian in a feathered war bonnet graced Croton’s police cruisers and uniform shoulder patches. An Indian with a Mohawk haircut appeared on village stationery. On Philip Van Cortlandt's map of Van Cortlandt Manor, the Croton River is called "Groatun's River." Croton was successively known as Collabaugh Landing, Cortlandt Town and Croton Landing (the latter from 1848 to 1891).
Croton Point. Bought by William and Sarah Teller in 1645 and called Teller's Point; after the death of her husband, it became Sarah's Point. The name Teller's Point now only applies to the southern tip; the northern tip has been known as Enoch's Neck and Northwest Point.
Indian Point. Developed as a recreational picnic area and a stop for the Hudson River Day Line, this property in the village of Buchanan was acquired by Con Ed for three atomic energy plants. Archaeological evidence shows that Indian Point, like Croton Point, was a favorite Indian dwelling site.
Katonah was named for the Indian Sachem who sold the land in 1680. The Sachem’s name was a shortened version of Ketatonah (“Great Mountain”).
Kensico, the name of the hamlet formerly known as Wright's Mills, was also applied to the dam built in 1885 by New York City's Board of Water Supply. Derived from the name of a Siwanoy Indian chief, Cokenseko, the hamlet was inundated by the reservoir in 1917.
Kitchawan. A variation of the name of an American Indian tribe, the Kichawanks, it was also the name of the former Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Research Center on the south shore of the Croton Reservoir. Its closing was regretted by many.
Lake Meahagh. The Indians sold Verplanck Point to Stephanus Van Cortlandt in 1683, identifying it in the deed by the Indian word "meahagh" ("small island"). The present lake was created in 1872 by damming the marshes to the east.
Mohegan Lake. Originally called Crooked Lake, in the 1860's the name was changed to Mohegan Lake. The lake drains to the north into Peekskill Hollow Brook.
Mt. Kisco. The hamlet here was long called New Castle Corner. When the New York & Harlem Railroad reached here in 1847, they adopted New Castle as the station name. The name didn't last long after controversy ensued over the new name. Local farmer Stephen Woods suggested the name Mt. Kisco, from "Cisqua," meaning "muddy place," the Indian name for the meadow north of the settlement.
Oscawana. Oscawana Island, now linked to the mainland, was formerly known as Peggs Island. The name of the hamlet to the south of Crugers since the middle 1800s is probably of American Indian origin. Askawanes was the name of one of the Indian signers of the 1682 deed that sold the land to William Teller. He had previously purchased Croton Point in 1645. Oscawana was annexed by Croton in 1933.
Osceola Lake. This lake in Yorktown is not named for a local Indian. The name is from the Hotel Osceola, which stood here at the turn of the century. Osceola was a Seminole leader who resisted the removal of his people from Florida in the 1830's.
Ossining. First named Hunter's Landing, then Mt. Pleasant and Mt. Pleasant Landing, Sing Sing, the first village in Westchester to incorporate, adopted the name of the local Indian tribe in 1813, a choice it eventually regretted. To dissociate itself from the infamous Sing Sing prison, the village changed its name in 1901 to Ossining. The first newspaper in Westchester was published here in 1797--The Mt. Pleasant Register. In 1845, the town of Ossining was carved out of the adjoining town of Mt. Pleasant and called "Ossin-sing." A year later the town became Ossining and then Ossining
Senasqua was the Indian name for Croton Point, meaning "the grassy place." The name is also applied to Croton's riverfront park.
White Plains is merely a direct translation of the Indian name for the area: "Quaropas," or "white marshes." One of the original Westchester towns formed in 1788, White Plains was incorporated as a village in 1866 and became a city in 1916.

The Dutch arrived in 1624. In formulating their policy in the New World, they committed a basic error. As the richest European trading nation, they saw the Hudson Valley not as a place for settlement but as an opportunity solely for exploitation and trade. On the other hand, the English based their development of settlements on agriculture as well as trade. Their settlements became compact, self-sufficient "plantations" into which settlers poured. When the English took over New Netherland in 1664, Virginia had a population more than three times as large as the Dutch province; New England outnumbered it by five to one.

