In her article on the ancient names of rivers in America, Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote in the year 1880, “The vast streams of this Western Continent flowed over a nameless course during that mysterious past whose secrets we would so gladly unveil. There are rivers on the globe, like the Jordan, the Euphrates, the Nile, the Tiber, which are known to have borne during thousands of years the names they bear to-day. But this Western hemisphere, shrouded in mystery, has no primeval names to repeat to us for the noble streams flowing from its heart. The wild races, succeeding each other on their banks, no doubt gave temporary names to different portions of the greater streams, changing them with the succeeding conquest or flight of each tribe….. When explorers and colonists crossed the ocean they gave, as a rule, the names of the wild tribes to the rivers on which they met them….“. 

She adds,”Very few received European names. The exceptions on the Atlantic coast number just half a dozen; the St. Lawrence, the Hudson, the Delaware, the James, the Ashley and the Cooper. Of these only one, the Hudson, recalls, the discoverer“. The Hudson was named after its European discoverer who landed on its banks in 1609. 

About the lost legacy of the Native American names of the rivers of America and their meanings, Edward Moor says in his book ‘Oriental Fragments’ (1834), “In America what fine names might probably have been left of the vast lakes and streams and hills, which ennoble, beautify, and enrich those extended regions. How poor and un-instructive are the Hudson, the St. Lawrence, in comparison with Niagara – pure Sanskrit I suspect….”. [Click here to read about the Sanskrit connect to the name Niagara.]

Of the name Hudson, Edward Moor laments, “Sing-Sing, a state prison on the magnificent banks of the – Hudson! What a bathos! What a name for such a river!”. (Bathos is ‘an anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the ridiculous’). 

The Hudson is one of the most beautiful of rivers and Edward Moor thought that even the Sing-Sing prison had a better name than the Hudson. Said he, “In India sing or singha is a lion!”

The Hudson River.
Its native name was ‘Mahicantuk‘.
Mahikanta translates as Very Pleasing and
Mehikanta as ‘Pleasing Mist’ from Sanskrit

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “…native tribes had named the river long before Hudson’s arrival. One of their names – Mahicantuck – means “great waters in constant motion” or, more loosely, “river that flows two ways.” Uncannily ‘mahi’ seems like a distortion of the Sanskrit ‘maha’ (महा) meaning ‘great’ and ‘kanta’ (कान्त) means ‘pleasing’. And the most pleasing of them all is ‘Mahakanta’ (महाकान्त) , Sanskrit for ‘earth’. ‘Ituk’ is a Lenape geographical term which is the equivalent of territory or domain, ‘itas’ (इतस्) is the Sanskrit term for ‘here’.

Historians believe it was the Mohican tribe that first settled on the river Hudson. It is stated in ‘Stockbridge, past and present, or, Records of an old mission station’ by Electa Jones published in 1854, “The tribe’s name came from where they lived: ‘Muh-he-ka-neew’ (or People of the continually flowing waters). The word Muh-he-kan refers to a great sea or body of water…”. ‘Mehi’ (मेही) is Sanskrit for ‘mist’! Mehikanta is Pleasing Mist!! 

The nearly 40 Indian tribes that had settled on the rivers Hudson, Delaware, Potomac and Susquehanna by the 1650s called their leading tribe, the Lenape, by the title ‘Mochomes‘ which translates as ‘grandfather’ but is strangely close to the Sanskrit ‘Mukhya’ (मुख्य) meaning ‘chief’ which is the title of the village head in India.

“The tribes acknowledge this relation addressed the Lenne Lenapes with the title of Mochomes, that is to say, their grandfather, and were received with the appellation of Noochwissak or my grandchildren.” write Yates and Moulton in their  History of the State of New York. Wissak’ may be explained by the the Sanskrit ‘Vishakh’ (विशाख) meaning ‘branch’.

All of the above may be dismissed as conjecture except that language apart there are some cultural similarities to the Hindu/Vedic/Puranic tradition of India. In the Hindu tradition Lord Vishnu periodically descends in the form of an avatar to restore cosmic order in the world. In his Kurma or Turtle avatara, Vishnu carries the Mount Mandara on his back when the devas and asuras were churning the Ocean of milk in order to get amrita, the nectar of immortality. 

Kurma Avatara of Vishnu who carried
Mount Mandara on his back

In the Lene Lenape tradition, the Turtle tribe is regarded as the most superior of the Lenapes because they consider themselves the descendants of the great tortoise who carries their great island on his back. “The turtle tribe, among the Lenapes, claims a superiority and ascendancy over the others because of their relation to the great tortoise, a fabled monster, the Atlas of their mythology, who bears, according to their traditions, this great island, as they term the world, on his back…”. (quote from Yates and Moultons ‘History’ as mentioned in ‘History of the Indian tribes of Hudson’s River’ By E.M. Ruttenber).

Suggested Links:
1. History of Indian Tribes on Hudson River by E.M. Ruttenber
2. Myths and Symbols by Stephen D. Peet
3. Hudson River
4. The Hudson River and its early names by Susan Fenimore Cooper

5. Having Visions:The Book of Mormons

6. Indian Geographical Names

7. Beverwijck:A Dutch Village on the American Frontier



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