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Long IslandHistory

Indian names were his fame

William Wallace Tooker is shown in this undated

William Wallace Tooker is shown in this undated photo. Photo Credit: Jermain Memorial Library

Early in this century, a Sag Harbor pharmacist tried to give Long Island back its Indian identity.

Using old deeds, land records, dusty historical documents and any Indian vocabularies he could get his hands on, even from groups far to the north of Long Island, William Wallace Tooker drew up a list of what he said were Indian place names for towns, villages and other sites all across Long Island.

The list was enormous -- there were more than 500 place names and other “Indian’’ words on it. For many of the words, Tooker may have played fast with what few facts were available on long--extinct Algonquian languages and all but invented them. Still, scholars say, he got some of them right.

His list covers hundreds of towns and communities, such as Setauket, which Tooker said translated from Algonquian as “land at the mouth of the river,’’ to obscure words like Seapoose, which he defined as an inlet that opened up into the ocean.

In many ways, Tooker was hooked on Indian history from childhood.

When he first began working as a pharmacist in the late 1860s, Tooker lined up his collection of Indian artifacts -- he started collecting when he was 5 years old -- in the store window. By the early 1880s, when he was in his mid--20s, Tooker began his career as the region’s first ethnohistorian and writer on Long Island’s Indian past. He later sold his artifact collection to a Brooklyn museum, and his writing is today a part of the local history collection at the John Jermain Library in Sag Harbor.

Calling himself an “Algonkinist,’’ Tooker wrote that he had discovered Indian names for hundreds of hills, meadows, creeks and necks all across Long Island, and even drew up a list of Algonquian words he said were suitable for naming such things as hotels and country homes. While he never spelled out exactly how he did it, he did say he used various land records written at the time of European arrivals on Long Island, plus vocabularies made by Europeans of the Algonquian dialects along the Northeast coastline.

A 1955 article in the Long Island Forum said Tooker was so adept at translating Algonquian words that he could do it on cue -- this even though very few vocabularies were ever recorded. Scholars say now that Tooker was, for the most part, making educated guesses loosely based on words drawn from other vocabularies. He published his list in 1911 in the form of a thick book called “Indian Place Names on Long Island.’’ Prior to the publication of the book, hailed as the first attempt to translate Indian words found in historical records, Tooker published most of his work in weekly newspapers and anthropology journals.

“Tooker was one of those men of the late Nineteenth Century who saw themselves as amateur archeologists and anthropologists digging into the area’s Algonquian past,’’ said John Strong, who teaches at Southampton College. “Not a great deal has been written of the man himself, but it can be said that he dedicated his life to Long Island Indian history and his legacy is still with us.’’

Today, Tooker’s Indian place names are controversial among scholars. But most of them say his landmark work still serves an important purpose in trying to unlock the long--buried Indian history of a suburban island.

“When Tooker did his work, the language he was attempting to translate was unknown and unknowable,’’ said Ives Goddard, an Algonquian language expert at the Smithsonian Institution. “He looked at maps, old deeds, all kinds of colonial records, and then came up with his place names. Today, we would say those words he pulled out of records were incomprehensible and without real meaning.

“There was no science to what he did; it’s mostly fanciful,’’ Goddard added. “Some words you could say he’s probably close, but with most of them he is certainly wrong. Unless you have a complete vocabulary, defining place names is just guesswork.’’

In other words, Setauket probably does not mean “land at the mouth of the river,’’ and Ronkonkoma, No. 349 on Tooker’s list, probably does not mean “the boundary fishing place.’’

Strong agreed: “His work was seen at the time as very original. And in a real sense it is useful today, but it can’t be seen as definitive.’’

In a “remarks’’ section of his book, Tooker wrote that the Algonquian words collected by Thomas Jefferson in 1791 and John Gardiner in 1798, “and the names which I here present, are all that remain of the language as once spoken from Staten Island to Montauk Point.’’

Tooker came up with 486 place names -- towns, villages, hills, sections of woods, rivers and necks of land across Long Island -- and 99 “Indian’’ words he listed in an appendix. Of those words, Tooker wrote that they were “suitable for country homes, hotels, clubs, motor--boats, etc.’’

But his main contribution to Long Island history is his place names. Historians across the Island have used his list for generations.

“I have read Tooker for years,’’ Goddard said. “I keep his book right on the shelf by my desk. I take a generous view of my predecessors. He should not be beat up today for not figuring it out. After all, there were no native speakers he could have gone to to decipher the place names. His book can still contribute to our knowledge of Indian history on Long Island. And I’m sure he is right in some areas, and some of his cultural information is most valuable today.

“Tooker did the spade work, and that’s good for us today.’’

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