Wingawecheek: The Story of a Name

Mary Ellen Lepionka  5/25/17

Wingaersheek                      Wayne Morrell (1923-2013)

In my studies of Native American history in coastal Essex County, I discovered that most translations of Native place names we have today are wrong! One reason is that early linguists referred to the wrong languages: those of southern New England. They consulted William Bradford’s notes on Pokanoket, for example, or Roger Williams’ dictionary of Narraganset, or John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Massachuset.

But the Algonquians who lived on Cape Ann were not Pokanoket, Narraganset, or Massachuset. They were Pawtucket, relatives of the Pennacook, originally from New Hampshire and southern Maine. They spoke a dialect of Western Abenaki. According to early European explorers, except for a patois used in trading, the Pawtucket needed interpreters to speak to their neighbors to the south!

The French were the chroniclers of Abenaki and Micmac and other Algonquian languages of northern New England. But the early English linguists and historians did not consult French sources. If they had, we might have known all along what our local Native place names really mean. How hard it is to change them now! For generations, we have taken the early local scholars at their word.

Curious, I decided to use present-day reconstructions of Abenaki dialects to analyze surviving Pawtucket place names and try to determine how they really sounded and what they really mean. I started with Wingaersheek, my favorite childhood beach. I had a strong hunch that Wingaersheek was a corruption of a Native New England Algonquian word.

In his 1860 history of Gloucester John Babson claims that in 1638 when John Endicott’s surveyors asked the Indians living at the end of Atlantic Street on the Jones River Saltmarsh the name of Cape Ann, the Indians replied, “Wingaersheek”. This story has been repeated ever since. Robert Pringle, journalist and publicist, repeated it in his 1890 history. Pringle also wrote that Wingaersheek means “beautiful breaking water beach,” based on the ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s faulty attempts at ethnolinguistics.

Wingaersheek would not have been the name for Cape Ann, however. It would have named the Pawtucket village there and its river and beach. (John Mason’s 1831 map of Cape Ann shows the site as Old Coffin Farm.) Algonquian place names are always about geographic features. They describe a landscape or a resource it contains, and settlements and villages associated with that landscape or resource went by the same name.

The Pawtucket also would have had a different word than Wingaersheek, which had to be an English corruption. For one thing, in the old Algonquian dialects of northern New England, the /r/ and /l/ phones were not used in speech, as noted by Europeans. Explorers at Sagadahoc on the Kennebec River noted in 1622, for example, that nobsten was the closest pronunciation for lobster that the Native Americans there seemed capable of saying.

In 1654, 1674, and 1721, Indians—undoubtedly Abenaki speakers—were reported as referring to the Merrimack River as the Monumach (or Monomack) River. Likewise, the Pawtucket name for their site near the mouth of the Annisquam River would not have included the /r/ sound at the center of Wingaersheek. The English one might, though.

Elizabethan and Tudor English speakers often added an /r/ sound to syllables ending in /a/.  Listening to Yankee grandparents, for example, you may still hear that Cousin Anner had a good idear. Thus the middle syllable in Wingaersheek must have been an Englishism or an error in transcription, making it a corruption of a Pawtucket word. This gave me Wingaesheek, but that couldn’t be right either. And there was another barrier besides to understanding.

In 1895 Boston historian E. N. Horsford claimed that the name is a corruption of a seventeenth-century loan word from German Low Dutch: Wyngaerts Hoeck for “wine (or grape) garden peninsula (or land)”.  The Dutch left that name on a map, in the sea off the Massachusetts coast, but I knew it could have had nothing to do with the Indians. There are too many sound shifts between Wyngaerts Hoeck and Wingaersheek, and besides, the Dutch had little or nothing to do with Cape Ann. If they had, more than one place name here would be attributable to them today.

