The Indians Called It Mespat – “An Inundating Tidal River”
William Wallace Tooker Treats of the Indian Name, Its Meaning and Application

From some points of view the most interesting epoch in the early days of colonial Long Island was the period covered by the years 1640 to 1650, during which decade the six principal English towns had their genesis, in the order named, viz., Southampton, Southold, Newtown, Hempstead, Flushing and Easthampton – a historical galaxy in the starry annals of Long Island.

From the patent granted by Governor Kieft to the Rev. Francis Doughty and companions, March 26, 1642, has been accepted as the date of the settlement of Newtown, or Mespat, as it was more anciently termed, although there were a few plantations with cottages erected by Dutch farmers prior to Doughty’s purchase.

The 257th anniversary of this settlement, now near at hand, will soon pass like the milestone by the wayside, leaving but a remembrance, like many which have been passed long before. While this particular anniversary will not be celebrated publicly, it is an event to be noticed by the local antiquarians, as well as by the descendants of the early inhabitants of this ancient township. The historical reminiscences and genealogical matters relating to the town have been well exploited from time to time by several able writers, so that little new remains to be said, but the anthropological memoranda relating to the aborigines who had possession at the era of colonization is very meager, and that little often erroneously quoted. It has been thought, in view of the approaching anniversary and in order to mark the event to a slight degree, it would be well to devote some attention to the Indian name, Mespat, and to some facts relating to the Indians. The following is what William Wallace Tooker of Sag Harbor, an authority on Long Island Indian names, whose reputation is not confined to Long Island, has to say on the subject:

“The early settlers in adopting these significant Indian appellatives, had a habit of abbreviating them to their use without regard for their primal synthesis or etymology. As some few historians have claimed that a question still exists as to the original name and its derivation, it is with the intent of dispelling that doubt so far as possible, that I now assert that there is absolutely no question but that name, Mespat, no matter how spelled, as originally applied to the creek, was of Indian origin. All records, deeds, and documents testify to it, none against it. This was also the belief of our best historians. The term, however, antedated the settlement or coming of Doughty several years and must have been in colloquial use among the Dutch for many years previous, although so far, I have been unable to find it on record earlier than August 1, 1638, when several Indian chiefs of the community at Keskaechquerem – a palisaded village of the Canarsie Indians situated ‘near Flatlands,’ conveyed for certain considerations to the Director-General Kieft, in behalf of the West Indian Company a certain piece of land reaching from Rinnegackonck (the pleasant place) to the Mespaechtes, and in width to the swamps of the same Mespaechtes. This grant took in all the land to the westward of Newtown Creek, as far as the Wallabought. Indian names when taken down by the Dutch differ so widely from the same names taken down by the English, that at the first glance they do not seem to be the same. Numerous examples of familiar names showing this seeming difference might be quoted. Close observation, however, giving each name its proper equivalent sounds in both languages will reveal their identity. Therefore in considering the first form of 1638, Mespaetches, we find its variations among the Dutch are Mespatchis (1642), Mespachtes (1646), Mespat (1649), Mespacht (1654), Mispat (1656), and there are others, showing the Dutch were fully as inconstant as the English in spelling our Indian names. There is a strong probability that the English, owing to their proximity to the Dutch, and being under their jurisdiction, endeavored to give the Dutch pronunciation of the name, for they heard it more often from them than they did from the natives. Among the English it was called Mespaat, Mespadt, Mispad, Mashpatt, and retained modernly as Maspeth, the name of a village at the head of the creek.

“Several meanings for the name have been suggested from time to time, some of which can have no possible foundation. Among these the spellings ‘Mispad’ and ‘Mispath’ has given rise to ‘missing a path,’ which is said to have once crossed the marshes. No doubt many have missed their footsteps thereabouts and tumbled into the odorous mud of the creek. Such pun derivations of Indian names are quite frequently suggested and a story related in order to account for them, like ‘more riches’ for Moriches, but in every instance they are utter nonsense, for the similarities are simply accidental.”

“Thompson, in his well known history of Long Island suggested that the application applied to a tribe of Indians residing about the head of Mespat Creek. If it did so apply, which I have been unable to verify, as no such tribe is mentioned in the early records, they simply were given the name of the locality where they lived, as were all the other Long Island sachemships, just the same as we call a native of Brooklyn a Brooklynite. The supposition that it was originally Morpeth, and so baptized by Minister Doughty, from a town in England, has nothing whatsoever to recommend it, for the name was born long before Doughty’s arrival.”

