Origin of the Name

The following text is an excerpt from Archaeological Studies of the Susquehannock Indians of Pennsylvania, Safe Harbor Report no. 2 by Donald A. Cadzow, Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Harrisburg, 1936, pp 15–17. The book is in the public domain, and the full text is available online.

Of all the native inhabitants of Pennsylvania the least known to the ethnographers is the southern division of the northern Iroquois. They were called Susquehannock by the Powhatan Indian tribes, later the English adopted the name and it was applied to them by the first known white man to meet them, Captain John Smith. The story of the Susquehannocks is a tragic one.

They appeared early on the historic stage along the Susquehanna watershed, played a leading role and declined into obscurity. Through the pages of history they are called a variety of names out of which the one applied by Powhatan and Captain John Smith seems to be the most appropriate. This name has been explained by various authorities as Algonkian and not Iroquoian as we might expect it to be. According to Brinton, “the terminal ‘K’ is the place sign, ‘hanna’ denotes a flowing stream, while the adjectival prefix has been identified by Heckwelder with ‘schachage,’ straight, from the direct course of the river near its mouth, and by Mr. Guss with ‘woski,’ new, which he thinks referred to fresh or spring water.” In the writings of McSherry we find the following Algonkian interpretation-”Saskwe-an-og-Sask means rubbing, sweeping, grating. ‘K’ is the sign of prolongation. ‘We’ in composition means the effect produced by waves. ‘Og’ is plural animate termination. Hence Sis-k-we-in-og means ‘those who live in a place where water is heard grating (beating) on the shore!”

Miss Gladys Tantaquidgeon interprets the name in Delaware as “sak a’n’ hanek, river full of islands or projections above the water,” from sak .i.xan, “something in plain sight projecting up,” and a’n'h a n.e k “running water or streams.” The people inhabiting the territory along the banks of the river would be called Sak.an han.eyok.” According to Dr. Frank G. Speck, the term saskewhan’ne “muddy river” appears in a study of the Nanticoke and Conoy Indians. This may also account for Hewetts’ interpretation of the name-”signify roiley river,” in his story of the Conestoga.

The Cree Indians of northwest Canada interpret the name as meaning “water rubbing hard upon something.” This interpretation agrees with McSherry’s and we are inclined to accept his translation and believe the name is of Algonkian origin as the Crees are among the few tribes left where the tongue still remains almost pure, and their translation of Susquehannock as meaning “people living where water rubs on the shore” would be appropriate for a group living along the rapids of what is now the Lower Susquehanna River.

The early Swedes and Dutch called the Susquehanna Iroquois “Minquas” from the Delaware name applied to all tribes of this group. These names are corruptions of the Algonquian mingwe meaning “stealthy, treacherous.” Minquas was also used extensively during the late colonial period to designate any detached body of Iroquois regardless of where they were from.

To the French and the Five Nations the Susquehanna Iroquoian groups were known as Andastes, Andastoghernons, Gandastogues, Conestogas, etc., etc. The Indians undoubtedly separated the upper and lower river tribes but the white man did not do so conclusively in his records of the period. In our histories the Iroquois of eastern Pennsylvania have been given a variety of misspelled and misinterpreted proper names. This jumble is very confusing to a student, and in this paper we will call the Susquehanna Iroquoian groups Carantouans to distinguish them from the Five Nations. We will also divide them into two main groups, the Andaste on the upper rivers, and the Susquehannock on the lower river.

For the lack of a better informed authority we will accept the interpretation of General John Clark, in his unpublished notes, for the meaning of Carantouan. He believed the term was derived from the Iroquois garonta and touan meaning “great tree.” In this translation he agrees with J. G. Shea of Elizabeth, N. J., a contemporary student of the Iroquois, especially through the Jesuit Relations. In his early detached notes Clark was inclined to believe the term might indicate “big horn eminent at the head.” In this belief he was first influenced by the “Capitanessis” shown on the Susquehanna in some of Champlain’s early maps. In his final analysis, however, he agrees with Shea.

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