I learned that Horsford based his claim on a 1671 map of “New Belgium” by the Dutch explorer, Arnoldus Montanus, in an etching by John Ogilby published in 1673. Montanus, in turn, based his map largely on Capt. John Smith’s 1624 map of New England, and Smith, in turn, got some of his place names from an Abenaki sachem at Saco, Maine. Wingaersheek was not among them.

Dutch Map – Montanus

I consulted all the sources from ethnolinguists who wrote about Native place names in New England and all the accounts of explorers and colonists who commented on Native language—all too numerous to list here. I also saw French sources, such as Joseph Laurent’s 1884 New familiar Abenakis and English dialogues and Jesuit missionary texts collected by Eugene Vetromille, published in 1857 as the Indian Good Book.

My proposed reconstruction of Wingaersheek as Wingawecheek is based specifically on the discovery of wechee as an Abenaki word for “ocean, sea”, found in an old lexicon, and a meaning for winka- (singular)/winga- (plural) as “a kind of sea snail or whelk,” proposed by Carol Dana of the Department of Cultural and Historic Preservation of the Penobscot (Penawahpskewi) Indian Nation, on Indian Island, Maine, in 2011, based on her participation in a Western Abenaki language revival program. I learned further that the /k/ at the end of Algonquian place names is a locative suffix, denoting place, and translates as “on”, “at”, “here” or “there” depending on context.

So now I had Winga wechee k, “Here be sea whelks,” or the like. My research suggested that the whelks in question may have been the type used to make white wampum beads. Shells certainly would have been a geographic resource worthy of an Algonquian place name. They were an important cultural and economic commodity. The coastal Algonquians used whelk shells to make white wampum beads and quahog shells to make the purple ones. Wampum was central to many social and political practices and was traded from the coast as far inland as Lake Michigan. So:

Wingaersheek = Wingawecheek

          Winga = “snails, whelks

wechee = “ocean, sea”

            -k = (locative suffix)

= “Here are sea whelks (of the kind used to make white wampum)”

Aerial of Wingawecheek

Now I’m on the bridge at Goose Cove, looking across the Annisquam at the fringes of white sand and grassy dunes. Are the whelk shells I gathered in my red pail as a child still there? Now I’m on Long Wharf, looking out at the Jones River Saltmarsh. Behind me is the site of a Contact Period Native settlement. Its excavated archaeological remains lie in storage in the Harvard Peabody Museum in Cambridge. Were they the people who told Endicott’s men the name of their place? Wingawecheek must have been that name, but I’m the first to say so. And that’s the challenge of doing history, it seems: to give up what we think we know and open ourselves to new information and new interpretations, to look beyond our spatial and temporal borders—go over the bridges—to understand what’s in a name, and in the end to embrace who we really are.


  • Quascacunquen (Wessacucon) = Kwaskwaikikwen: Newbury/Rowley) = “Ideal place for planting (corn)”
  • Agawam (Castle Neck, Ipswich) = “Other side of the marsh”
  • Chebacco (Essex) = “Separate area in between (the Ipswich and Annisquam rivers)”
  • Annisquam = Wanaskwiwam (Wenesquawam/Wonasquam) = Cape Ann) = “End of the marsh”
  • Winniahdin (West Parish) = “In the vicinity of the heights”
  • Wamesit (Lowell, Pawtucket winter village) = “Room for all (the marsh goers)”
  • Naumkeag (Nahumkeak: Beverly/Salem) = “Here are eels (to fish for)”



Mary Ellen Lepionka lives in East Gloucester and is studying the history of Cape Ann from the Ice Age to around 1700 A.D. for a book on the subject. She is a retired publisher, author, editor, textbook developer, and college instructor with degrees in anthropology. She studied at Boston University and the University of British Columbia and has performed archaeology in Ipswich, MA, Botswana, Africa, and at Pole Hill in Gloucester, MA.  Mary Ellen is a trustee of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society, serves on the Gloucester Historical Commission, and volunteers for Friends of Dogtown, Annisquam Historical Society, and Maud/Olson Library.