Names from the Dutch
Crompond, a hamlet at Crompond and Old Yorktown roads. It takes its name from Crom Pond, Dutch for "Crooked Lake." The Dutch described the lake in what is now Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park as crooked because of its shape. It is now two separate bodies of water, Mohansic Lake (a name of unknown origin) and a much smaller Crom Pond.
Kill Brook in Ossining, also known as Sing Sing Creek, empties into the Hudson at the Ossining station. During heavy rails, it can become an angry torrent. "Kill" is the Dutch word for stream or brook, making the term Kill Brook as redundant as the terms Rio Grande River or the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Sleepy Hollow is an anglicization of the Dutch term "Slaper Havn," ("secondary harbor") an early name used by Dutch sloop captains for the mouth of the Pocantico River. Washington Irving built his fable The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" around the name. Until 1874, when it was incorporated as the village of North Tarrytown, the hamlet was called Beekmantown. North Tarrytown changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in 1996, the same year the massive General Motors automobile assembly plant closed.
Spitzenberg. The Dutch name for this mountain in Cortlandt means "pointed mountain."
Tarrytown is a corruption of "tarwe dorp" (Dutch for "wheat town") because wheat was grown, milled and shipped from there. Storyteller Washington Irving insisted it was named by unhappy farm wives whose husbands tarried too long at the village tavern after taking their produce to the Philipse wharf.
Yonkers was initially known as Colendonck ("Donck's Colony") It got its present name because its founder, Adriaen van der Donck, had the honorific title of "Jonkheer" (pronounced "yonkheer"), and people began to refer to it as "the Jonkheer's."

Following the Revolution, burgeoning new towns and villages caused an explosion of names. When Westchester County was reorganized in 1788, for example, the town of Somers was called Stephen Town, after Stephanus Van Cortlandt. Because this caused confusion with an existing Stephentown in Rensselaer County, the name was changed to Somers in 1808 to honor Capt. Richard Somers, a hero of the war against the Barbary pirates..

