Names Found to be Norse
Quite by chance, many years ago, Reider T. Sherwin heard a certain New England place name before he saw it in print. The speaker said it the name was of American Indian origin, but Sherwin, a native of Norway before moving to the United States, disputed that because he recognized the word as one he had long known.
Sherwin was familiar with dialectal Norwegian, which is much closer to the Old Norse language than literary Norwegian. And the meaning of the word Sherwin knew was identical to the meaning of the place name the speaker was identifying as Indian.
His curiosity piqued, Sherwin began to look upon New England maps for other place names of Indian origin. He closed his eyes to the spelling and considered only the pronunciation. Several of these he could readily identify as Norwegian or as strings of Old Norse root words put together.
Familiar with Leif Ericson’s attempted settlement of Vinland (later known as America) around 1000 A.D., Sherwin began to study the Old Norse language more intensely to see if it was more than coincidence that certain places bore descriptive names which were called Indian names but which mirrored the sound and meaning of Old Norse names for the same types of places.
He also studied the language of the Algonquin tribes in dictionaries compiled by early French, English, Swedish and German missionaries who worked among various tribes of these Indians as European colonists began to arrive in great numbers in the early 17th century. Those tribes included the Cree, Chippewa (Ojibway), Ottawa, Algonquin, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Abnaki, Micmac, Mohican, Shawnee, Illinois, Blackfoot, Pequot, and others who speak dialects of the Algonquin language.
He even delved into Longfellow’s epic poem, “Hiawatha,” from which Longfellow borrowed “Indian” names and their meanings.
The results are amazing and were published in Sherwin’s books, the eight volumes of “The Viking and the Red Man: The Old Norse Origin of the Algonquin Language” (the first volume was published in 1940 by Funk & Wagnalls Co.).
In research for the first volume, Sherwin easily found 2,000 Algonquin words or phrases that sound alike or almost alike and mean the same things in both Algonquin and Old Norse or dialectical Norwegian. He includes about 1,000 of them in Volume I.
Here are a few examples, with the Algonquin listed first, in capital letters, and the Old Norse second, in lower case, and the meanings in parentheses:
SASKATCHEWAN (name of a province in western Canada and also of a river) — saxad sjoe vann (choppy watercourse); note that in Old Norse, v is sounded as in the German u or w.
MICHIGAN (one of several states in the U.S.A. with Old Norse names) — midh sjoe-kumme (midh means “middle” or “lying in the middle,” while sjoe-kumme means “sea basin” or “sea reservoir,” which is very fitting as Lake Michigan is the middle of the Great Lakes.
SUNWICK (a creek at Astoria, Long island) — sunds vik (a small bay in the sound); Sherwin writes, “It is quite easy for me to determine which names were given to places by the Indians and which were given by the Norsemen. There is no doubt at all in my mind that this name was given to this place by a Norseman. There are any number of Sunwicks in Norway.”
MILWAUKEE (Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, the Indian name meant good, beautiful land) — milde aake (the pleasant land)
GITCHE GUMEE (this is from Longfellow’s poem and means “big sea water, or what is now known as Lake Superior) — geis sjoe-kumme (great sea reservoir)
MINNEHAHA (Laughing Water, the wife of Hiawatha in the poem, also a waterfall on a steam running into the Mississippi River between Fort Snalling and the Falls of St. Anthony) — minni (gap, opening, chasm, river mouth, outlet), haa (high, loud, noisy), haadh (mockery, derision, scoff, jeering, laughter); put altogether, the compound word is minni haa-haadh (loud laughing chasm; noisy mocking river outlet)
SKYY (the visible sky) — skyy (the visible sky)
ARACA (a place on Long Island bounded on the east by a river) — aar aka (field of land along the river)
ARESIKET (a river bay in Maine) — are-siket (the shallow river)
AARASQUAGU (a brook forming part of the western boundary of South Oyster Bay, Long Island) — aara skaug (woods along the stream)
CANORRASSET ( a part of Long Island) — kanna roest (a recognized tract of land)
CHEBOOKT (the former Indian name, meaning great bay or harbor, for what is now known as Halifax) — sjoe-bugt (bay by the sea); the j is pronunced as the y in our word yell
LACKAWANNA (name of a place on Lake Erie) — laaga vanna (low or shallow water), the v is pronounced as w in Old Norse
OOT AL’EGEM (estate, to own, inheritance) — oodhal-eigin (homestead property, one’s property, ancestral property)
MOCCASIN (shoe) — maka sin (things that belong together, for example, pairs of shoes, pairs of mittens, man and wife, etc.)
‘NPOSSUM (pouch) — posi or posa (small bag), mi posan (my bag); Sherwin writes, :We have borrowed this word from the Indians in the name of the opossum. The meaning, pouch, of course, refers to the marsupial pouch in which the mother opposum ... carries her young.”
There are more, many more — including Old Norse root words which make up a word pronounced “mississippi” and which means “long, long drink of water” or “big river” — but you get the idea. My own studies of Norse exploration of what is now known as North America leads me to believe that Norsemen were all over this place, or the majority of it, at one time or another, and stayed far longer than most people expect (plus, they intermaried with various Indian peoples).
Early explorers found Mandan Indians who had blue eyes and yellow hair, which may have been from either descendants of Irish Prince Madoc, who led several shiploads of settlers to North America in the 12th century, or the Norse — but probably both.
The “Indian” game of lacrosse is almost identical to the Old Norse game knattilikr. Bone with Scandinavian rune (letters of an alphabet) have been dug up from Indian sites.
Sherwin’s amazing dictionary of work pointing out the similarities of “Indian” and Norse words is a smoking gun that provides proof that Vikings were here in a much wider distribution than thought, and that they melded into the native population.
About 30 years ago, a runic inscription was found on a stone in Lawrence County, Ark.
Others have been found in several states, including Oklahoma.
In the meantime, if anyone finds or knows of any carving on stones, whether runes or not, let me know by calling the Batesville (Arkansas) Daily Guard office at (870) 793-2383 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. My fellow researchers and I are interested. Don’t forget that one rune is shaped like a turkey track.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the Batesville (Arkansas) Daily Guard on Jan. 1, 2004. Larry Stroud is associate editor for the Batesville Daily Guard.