All from Somewhere Else

Peter Anastas

Old Gloucester           Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002)

In 1908, my father arrived in America wearing his mother’s shoes.  He had come to join his father, who was working at the Massachusetts Cotton Mill in Lowell.

He was wearing his mother’s shoes because he didn’t own any.  When the officials at the port of Piraeus saw that my father was barefoot, they refused to let him on the ship to America.  It was then that his mother took off her own shoes and handed them to her son.  He would never see his mother again.

When my father arrived in Lowell, he discovered that his father had died from consumption, his lungs packed with textile fibers.  Dad was 9 years old.

A year later, my father was hawking newspapers on the corner of State and
Court streets in Boston.  When he had earned enough money, he bought a shoeshine stand.  At night he taught himself English using Webster’s New International Dictionary and the Boston Evening Transcript.   I still have that dictionary.

At the age of eighteen Dad enlisted in the army and was sent to Europe as a medic, where he remained for the duration of the First World War.   After the war, Dad began to pursue his dream of owning his own business.  He entered the wholesale candy business, eventually coming to Gloucester where he and a partner bought Johnny’s Morgan’s Candy Company on the Boulevard.   When the city took the properties to create an esplanade for Gloucester 300th anniversary in 1923, Dad relocated the business to the corner of Western and Centennial avenues, calling it the Boulevard Sweet Shop.   In 1949 he sold that business and we moved to Rocky Neck, where Dad opened a luncheonette and S.S. Pierce gourmet grocery store called Peter’s.  The store, which for many years became the social center for Rocky Neck life, exists today as Sailor Stan’s.

Papou the Elder. Rocky Neck

Years after he had come to Gloucester, Dad continued to speak English with a strong accent.   I remember once when Eddie Bloomberg, whose father owned Bloomberg’s clothing store and the Strand Theater on Main Street, joked that Dad, like his own father, “murdered the English language.”

“I’d like to know what you would do,” Dad shot back. “Alone in a strange country and no one to turn to.”

My father never went beyond fourth grade in school, but he valued learning.  He sent my brother and me to college, not because he wanted us to do better than he did, but because he wanted us to become “educated,” as he often said.  When I was studying Greek in college, Dad and I used to translate The Iliad together.  He hadn’t forgotten the Ancient Greek he learned in grade school and he could still recite from Homer’s great epics.

After Dad sold the store on Rocky Neck in 1964 and retired, he spent most of his free time collecting and reading books about Greece.

I have a photograph of my mother’s family.  It was taken in front of the Fitz Henry Lane house, where they lived.  It is dated April 6, 1914.  The photograph shows the entire household, my maternal grandparents, all my aunts and uncles, except my uncle George Polisson, who wasn’t born yet.  There are other people in the picture, relatives from Boston and a couple of the men who boarded with the family.

Everyone in the picture is Greek.  Two men are seated playing “bouzoukia,” Greek mandolins; another holds a pitcher of wine and a tray with glasses.  Still, another holds a whole leg of lamb on a skewer.  It is Greek Easter.  It says so in the lower corner of the picture.  In the upper left corner it reads, “Christos Anesti,” which means “Christ is Risen.”

Polisson Family – Lane House. 1914.

The people in the photograph are “different,” the men swarthy, the women exotic with long dark hair done up in buns.  They are holding objects from their own culture, the wine and the lamb, the “bouzoukia.”  The writing on the photograph is in Greek.

I didn’t think I was different until once, in Miss Parks’ second-grade class at the Hovey School, we were asked where our parents were born.  When I told the teacher that my mother had been born in Gloucester but that my father came from Sparta, Greece, one of the kids (I’ve never forgotten her name) piped up: “Sounds like a can of grease.”   After that my brother and I were called “Greasy Greeks” or “Greaseballs.”  When I went home crying one day, my father said, “Tell them that you’re proud to be Greek.  Tell them that the democratic system of government they live under was invented in Greece.”   This happened during the Second World War and I cannot help but think that the war had colored people’s attitudes toward immigrant families like my own.

