by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr.
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
The main characters in more than one native American legend are a powerful tribal chief, his beautiful maiden daughter, and a young, brave chief or warrior from a different tribe. Such is the case concerning the legend of the naming of Lake Winnipesaukee.
Some of our readers may have heard the story more times than they care to remember, but there are probably others who are reading it for the first time. I have read the story from a number of different sources and find that there are two versions, the only major difference being the names given to the principal characters.
Long ago, long before the intruders came and surrounded the Lake with their dwellings and filled it with their boats, a powerful Indian chief named Ahanton (Wonaton) ruled over a tribe occupying the land bordering the northern shores of the big lake. Chief Ahanton had a beautiful maiden daughter named Ellacoya (Mineola) who had many suitors, but none whom she found desirable enough to become his bride. A young chief named Kona (Adiwando), from a rival tribe occupying the shores on the southern side of the lake, heard about the beautiful Ellacoya and bravely set out by himself in his canoe to find the girl. It so happened that when he arrived at the camp of the northern tribe, Chief Ahanton was away with some of his warriors to settle a dispute with another tribe. Upon seeing the courage of Kona the remaining tribal members allowed him to stay with them and to court the chief’s daughter. As might be expected Kona and Ellacoya fell in love, but, when Ahanton suddenly returned from his trip he was furious to find the young chief of the tribe to the south residing in his camp. In anger he grabbed his tomahawk and was about to strike Kona when Ellacoya stepped between the two of them and pleaded with her father to spare the life of Kona. Not able to deny the request of his daughter, Ahanton did not harm the young chief, and even eventually gave his permission for the two lovers to be wed.
According to the legend the marriage ceremony was conducted, accompanied with a huge feast, after which the newlyweds started out in their canoe to paddle the length of the lake to make their home with Kona’s tribe. A great number of warriors in canoes, including Chief Ahanton accompanied them to the middle of the lake where they surrounded the canoe of the married couple in a sign of support and solidarity before returning to their camp. The day had turned dismal with black clouds above and dark waters beneath, and it appeared as if a great storm was about to overtake them. The scene was gloomy and threatening. Suddenly an opening appeared in the clouds and the sun shone through upon the canoe carrying Ellacoya and Kona and the now bright blue water beneath them sparkled in the sunlight. Chief Ahanton, observing this amazing turn of events, considered this to be a good omen and shouted, “From now on these waters shall be called the ‘Smile of the Great Spirit’” or Winnipesaukee. And the newlyweds continued their journey by themselves safely to their home at the other end of the lake.
Earlier versions state the name given the big lake as Winnipiseogee and the exact meaning of the word has been disputed. The Abenaki Indians had a verbal but not a written language and students of the words Chief Ahanton (or Wonaton or whoever) spoke do not all agree on their meaning. Since I do not speak Abenaki I can not settle the dispute, but I can pass on some other interpretations of Winnipiseogee or Winnipesaukee. The spelling may be different because the Abenaki did not have written words to communicate with.
I sought help from the internet by seeking the meaning of the word Winnipesaukee and found that it is “a large lake in New Hampshire, U.S.A.”, but with additional searching discovered several interpretations besides “Smile of the Great Spirit”, though that seems to be the most popular meaning. Seemingly basing their interpretations on how the word sounds, different people have come up with what they believe to be the literal native American meaning of New Hampshire’s largest lake. So it might mean “the lake in the vicinity of which there are other lakes and ponds”, “the beautiful water in a high place”, “land around lake”, or “good smooth water at outlet”. However, if any of the alternate meanings to the words of the chief in the legend is the true one, then we probably need to look for a different legend or some new revealing discovery to explain the naming of the lake.
One thing seems certain and that is, though the landscape surrounding the lake and on its islands has changed in appearance through the years, particularly since the coming of the white man, and the activity on the lake has increased tremendously since those days when the native Americans enjoyed exclusive rights to its use, the name they ascribed to it, Winnipesaukee, stays as a permanent reminder that they were here first.