“Some historians have confounded Matsepe, where Captain John Underhill, accompanied by some Dutch soldiers, destroyed a fort and killed some Indians in 1643, with Mespat, which is a mistake, as the record of the event proves. Metsepe is a typographical error of some one for Massepe, a variant of Massapeag (land or place on a great water) at Fort Neck, in South Oyster Bay, now modernized to Massapequa. It was the most powerful sachemdom in that section, under which most of the natives thereabouts congregate, and one of the last to survive the inroads of the whites owing to the strong personality of the chief Tackapoucha, who was a thorn in the flesh of the whites as long as he lived.”

“As far as the territory of Mespat may be concerned, no doubt wigwams here and there dotted the shores, hill sides and sheltered spots about the swamps, but that a powerful sachemship existed there with a palisaded inclosure for defense, as has been stated, all the records are silent. At all the events, there were none within the historic period, and the wigwam dwellers were isolated members of other communities, who, in peace on account of the food quest, were obliged to live in scattered families, but who, in time of war and trouble fled to the fortified village to which they belonged.”

“Returning to the name, in the Brooklyn Eagle Almanac for 1889 and 1890, I suggested the signification of ‘a bad water place,’ from Mech-pe-is-et, which, in sound and appearance, conforms quite closely to the Dutch notation of Mespaechtes. A ‘bad water place’ would also apply descriptively to its topographical features and muddy characteristics, which existed in the early days and made it a place bad or favorable for the passage of canoes except at high water; or a place to be avoided by the Indian trails, which would necessarily lead around and not over it. After considerable study, research and weighing carefully all the evidence pro and con, aided by the different spellings and their insistence in both Dutch and English notation, I am compelled to reject the ‘bad water place’ interpretation, in favor of one which, somewhat similar in some respects, yet differs materially in its actual meaning. To an Indian, figuratively speaking, both the foregoing derivation and the one to be given would indicate in some respects ‘a bad water place;’ remembering that an Indian is not always literal in his translations. In order to understand perfectly the signification and application of the etymological derivation which I am now about to present, a brief description of Mespat kill, or Newtown Creek, and its confluents at the period of its naming will be a help. The stream and its tributaries had their rise in wooded swamps, flaggy pools of water fed by flowing springs, all of which opened out into a broad expanse of low lands consisting of extensive marshes, muddy flats and peat bogs. On every tide all of these marshy tracts and bog, as well as the adjacent low lands, were flooded, a condition caused mainly by the backing up of the two tides from the west and east, which met at Hell Gate. Even today, although large portions of its area have been filled in and reclaimed, the lands are frequently drowned out and the swamps at the sources of the creek are almost always inundated during the winter months and in rainy seasons. In fact, these conditions were characteristic of the low lands adjoining the creek, which, continuing to the present time under its changed aspect, were enough when a wilderness to establish it in the Indian mind, and for them to designate the place by the descriptive appellation when interpreted, of ‘an overflowing tidal stream,’ thereby making Mespat, the parallel of the Miemac Mespaak, ‘overflowed by the tide.’ The Miemac dialect, as spoken in New Brunswick, differs in some respects from that formerly spoken on Long Island; both, however, belong to the Algonquin language and are radically the same. This fact is true of all dialects of the family, whether spoken in forests of Canada today or that once spoken on the shores of Virginia in the days of Sir Walter Raleigh.”

“On the coast of Maine, west of Machias, is a point of land and a locality called Misspeck – a name to which General Hubbard, in his ‘Woods and Lakes of Maine,’ gives the same origin and meaning. In the Province of New Brunswick, the home of the Miemac Indians, appears ‘Mispecpoint’ – a name of numerous variations, among which occurs Michepasque (1686). Professor Ganong, in his ‘Place Names of New Brunswick,’ derives it from the same Miemac term and says the name has moved about in the maps from Red Head to Cape Spencer and some have it twice. Finally, in the town of Islip, L.I., not forty miles from Newtown Creek, as mentioned in a deed from 1703, ‘Mispatuck,’ or Mispatuc (Thompson), occurs as the Indian name of the stream now called Udall’s Brook, which flows through swamps and marshes until it empties into the Great South Bay. It has, therefore the same descriptive origin as the others, and may be interpreted as ‘an overflowing tidal stream.’ Therefore, with all his knowledge to guide me, I am willing to accept the Miemac Mespaak as the equivalent of Mespat or Mispatuck, ‘an overflowing tidal river.”