In the Gloucester of my childhood one heard many different languages and smelled many different kinds of cooking on the way home from school:  Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Yiddish, French Canadian, Finnish, Polish and Russian, among others.   Our grandmothers learned enough of each other’s language to converse over the backyard fences.   Growing up down the Cut or at the Fort, we and our friends had a working knowledge of Italian, exchanging some pungent swearwords in Greek and Italian.  The first African-Americans I saw were jazz musicians, who came to perform at the Hawthorne Inn Casino, in East Gloucester, beginning in the early 1950s, when my brother and I sneaked up the back stairs to listen to this wild new music, which we soon began to play ourselves.  It wasn’t long before we heard Spanish on the street and even Vietnamese and Cambodian.  Though it has always been a cosmopolitan city due to its many ethnicities and art culture, Gloucester has continued to change.  Yet the incredible diversity that defines us has remained the same.

We are all superficially different, and we all came from someplace else.  What brings us together are the stories we tell.  The people in those stories may have different names or speak in languages we do not know, but the tales of arrival and loss, of recognition and assimilation, pain and joy, are uncannily alike.  And so are we fundamentally.


Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

The Way it Was – May 5, 1851

United States Capitol 19th century before being enlarged after 1850.

In anticipation of the arrival of four sisters, distant cousins brought together by the Internet and convening soon at my house, I began to scramble around looking for family memorabilia to share with them.  In the process, I came across a cherished letter from long ago.  I sat down to reread it and saw the date, May 5, 1851.  After reading it and noticing the coincidence of the dates, I knew I wanted to share it.

These days we are so filled with despair and disappointment. Every day brings another blow to democracy.  Integrity, happiness and a sense of well-being are at an all-time low.  It wasn’t always this way!  Read on!

The writer of the letter was George Bryant from Paris and Oxford, Maine.  He was born in 1830.

George Bryant with his quill pen.

His great-grandparents had settled in Maine, still part of Massachusetts, soon after the Revolution with several families making the trek to the District of Maine from Plymouth County, Massachusetts.  They cleared the fields and built their houses; the hardest days were over and twenty-year-old George was in Virginia, having traveled to Washington by train from Boston.  He had wonderful penmanship; you could call him a calligrapher, and it was said that he wished to write calling cards for the senators.  I have no knowledge that he did.  He called himself a teacher of chirography or penmanship.

This is one of two pages of his handwriting that survive. On one he practiced.

The year was 1851 and he wrote a letter to his grandfather, Arodus Bryant, back home on a hillside in Paris, Maine.  What follows in the letter is his account of the trip.  The excitement and the patriotism he felt as he saw the nation’s Capitol for the first time are almost palpable.  The letter was saved and a copy miraculously came to me from another descendant in New Jersey, also an Internet acquaintance.


Dear Grandfather,

   Thinking that a letter from “Old Virginia” might interest you while sunning yourself by those front windows, I have resolved to write you one and give you a short account of my travels thus far and to describe to some extent the manner and customs of these people here.  Yet I hope to give you a more detailed and interesting account when I return home as this must necessarily be very limited and superficial.

    I intend to make you a long visit of one week when I get back in order to make up for what I have lost.  I as much intended to make you a visit while at home, as one could, but the day appointed was stormy and the only day I could before starting if I went at the time agreed upon.

    I will give you a line about my journey. 

    We started from Boston at 1 o’clock in the morning with an excursion party bound or Washington.  The tickets were for the whole trip to Washington and back so I had to buy a ticket for the trip at risk of not being able to sell the back half, which it was my good luck to do before I got to New York.

    We arrived at New York about 1 o’clock in the afternoon and could have gone to Philadelphia that night if our tickets had been on this route so we were obliged to stop until the next day at noon. We then started for Philadelphia and arrived there at 5:00 P.M. and after waiting three or four hours, we took the cars for Baltimore and after riding all night we arrived there about 5 in the morning.  We then took the cars for Washington and in less than 2 hours we were in the City of Washington.

