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Volume 38 Issue 7 • June 12 - 18, 2008
now in our 38th season

Nantucket Place & People
Hummock Pond and the Humans

by Frances Kartunen

When one stops to think about it, the name Hummock Pond does not make a great deal of sense.  A hummock is a hillock, a small bump on the land.  It’s hardly descriptive of a body of water.

Yet the hillock sense of “hummock” was apparently on the minds of a pair of Boston land speculators named Veazie who, back in 1875, bought land between Hummock Pond and Long Pond, carved it into two subdivisions, and named one of them Smooth Hummocks—again a bit of a contradiction, since the essence of being a hummock is to be bumpy, not smooth.

We might suspect that something is going on here—that the pond’s “real name” was something that just sounded quite a bit like the word “hummock.” Linguists used to use the term “folk etymology” to describe the process.  More recently they’ve taken up the playful term “egg corn.”

Think of it: an acorn is composed of an egg-shaped nut held in a little  cap. If one hears the word spoken and never sees it written, it would be easy enough to assume that “egg” (used metaphorically, to be sure) is the first part of the word. Another widespread example of an egg corn is “duck tape” for duct tape. And then there’s the phrase, delivered with a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, that these days we live in “a doggy dog world.”

The early English settlers on Nantucket lived check-by-jowl with Wampanoag Indians who out-numbered them for at least the first half-century of their co-existence on the island.  Some of the settlers’ sons and grandsons grew up as childhood bilinguals, but most did not, and with time ever fewer learned to speak the Wampanoags’ Algonquin language.

The Wampanoags and the places they inhabited had Algonquin names that the English committed to writing for all sorts of purposes: setting out property bounds, bills of sale, store accounts, payrolls, court proceedings, and personal journals.

And what do we find in these written records?  Egg corns all over the place. 

Algonquian names of people and places were multi-syllabic, too long for monolingual English speakers to keep in mind.  The first strategy was to leave off some of the syllables at the beginning of words. Short little place names like Squam used to be longer.  We are still at it with place names like ‘Sconset for Siasconset and ‘Sacacha for Sesachacha.

Personal names of the local Wampanoags underwent the same process.  The descendants of the sachem Nickanoose went by the surname Noose.  Those of Hiacoomes, the famous Christian evangelist on Martha’s Vineyard, still go by the name Coombs.  The sachem Wanackmamack had grandchildren called Mamack.

Then came the egg-corning of the surviving remnants of the Wampanoag names.  The Wechegin family name was worn down to Chegin, and then it was understood as “chicken.”  Jacob Barker wrote in 1837 that one of the last surviving Wampanoags he had known from childhood was old Joshua Chicken.  And where did his family live?  Have you ever wondered why the high ground next to Dead Horse Valley is called Chicken Hill?

Other pretty obvious egg corns are names like Mary Seahorse and Mary Squab, Joe Skinny, Abel Shortchin, and generations of people called Pumpkin, who were descended from a man known as Old Poomoquanna. Nantucket’s famous next-to-last Indian, Abram Quary, was of  Squotquaty descent.

Most likely Hummock Pond did not get its name from bumpy ground after all.

Erosion of Nantucket’s south shore and the constant backing up of the beach have severed Hummock Pond to the east from Clark’s Cove to the west.  Older maps, however, show Hummock Pond as hook-shaped, encircling on three sides a substantial peninsula. There rams were penned up for part of each year to keep them away from the island’s ewes and lambs.  We know the area as Ram Pasture, but we are probably well on the way to forgetting that Ram Pasture was situated on Nanahuma’s Neck.

And who was this Nanahuma?  George Wannanahumma was a Wampanoag whaleman who carried a store credit account with Mary Starbuck in the 1680s.  Late in the 1700s, historian Zachaeus Macy wrote that George Nanahuma had partnered with the sachem Nickanoose to convey land west of Hummock Pond to English purchaser Thomas Mayhew, this sale apparently taking place in 1664. Descendants of “Nanahuma” used the surnames Hummah, Hewman, and Human. It is probably from the “Hummah” form that Hummock Pond got its name.

It seems that the Human family did not long persist.  Among the 222 victims of the epidemic Indian Sickness of the mid 1700s, there is not one Human listed.  But Hummock Pond, despite encroaching beach and ocean, still endures. 

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Author Frances Ruley Karttunen will talk about her book Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket at 7 p.m. on Wed, June 18 in the Whaling Museum, 13 Broad Street.

“Bawdy houses, knife fights, marauding gangs of miscreants, and buckets and buckets of rum – all cheek by jowl with plain and sober Quakers.” This book is the outcome of numerous colorful stories the author unearthed while doing research in the old Nantucket court records for her 2005 book, The Other Islanders. 

Dr. Karttunen—linguist, historian, scholar, author, and a twelfth-generation descendant of Nantucket’s English settlers—came across some extraordinary information in the old documents. “The court books are full of outrageous behavior and extreme measures to contain it,” writes Karttunen. “From the safety of the twenty-first century we can laugh at some of it, but when it was going on, it was hard to live with.”

This is the first of the Nantucket Historical Association Summer Wednesday Lecture Series and is free for NHA members, $15 general public.

Frances Karttunen’s books, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at Nantucket bookstores.

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