Named after Persons
Annsville was reputedly named for Ann Van Cortlandt de Lancey. But in the 1732 division of Van Cortlandt Manor, it was her younger sister Gertrude Van Cortlandt Beekman who got the land that bears this name. Admittedly, Annsville is more pleasing to the ear than Gertrudesville.
Buchanan was incorporated in 1928 to avoid being absorbed by Peekskill. In 1996, C-Span planned a series of programs devoted to places named for presidents. Thinking that the village of Buchanan had been named for James Buchanan, the fifteenth President of the United States, the television network sent its large yellow bus to broadcast a program from the village. To its embarrassment, the network discovered at the last moment that Buchanan had not been named for a president but for Alexander F. Buchanan, operator of an oilcloth factory there. They nevertheless visited Buchanan and interviewed local officials and residents
Charles Point. Charles Southard operated a brickyard between Sandy Cove and Lent's Cove in the 1880's.
Cortlandt/Cortlandt Manor. In 1677, Stephanus Van Cortlandt, first native-born mayor of New York City, began buying land from the Indians in what is now Westchester County. Eventually, the lands of Van Cortlandt Manor extended from the Croton River on the south to beyond Anthony's Nose on the north and twenty miles to the east of the Hudson to what would become the Connecticut border.
Crugers. Named for German immigrant John Cruger, who arrived in 1700. His grandson, Col. John P. Cruger, married Elizabeth Dyckman, widowed owner of Boscobel. The post office at Crugers was called Boscobel from 1857 to 1883. The mansion, saved from imminent destruction at the last moment, was reconstructed in Garrison and opened to the public in 1961.
Dobbs Ferry. Named for Jan Dobbs, who arrived in 1698 and whose family operated a ferry here until 1759, when it was taken over by the Sneden family in Rocklad County, who operated the ferry until 1903. The village's name remained unchanged despite efforts to change it to Greenburgh, Paulding, Wart-on-Hudson or Livngston's Landing.
Graham. Once a station on the Putnam Division, this hamlet took its name from Dr. Isaac Gilbert Graham, military surgeon during the Revolutionary War, who occupied land north of the former Hawthorne traffic circle about 1785. The name is also perpetuated in Graham Hills County Park.
Harmon. Clifford B. Harmon bought a large tract of land between Maple Street and the Croton River and sold small lots, heavily promoted in New York City in 1907 and thereafter. He later developed Larchmont Gardens in Mamaroneck and Shore Acres in Rye. The community of Harmon was officially annexed by Croton in 1933.
Hawthorne. Formerly successively called Hammond's Mills, Neperan and Unionville, this hamlet in the town of Mt. Pleasant, was named Hawthorne in 1901. It was the site of the Rosary Hill Home (the former Tecumseh Hotel), operated by the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, headed by Mother Alphonsa (Rose Hawthorne Lathrop), a convert to Catholicism. Residents named the hamlet Hawthorne to honor her father, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne was the site of the Hawthorne traffic circle that linked the Taconic, Saw Mill and Bronx River parkways. Removed in 1972, the circle was both confusing and dangerous, other figuring in morning radio traffic reports.
Irvington until 1854 was named Dearman, after local farmer Justus Dearman. To honor their neighbor Washington Irving, residents changed the name of the hamlet to Irvington. When Tarrytown incorporated in 1870, its southern boundary was fixed at the center of Sunnyside Lane. But Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, is on the north side of this road. Instead of being located in Irvington, a slip of the pen unexpectedly placed the charming home Irving designed for himself in Tarrytown.
Jefferson Valley, a hamlet in the town of Yorktown, was named by Dr. James Fountain in 1850 to honor the third President of the United States. the third president. A nearby lake--the present Osceola Lake--also bore Jefferson's name.
Kemeys Cove. Named for the Kemys family, early owners of land near this landlocked cove to the south of Sparta.
Montrose. Centered near the intersection of Montrose Station Road and the Albany Post Road (now Route 9A), this hamlet takes its name from John Montross, an early landowner here. During the Revolution, Montrose Point was called Parson's Point because the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church had a farm here.
Peekskill. Jan Peeck built a trading post along the brook that bears his name, Peekskill Hollow Brook. Its site is near the present Pumphouse and Dogwood roads. During the winter of 1680, Jan Peeck disappeared into the woods and was never seen again. When the center of population and commerce shifted closer to the Hudson River and its sloop and railroad traffic, the name of the community migrated as well.
Teller's Point was the former name of Croton Point, bought from the Indians in 1645 by William Teller,. The name is still applied to the southern tip of Croton Point. Teller also purchased Oscawana from local Indians.
Toddville. A family named Todd owned some 25 acres of land on Crompond Road, between Locust and Croton avenues.
Van Cortlandtville. Formerly called Peekskill, Sutton Mills and Cortlandtville, this hamlet marks the site where Jan Peeck built his trading post, about two miles up Peekskill Hollow Brook.
Verplanck. Johannes Van Cortlandt, son of Stephanus Van Cortlandt, inherited this sizable peninsula. He left it to his daughter Gertrude, who married Philip VerPlanck in 1718. The couple had nine children. Called VerPlanck Point, it remained in the family until the southern portion was sold to an investor's syndicate in 1836. The extensive community planned by the syndicate never materialized, although the hamlet of Verplanck enjoyed a measure of prosperity during the brickmaking era. Many of the brick homes built by brickyard workers in Verplanck are architecturally interesting.

