As it were

Local river names have convoluted origin

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One way that natives and longtime residents of an area can identify strangers and recent arrivals is by the way the newcomers handle the local language.

Even in places like central Ohio, which does not have as distinct an accent as one might find in the East or the South, we have still some vocabulary that can trip people up. And this is especially true when we come to the names of our rivers.

Anyone who calls the main river passing through downtown Columbus the “Skeeto” or the “Skytoe” probably has not been in town long enough to hear its proper pronunciation as the “Sy-O-toe.” When asked what the word means, however, things get a bit more complicated.

The Wyandot people who inhabited much of north central Ohio in the 18th and 19th centuries called the river by a longer name that included the term “Scionto” — part of the Wyandot word for “deer.” Presumably, there were a lot of deer in the Scioto River valley in those days. Shortened and made a little easier to pronounce by colonial settlers, the name ended up being “Scioto.”

There is at least one — to coin a term — “shaggy deer” story associated with the river. While the word “Scioto” is of Wyandot origin, most of the Scioto River valley below what is now Columbus was populated by the Shawnee people. A later account considers it “most likely” that the Shawnees called the Scioto M’chshi/thuiipi or “Big River.”

In any case, at least one early traveler concluded it had a different meaning. The Rev. David Jones traveled through what is now Ohio in 1772 and 1773. He later recorded in his journal his version of the story:

“The name which the Shawnees give Siota (sic) has slipped my memory, but it signifies Hairy River. The Indians tell us that when they first came to live here, deers were so plenty, that in the vernal season, when they came to drink, the stream would be thick of hairs, hence they gave it the name.”

How the word for “deer” became the word for “hairy” is not fully clear, although one later writer hazarded the guess that the story was “custom-made by a pranking Shawnee, who decided to have some fun with the palefaced snooper.”

For all of that, at least the Scioto River has stayed in one place for the last few hundred years.

Such has not been the fate of the Olentangy.

Olentangy is a name that has been applied to a lot of places in central Ohio over the years. It has been the name of an amusement park and the small village near the park in what is now Clintonville. It has been the name of any number of restaurants, taverns and other business establishments. And it is the name of one of the largest school districts in nearby Delaware County.

All of this has happened with a name that is still often mispronounced as if it were “tangy” instead of “Olen-tan-gee.”

Most interestingly, for most of its long history, the river we now call the Olentangy was not called that at all. One can see a hint of this when traveling north of Columbus when the stream becomes the Whetstone River. We can see traces of the previous name in Whetstone Park and Whetstone High School in Columbus, as well.

Indeed, frontier settlers in central Ohio called the watercourse the Whetstone River because that is what local Native American residents called it. The Delaware Indians — who, by the way, called themselves Leni Lenape — called the river Keenhongsheconsepung. One translation of this is “sharp/ more and more/tool river” referring to the large amount of shale along the river which is useful for sharpening tools and weapons.

Local settlers simply shortened the rather lengthy and difficult to pronounce Delaware word to “Whetstone” and called the river by that name.

The stream that was originally called Olentangy lay further to the south. Today we call it the Big Darby. It is not clear who originally named the stream “Olentangy.” One can derive the word from similar terms in the language of both the Shawnee and the Delaware. The Delaware version has been written as Olam/taanshi Siipu/nk and has been translated as “(red) facepaint/from there/ river.” All of this refers to the fact that the headwaters of the river were a source of red oxide clay used in making facepaint.

Making the naming a bit more confusing is a note by an earlier writer that the word Olentanga means “river at rest” in the language of the Wyandot people and was sometimes translated as “Stillwater” by later settlers. This being said, and noting that the Olentangy is anything but a river at rest for much of the year, most authorities lean toward the “red facepaint” etymology.

The names as they were stayed that way with the Whetstone to the north and the Olentangy to the south — until 1833.

In 1833, for reasons that are still not fully clear, the Ohio General Assembly decided to return a number of streams in central Ohio to their Native American names. It was at this point that the Assembly, confronted by the multi-syllable name for the Whetstone, decided to take the more easily pronounceable Olentangy and give that name to the river. The former Whetstone was named for a Native American leader whose village was along that creek and who had adopted the Anglicized name of Darby.

And that is how the Olentangy River got its name.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.

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