On the train home from work, you lean your head against the window, watching the water, the woods, and the tall grasses of the Great Swamp fade into the distance. As the scenery passes by, a brief thought flickers through your mind about how, five hundred years ago, perhaps women sat along the banks of the Swamp River, weaving stories into the white and purple shells of their wampum belts. You wonder what became of those women, before your phone buzzes and you text your ride home that you’ll be at your destination within fifteen minutes. The train stops and a few more minutes are spent scrolling through Facebook, until the conductor interrupts. “This is the train to Wassaic,” he calls out in his usual drone. You look up again as the train begins to move, and you wonder, Where did the name Wassaic come from?
The word Wassaic, as it turns out, comes from the Native American word Wahsaic, which means “land of difficult access” or “narrow valley.” It is, more precisely, a word from an Algonquian Native American language. It comes from those women who used to weave wampum in villages scattered around Dutchess County, from men who used to build boats from the bark of white birches and sail across the Hudson and Housatonic. These men and women belonged to the Wappinger Tribe, and though their language has been extinct for a long time, if we listen closely, we can still hear its echoes throughout the valley.
The Algonquian Confederation in the Lower Hudson Valley consisted of the Delaware, Mahican, and, of course, Wappinger tribes. The Wappinger tribe lived in present-day southeastern New York and western Connecticut, specifically extending as far south as the Bronx and northeast to the crest of the Taconic Mountains on the border between New York and Connecticut, thus encompassing Pawling and its other neighboring towns. The Wappinger language shared a number of overlaps with those of their neighbors’, though it cannot be ascertained whether it was more closely related to Delaware or Mohican languages. No speakers remain today, but there are approximately five elderly speakers of Munsee, a related Mohican language, living in Ontario, Canada.
You may wonder, then, how we came to know who these speakers were, and how these tribes came to inhabit the Hudson Valley. One way we have of knowing is through the Dutchess County Quarry Cave, located near Pleasant Valley, New York. In this cave, spelunkers have found the points of spears that had once hunted now-extinct caribou and giant beavers from 10,580 BCE. Near Hyde Park, they have also found similar artifacts, weapons of the men who targeted mastodons during 9000 BCE.
In 1609, Henry Hudson referred to the Wappingers as “healthy looking, for the most part friendly, independent minded.” But what does “wappinger” mean, exactly? The origins are still yet unclear, but there are several speculations, ranging from “easterner,” from the word Waban meaning “dawn” or “east,” or from the word Wapinkw meaning “opossum people,” or wapendragers, the Dutch word for “weapon-bearers.” Despite what the latter implies, however, the Wappinger people were indeed “for the most part friendly.” In a Wappinger village, while wandering about the wigwam houses they built from the logs of the surrounding forests, you might see a mother carrying her child in a cradleboard on her back, or you might stumble across a hearty fire, where an elder would have a wampum belt in hand. As children gathered around the fire, he would first greet them with either koolamalsi – a greeting literally meaning “are you well?” – or perhaps a friendly aquai!, or wuunnet, which means “It is good!”
The elder would then proceed to tell the children a story, using the wampum belt as an aid. This wampum belt would have been crafted either by hand or using a bow loom to sew beads of shells, coral, turquoise, and other natural objects into long strands of leather backing, creating looping, winding patterns to aid in recollection of a tale. Perhaps the elder would tell the scary story about Pukwudgies, mischievous but innocuous little forest beings who helped those who were kind to them. There might also be a story about Moskim, a kind but somewhat foolish hero of Eastern Algonquian epics. Or maybe this time, it would be about Manitou, also spelled as Waunthut Mennitoow, the benevolent “Great Spirit” that ruled over everything – the water, the trees, the moon, the stars.
The exact phonology, or pronunciation system, of the Wappinger language is unknown, but its surviving relatives, Mohican and Munsee, have several unique characteristics. Mohican had no R or L sounds, and Munsee did not have hard N sounds. Furthermore, the grammar in each is characterized by complex inflectional and derivational morphology. (In other words, to show whether a word is a noun, verb, adjective, or who the subject is, a Wappinger speaker would have to add or modify certain prefixes, suffixes, or even affixes into the middle of the word.) Even though there are few speakers left of Mohican and only five speakers left of Munsee, efforts are being made to revitalize these dying languages by young tribe members wishing to maintain their heritage.
How a Language Disappeared
How, though, did these languages die out? It began with the establishment of the New Netherlands Colony in the early 17th century. As the Dutch settlers came to the Hudson Valley, the Wappingers were gradually forced out by both the Dutch and the British. According to the website of the Mount Gulian Historic Site in Fishkill, NY, on August 8, 1683, they sold a significant portion of their land – 85,000 acres – to the Dutch in exchange for “perhaps one thousand two hundred dollars worth of items, including wampum, guns, gunpowder, cloth, shirts, rum, tobacco and beer.” This land came into the posession of Francis Rombout and Gulian Verplanck. Any remaining tribe members were absorbed into European culture, the nearaby Mohican and Lenape tribes, or even their former Iroquois enemy tribes. The Wappinger tribe died out completely in 1778 with the death of the last sachem (tribe leader), Daniel Ninham. The last fluent speaker of the language died in the mid-1900s. (To learn more online, visit (MountGulian.org.)
We can no longer hear the tales that those women sitting by the riverbanks of the lower Hudson Valley wove through their wampum belts. Though the Wappinger language is long dead, its influence is still very much alive. You can hear its echoes through the voice of the train conductor who announces that your evening commuter train is headed to the town of Wassaic. You can hear its echoes painted on the signs directing you towards Poughkeepsie (“reed covered lodge by the little water place”) Ninham Mountain (bearing the last sachem’s name), and Wappingers Falls, perhaps the heart of where the tribe used to live and speak their language. Even over the rush of cars, the buzz of your phone, you can hear its echoes in the sounds of the birds, the wind, and the rustling leaves woven throughout the valley that is wetouwaumaun, our dwelling, our home.
Elisabeth Clemmons, a sophomore at Wellesley College, is an administrative intern with the Endangered Language Fund in New Haven, CT.