Names from Other Places
Ardsley. First called Greenburgh, then Hall's Corners, in the early 1860s, residents around Ashford Avenue and Saw Mill River Road decided to name their community Ashford. The birthplace of Capt. King, an early settler who operated a pickle factory here, Ashford's name was next changed to Ardsley in 1883. Residents petitioned for a post office to be established there, but learned there already was a post office of that name in upstate Cattaraugus County. British-born Cyrus W. Field, the financier who oversaw the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable, was living in Ashford on an estate called Ardsley after his ancestral home in Yorkshire, England. To honor their hamlet's most famous citizen, residents decided to change the community's name to Ardsley. A post office with that name soon followed.
Mt. Vernon. In 1852, residents of the newly formed New York Industrial Home Association No. 1 development named their community Monticello after the home of Thomas Jefferson. The Post Office Department in Washington objected to the choice because of possible confusion with the county seat of Sullivan County. The residents then chose the name of the home of the first president, George Washington.
New Rochelle was the name given to it by the Protestant Huguenot refugees from Catholic France who settled here after i688. Now the eighth largest city in New York State, it took its name from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France, the place from which many of the first settlers emigrated.
Scarborough owes its name to the Rev. Edward N. Mead. So impressed was he with the architectural beauty of St. Mary's Church in Scarborough, England, that he had its plans copied for St. Mary's Church on the Albany Post Road (Route 9). By the year 1850, the name Scarborough was applied to the parish and to the larger area around it. Between 1864 and 1928, the local post office used the abbreviated name Scarboro for its post office here. In 1867 Scarborough was briefly named Wescora, the name of an Indian Sachem. In 1909, the New York Central Railroad changed the name of the Scarborough station to West Briarcliff. After incensed local citizens threw the Central's sign into the Hudson, the railroad restored the name Scarborough to the station.
Sparta. After the Revolution, the Commissioners of Forfeiture sold confiscated lands owned by Loyalists. James Drowley bought a portion of the land owned by Frederick Philipse in what is now the southern part of Ossining and planned to divide it into lots and sell them. This may have been the first real-estate subdivision in the new republic. Legend has it that the outcrops of white dolomitic limestone here were reminiscent of Sparta in Greece, thus the name. At one time the river town of Sparta handled more sloop traffic than Sing Sing, its neighbor to the north.
Valhalla. Formerly named Kensico, its post office adopted the Valhalla name in 1861. Legend has it that the wife of the first postmaster was an avid lover of Wagnerian operas and chose the name Valhalla. The Harlem Division of the New York Central Railroad changed the station name, which had been Kensico since 1845, to Valhalla in 1904.
Yorktown. Formerly part of Somers and named Hanover for the British ruling family, in 1788, its name was changed to Yorktown to honor the French troops who had fought at Yorktown and returned to bivouac here. Yorktown is also the name of a hamlet at Crompond and Granite Springs roads that changed its name from Crompond to Yorktown in 1820.
Yorktown Heights. Formerly called Underhill, the hamlet’s name was changed to Yorktown Heights in 1899. Residents feared that the name Underhill gave the impression that the place was low and unhealthy.

Coined Names
Briarcliff Manor.
The post office and station of the New York & Northern Railroad here was named Whitson, from Charles H. Whitson, the first station agent. The station building would later house the Briarcliff Manor Public Library. After Walter W. Law retired as head of W. & J. Sloane, an upscale New York furnishings department store, he bought 232 acres here in 1890 and named it Briarcliff Farm. Later, he added an additional 5,000 acres that he developed as Briarcliff Manor. The village was incorporated in 1902.
Pleasantville. Formerly called Clark's Corners, in 1828 postmaster Henry Romer selected the name Pleasantville. The village was incorporated in 1897. The Reader's Digest moved to Pleasantville in 1923. Although the magazine's headquarters moved to Chappaqua in 1939, the publishers decided that the name Pleasantville sounded better as an address, so they kept it as their post office address.
Teatown. The accepted story goes like this: At the start of the Revolution in 1776, a grocer named John Arthur closed his store in Manhattan and moved with his stock of groceries to a house located near the intersection of Spring Valley and Teatown roads. Local women soon learned that his goods included bohea--imported black Chinese tea--a scarce commodity during the war. Mrs. Jonas Orser and about 30 other women, anxious for the scarce beverage, headed for Mr. Arthur's farm. He intercepted them on the road. In response to their request for directions, he gave them misinformation that would take them there over a circuitous route. In the meantime, he headed home via a shortcut and barricaded his house, leaving it in charge of his wife. After the irate women besieged the house, Mrs. Arthur and Mrs. Orser negotiated a settlement: Mr. Arthur would sell them some tea if the women would agree to withdraw. They did and he did, ending the incident and leaving us with the name.

Named by Developers
Croton Heights.
H.W. Wilson, a specialty publisher of reference books for libraries, created this development in 1926. Located to the east of Saw Mill River Road, it was large enough to have its own railroad station.
Eastview. This area took its name from the station of the New York & Northern Railroad. A railroad promotional brochure described the view to the east from the station as "grand." (The New York & Northern later became the Putnam Division of the New York Central.)
Harmon. Named for developer Clifford B. Harmon, who purchased land from Van Cortlandt descendants and began selling lots here in 1907. One feature of the new community was that sidewalks and the pipes of a water distribution system were already installed. The village of Croton-on-Hudson in 1933 annexed the hamlet of Harmon. By agreement with the former New York Central Railroad, Harmon's name is perpetuated in the name of the railroad station, Croton-Harmon. To more than a few older residents, the area of Croton south of Maple Street (Route 129) still is--and always has been--Harmon.
Manhattan Park. In 1906, a developer gave this name to the area north of Birdsall Drive and east of Saw Mill River Road.
Roe Park. F.F. Roe developed the area north of Main Street and Locust Avenue in Cortlandt in 1921.