    And according to the nature of all Americans, the first thing to look for was the magnificent building known the world over as the CAPITOL OF THE UNITED STATES.  As we got out of the depot behold, there it stood, a most magnificent edifice upon a rise of ground not more than 40 rods from the depot.

    Without further ceremony and with hurried step we all rushed up the avenue which led to its entrance and, after ascending many stone steps, more noble than I ever before imagined, we came to the long anticipated spot.  And here we beheld architecture approximating as near to perfection, seemingly, as art or science ever can produce.  But with this we were not satisfied.  We longed to see the great men and renowned patriots of the ages, but this session hour being at the late hour of 12, we spent our time exploring the building and examining the (illegible word) connected with it.

   These alone are enough to interest one for days.  At length the session hour drew nigh and we all repaired to the House and Senate galleries.  You can scarcely imagine our feeling of sublimity as we mused upon the scene. 

We were in the far-famed apartment that for many years has thundered with a nation’s eloquence and poured forth a nation’s sentiments: here too the courts transpire which fill the public print throughout the land stimulating every mind from the school-boy to the gray-haired veteran, and here is, where men have gained a distinction that shall render their names immortal and mingle them with a nation’s glory in all coming time: here too, is concentrated the political strife of more than 20 million of the human race.  Here Clay and Webster are wont to raise their voices resounding from Maine to Mexico.

    As we were thus wrapped in sublime meditation, Thomas Benton came in with a lion’s authority stamped upon his countenance.  He took his seat and began looking over some books and papers.  He had come in a little before the rest and we soon learned that he was about to make a speech.  In a short time they all came in and took their seats, many of which we recognized by their likeness in books and frames.

    If you have a picture of Henry Clay you know just how he looks.  I think he has the best shrewd, self-possessing and eloquent expression every beheld.  Cass wears an expression very intelligent and noble in appearance but I suppose you would have one speak about a Whig rather than old Lewis Cass, if he is a much smaller man.  I would gladly go on giving a description of things connected with the Capitol but it is getting near bedtime and the sheet is nearly full.

    I will just say that we heard Benton make a speech followed by one from Clay.  As I had but little time to spend in Washington I made it in my way to visit most of the public buildings but was the most interested in the Patent Office where I saw the old original Constitution, the military coat and equipment worn by the immortal Washington, Franklin’s old printing press, and a thousand other things of interest which have not room here to insert.

    I am now in Virginia enjoying myself pretty well.  It is cold here for the time of year and very changeable.  There is not so much difference between seed time here and in Maine as I supposed.  Many are not half through planting yet.  It was as warm here the last of February as it is now.

Darkies are plenty here, but I shall have to leave that subject until another time.  I will write you another letter by and by, giving you a description of the Virginians and slavery.

    I should be happy to have a letter. I have written this in great haste and you must not take it to be a fair specimen of my writing but excuse it.

Yours ever,

George Bryant


Sadly, this young man, born May 9, 1830, educated and with such promise and enthusiasm for life died a year after he wrote the letter, June 17, 1852.  He was barely twenty-two years old but had experienced more that most his age, brought up on rural farms in the District of Maine.  He was buried in the neighborhood cemetery just over the stonewall from the house he called home.

George Bryant celebrated America and rejoiced in being an American.  He was in awe of the leaders in the Senate and thrilled to see them, hear them and witness them in action. Back then there was no hint of division, disorder or protest on the streets of Washington.  Respect for their leaders was the order of the day.

On this May 5, 2017, one hundred and sixty-six years after George expressed himself with such joy, passion, and patriotism Washington has become a different place.

RIP  George Bryant

The old homestead where George Bryant lived and died.

Prudence Fish
May 5, 2017


Prudence Fish, of Lanesville, is a published author and expert on antique New England houses. Read Prudence Fish’s blog, Antique Houses of Gloucester and Beyond.