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Chocowinity: What's in a name?
by Sara Whitford
Although many of my ancestors over the last 300 years have come from the community of Chocowinity, I had never much concerned myself with what the meaning of the name was. I knew it was an Indian word, and assumed it was probably Tuscarora because of the town's location.
It was quite by accident that I discovered what the word actually meant. I had been looking over John Lawson's lists of Indian words from his book, A New Voyage to Carolina. In his lists, he notes the English, as well as Indian versions, of selected words. In some cases he gives the "Tuskeruro" (Tuscarora), "Pamticough" (refers to the Algonquian Indians who lived on the Pamlico river) and "Woccon" (Siouan language group from Wilmington and Cape Fear region) versions. In other cases, he only notes the Tuscarora and Woccon words.
As I scanned down the list, I noticed a Tuscarora word that looked very familiar: "Chac-kauene" (Lawson 227)
Being a little familiar with the Tuscarora language, at least the pronunciation of words, I knew how the vowels in this word were to be pronounced. In Tuscarora, the letter "a" sounds like "ah." The addition of the "u" in the second syllable would make the dipthong "kau" sound like "cow." The "-ene" suffix at the end of the word would not sound like "-een", but rather be two syllables that sound like "ehn-neh."
I also took into account the fact that due to the limitations of the English alphabet, John Lawson would be incapable of phonetically describing this word with complete accuracy, as there are certain sounds in Tuscarora which are not found in the English language.
So that would mean the word, if pronounced correctly, would be something like, "Chah-kah-weh-neh" but with a little stop at the end of the final "-neh", almost like a soft "t."
I thought that sounded remarkably like "Chocowinity."
The English word equivalent of Lawson's "Chac-kauene" was "Min." In another copy I had of Lawson's book, it had been printed as "Minx", which phonetically I figured between the two transcriptions was to mean "mink" or "minks."
Lawson's lists are useful, but not always completely accurate— which, of course, was not the fault of Mr. Lawson, but rather because he was attempting to phonetically record bits and pieces of languages to which he had very limited exposure. I decided the next necessary step was to look in the Tuscarora-English/English-Tuscarora Dictionary written by my late friend, Dr. Blair Rudes, indigenous languages expert and professor at UNC-Charlotte. In his dictionary, I looked up the word in the Tuscarora section. The entry is as follows (Rudes 116):
So, in Rudes' dictionary, the word Lawson lists as "Chackauene" is actually the Tuscarora word for "otter", but he also recognizes that Lawson had thought that "Chackauene" was the Tuscarora word for "Min(k)."
It should be noted that in Lawson's list, the entry for "Min(k)" appeared just above the entry for "Otter" which was listed as "Chaunoc." Fortunately, being familiar enough with some basics of Tuscarora, as well as the Coastal Algonquian languages, I realized that the "-oc" suffix at the end of a word is definitely not Tuscarora, but rather Algonquian. Lawson must have misunderstood the Tuscarora word for "Otter." It should also be noted that phonetically, Lawson's entry for the word for "Otter" as "Chaunoc" would sound remarkably like "Chowanoc", which, of course, was the name given to Algonquian Indians who were at that time living along what is today called the "Chowan" River. Possibly Lawson misunderstood his translator, or misunderstood what the Indian speaker from whom he was getting the words was trying to say. Perhaps the person pointed to a small otter (which would look remarkably like a mink) and said, "Chackauene", and then later pointed to a larger otter and was telling Lawson that another word was "Chaunoc." The use of the "Chaunoc" word perhaps is an Algonquian derivative of the same word.
(As a side note: The actual Tuscarora word for "Mink" sounds nothing like "Chackauene." It would be phonetically pronounced something like this: "Theh-nehn-koot."
The mink is, of course, an animal that is extremely similar to the otter, except that minks are generally much smaller. In fact, they're from the same animal family, "Mustelidae." They both thrive on river banks and in swamp territories. Otters have always been abundant in eastern North Carolina's rivers. In fact, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores has two otters named Neuse and Pungo, after two North Carolina rivers.)
When I looked into how the town of Chocowinity defines the meaning of the name, I found that since 1928, the meaning has been attributed as "fish from many waters."
The story on the Chocowinity town website goes like this:
Based on what the town of Chocowinity had on their website, I knew they acknowledged that the town had a Tuscarora name. Based on Lawson's word list, as well as the work of the esteemed Prof. Blair Rudes, it appeared the name most likely did not mean "fish from many waters."
(I will not go into the phonetic pronunciations of the Tuscarora words for "fish" or "water" here, but be assured that they do not sound even remotely like Chocowinity, in whole or in part.)
I decided it was time to contact my friend, Dr. Rudes, via e-mail. I told him I thought I had determined that the place name "Chocowinity" might actually be an English corruption of the Tuscarora word for "otter," based both on Lawson's word list, as well as his own Tuscarora dictionary. He responded as follows:
I followed up his message with a phone call to him so that I could pronounce the place name of Chocowinity for him and discuss it a little further. Once he heard me say the word, he said he agreed that Chocowinity was most likely an English corruption of the word for "otter" or perhaps "little otters."
The diminutive plural ending that Rudes suggested in his e-mail could mean that Chocowinity actually means "little otters," but I found another clue just recently in the early records of Bath County (now Beaufort County, the county in which Chocowinity resides.)
In 1719 in land transaction between Thomas Worsley, Esq. and his son, Thomas Worsley, Jr., the word Chocowinath appears.
The pronunciation of Chocowinath as it appears in this deed is phonetically virtually identical to the pronunciation given above for Lawson's description of the word "Chackauene" and Rudes' entry for the Tuscarora word for "otter."
So, it appears we can conclude that the "well-educated" Indian to whom Rev. Hughes spoke on the Edisto River in South Carolina in 1928 was most likely pulling the good Reverend's leg when he told him that Chocowinity meant "fish from many waters."
The mystery is now truly solved. The name Chocowinity comes from the Tuscarora word for "otter."
Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina. London, 1709.
Norris, Allen Hart. Beaufort County, North Carolina Deed Book I, 1696-1729: Records of Bath County, North Carolina. Washington, N.C., The Beaufort County Genealogical Society, 2003.
Rudes, Dr. Blair A.. Tuscarora-English/English-Tuscarora Dictionary. Canada. University of Toronto Press, 1999.
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