Associative Names
An area in the village of Ossining once famous for its Methodist summer camp meetings.
Chimney Corners. The Cortlandt Furnace for smelting iron ore was located near the intersection of Furnace Dock Road and the old Albany Post Road. The low-grade magnetite ore was not obtained in the immediate vicinity, however, but was brought from mines in what is now Harriman State Park on the other side of the Hudson and barged across the river to Furnace Dock. The operation proved to be uneconomical, and the furnace was shut down in 1757.
Crotonville. The derivation is obvious. This hamlet is on the south bank of the Croton River.
Duck Pond in Croton-on-Hudson was once much larger and called Ice Pond because ice was cut there in winter. Also called Spring Lake on maps because it is fed by springs that drained along Bungalow Road. This drainage now lies below a playground , basketball court, softball field and parking lot.
Eastview was the name of the New York & Northern Railroad station here. A railroad brochure extolled the view toward the east as "grand." The railroad was later incorporated into the New York Central’s Putnam Division.
Furnace Woods. The woods referred to in the name are the wooded eastern slopes of Blue Mountain.
Hessian Hill in Croton-on-Hudson was named because Hessian mercenaries occupied the hill to the north of Mt. Airy from June to October 1779.
Maryknoll. This hamlet in the town of Ossining takes its name from the Maryknoll Seminary of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society.
Millwood is the name the New York Central applied in 1881 to its Putnam Division station at the Somerstown Turnpike (Route 133) and Station Road. The name referred to the Rockdale woolen mills to the south on the Pocantico River where Echo Lake is now. The hamlet was briefly called Merritt's Corners for its postmaster, Harry N. Merritt. Before that it was Sarlesville, from the name of a local family.
Mt. Airy. Although its name may sound like the fanciful creation of a modern real-estate developer, this area was settled in the 1600s and called that even then. Locals insist that the area west of Mt. Airy Road was always breezy. It was annexed by Croton-on-Hudson in 1933.
Mt. Green, a hill in Croton-on-Hudson, was named because of its luxuriant green foliage.
Prickly Pear Hill in Croton-on-Hudson because prickly pear cactus grew here. Legend has it that when Benjamin Franklin visited Van Cortlandt Manor on his way back to Philadelphia from Montreal in 1776, local children showed him how the spines from these plants could be used instead of steel needles in sewing.
Washington Hill in Verplanck rceived tis name because Gen. George Washington’s hadquarters were located on this hill north of St. Patrick’s Cemetery.

Named for Trees and Shrubs
After the residents of the hamlet a few miles to the south named their community Ashford, residents of Greenburgh, led by a descendant of Alexander Hamilton, decided to change their community's name to Elmsford. A giant elm tree, later destroyed by lightning, stood in the center of town. Previously the hamlet had been called Storm's Bridge, after a local family of that name, and Hall's Corners, for a tavern keeper.
Shrub Oak was originally named Scrub Oak. The scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) is a small tree, a prolific producer of acorns, is also known as the deer oak and the turkey oak. Residents thought "Scrub Oak" was uncomplimentary, so they changed the hamlet's name to Shrub Oak in 1829.
Thornwood, a hamlet located between Hawthorne and Pleasantville, has been called Thornwood since 1914. The origin of the name is unknown.

Over the years, names of places in the lower Hudson Valley have been changed, shortened, spelled differently, even forgotten. Yet every name that surfaces in old documents or endures to this day contains clues to this area's fascinating history.

At this very moment in one historic Lower Hudson Valley community, Croton-on-Hudson, misguided apostles of the future are busy exhorting us to sacrifice a historic building, tangible evidence of the past, in exchange for the doubtful benefits their plans for future development may bring. Nevertheless, the past--no matter how clouded it may seem from the vantage point of now--still offers us more comforting certainty than what is yet to come.

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