One of Connecticut’s major waterways may soon get a new – or rather, a very old–name. Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, has proposed a bill that would change the name of the Thames River to the Pequot River. I think it’s a great idea.
“Pequot” was the name that English settlers first called the river when they established a settlement at its mouth in 1646, obviously in honor of the large, powerful tribe of people who lived along its banks. The descendants of those original inhabitants in the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation still use “Pequot River” instead of “Thames River” today. Rep. Nolan consulted with current Mashantucket Pequot chairman Rodney Butler on the name change bill, and the tribal nation’s historians are working to gather evidence to support it.
The current name came about because the Puritan inhabitants of the settlement of Nameaug petitioned the Connecticut General Assembly to change the name of their town to honor the English city of London and the grand river that flowed through it. And so the legislature in 1658 bestowed upon them the name of New London, and the river was called Thames.
That’s it, really. It’s a common story of how the English settlers came up with names; they often picked out the name of a place in England that they either knew or had some kind of connection to. That’s why so many Connecticut towns have some kind of English equivalent, like Windsor, Enfield, Newington, Derby, Hartford, Bristol, Glastonbury, Bolton, Cornwall, Coventry, Canterbury, Winchester, Manchester, Norfolk, Norwich, and Durham, among others. These names often repeat in other New England states, too: there is a Windsor in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, for example.
The Puritans were not known for their imaginations.
That’s why I like this idea. Beyond the unique Yankee innovation of actually pronouncing “Thames” the way it is spelled, there is very little to connect the name to Southeastern Connecticut. Pequot, on the other hand, is a word that intimately connects us to our history. In it are the ghosts of the past, of the proud and strong people who dominated the area before the English came, of the brutal Pequot War of 1636-38, and the dreadful massacre of the Pequot warriors, women, and children at Mistick Fort, and of the subsequent slaughter, enslavement, and scattering of the Pequots following the war. It also reminds us that despite all of this hardship, the Pequots and other Native tribes live and thrive in Connecticut today.
There’s a duality when it comes to naming in Connecticut; we usually named our towns after English places or after colonial or American historical figures, but the land itself often carries Native names. The rivers: Quinnipiac, Housatonic, Scantic, Shetucket, Naugatuck, Yantic, Quinnebaug, Connecticut; the forests: Mohawk, Natchaug, Shenipsit, Nipmuck, Cockaponset; the lakes: Pocotopaug, Waramaug, Quonnipaug, Pattaconk.
“Thames” is actually one of our very few major, important rivers that doesn’t have a Native name; the only other one I can think of is the Farmington. That, at least, flows through the town of Farmington. What connection to Connecticut does “Thames” have other than a secondhand one through New London?
Names matter. And, despite how it sometimes seems, they aren’t always fixed. They change over time. For instance, have you heard of the Little or Hog River in New Towne? No? How about the Park River in Hartford? Same place, different centuries.
It’s something I learned myself a decade ago: we have the power to change our names when the ones we have don’t suit us anymore. It’s an awesome, humbling thing, and it made me ask fundamental questions about who I was, and who I want to be.
Who are we, and who do we want to be, here in Connecticut? Are we just the legacy of long-dead English settlers, or are we a new, hardworking, chaotic, lively, and endlessly creative mix of peoples, some who were here for a dozen years, some who were here for thousands?
When we ask ourselves these questions, we might wonder just how representative our state motto really is, since it was written in a language that was never spoken on these shores and says that the God that transplanted the Puritans to Connecticut still sustains them. Or maybe we’ll think that three grapevines, a plant not native to New England, isn’t a great symbol for us, either.
What if we had a motto in Pequot or Mohegan, and the state flag was of a grand old oak tree, with room enough under its branches for all of us?
So yes, let’s change the name of the Thames River to the Pequot River. It’s a great idea. Let it connect us to who we have been, and who we may be.