James Smart's Philadelphia
Of All Things
February 26, 2020
by James Smart
American Indian names on Philly’s map
Mail from Blue Cross health insurers often includes a page of assorted languages other than English, informing clients that they can call on the phone and get information in their language. The last mailing I got listed 21 languages, and I’m told that there are others available if needed.
Ten of them are printed in languages other than our A, B, C, D alphabet, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, and even some rarer ones such as Gujarati, spoken in the state of Gujarat in India.
But what surprised me was that one language listed is Navajo. I didn’t think there were enough Navajos in Philly to be included in the Blue Cross list, and I doubt that there are many Navajos these days that don’t speak English.
We do have a Navajo street in Chestnut Hill, but I doubt that any Navajos live there.
The 19th century Philadelphia city planners had originally tried to name all approximately north-south streets on theoretical map to match streets to the south, ranging from 22nd St. on the east to 38th St. on the west.
But railroad tycoon and Chestnut Hill developer Henry Howard Houston had a daughter, Gertrude, who married equally influential George Woodward in 1894. Gertrude was intensely interested in Episcopal Church missions to American Indians out west.
Because of Gertrude, it is said, as the Chestnut Hill neighborhood developed in the 20th century, 27th St. became Shawnee St., 29th St. became Navajo St. and 30th St. became Seminole Ave.
Philly also has streets named Cherokee, Towanda, Huron, Chippewa and Apache, mostly in Chestnut Hill.
The Navajos don’t need to have streets in Philadelphia. The Navajo Nation has its own territory that covers 27,413 square miles, including portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico.
Ten U. S. states are smaller.
Philadelphia has few Native Americans residents these days, though one on-line source says that not only Navajo, but Cherokee, Cree, Seminole and Creek Indians live in Philadelphia today.
There are plenty of reminders of our city’s early American Indian background. The Lenni Lenape were long-time residents who greeted the arriving Swedes and William Penn and his Quakers.
In their local Unami language, their name means “the original people,” which they believed they were. The Walum Olum, their ancient historical record (though many experts doubt its authenticity) tells the story of the tribe migrating across the North American continent some 10,000 years ago.
The Philadelphia area is loaded with Lenape names, some bent a little bit. The Wissahickon Creek’s name probably came from “wisamek,” which means catfish. Some scholar’s claim it might come from “wisachgim,” which means “wild grapes.” But “Catfish Creek” sounds better in English.
Manayunk means something like “water place.” You find the “manay” also in Bucks County’s Neshaminy Creek. The “manay’ means water or stream, and “nesha” means “two”; the Neshaminy Creek has two branches.
Conshohocken comes probably from canshihaking, meaning elegant-ground- place.
The city’s Lenape beginnings include such places as Poquessing, meaning place of mice; Passayunk, from “pachsegink,” meaning in a valley, and Tinicum, from “matenycunk” as mispronounced by 17th century Swedish settlers.
Allegheny comes from “allegewihanoe”, meaning river of the cave people, Cherokees who were driven from caves of that river bank by the Lenape in ancient times. Wingohocking is “winga haki,” meaning “sweet earth,” or fertile soil. In Tulpehocken, “tulpe” means turtle.
Moyamensing comes from “mui,” meaning excrement, and “amemi,” meaning pigeon. The pigeons must have made quite a mess there