This week, we're tracing the originsof that river's name. And this etymological investigation appears tolead to a marketing ploy by 18th-century real estate speculators.
"The river's name has caused moredispute than any other place name in Vermont," historian EstherMunroe Swift wrote in her 1977 book, Vermont Place Names. Disagreements begin with how to render into English the Algonquin (orAbenaki) word for the 95-mile-long river that rises in Cabot andempties into Lake Champlain.
To Swift, it's "Winooskitook" — which, she tells us, should be pronounced "Weenooskee."Frederick Wiseman, an Abenaki scholar, transliterates the name as"Winosik" in an essay included in The Mills atWinooski Falls, edited by Laura Krawitt. And local historianVincent Feeney goes with "Winoskitegw" in his 2002 book, The Great Falls on the Onion River: A History of Winooski,Vermont.
These and other historians do agree — more or less — on the English definition of the Abenaki word. Itsroot means "onion" or "leek," they all say,noting that the tangy bulb once flourished in wild profusion alongthe river's banks.
Up until the last quarter of the 18thcentury, the inhabitants of Vermont were apparently content to referto the river by some variant of "Winooski." French settlersrespected the name that had been used by the original Vermonters.Francophones didn't call it "Oignon"; their early maps ofVermont tag the river as "Ouinouski."
By the 1770s, however, it had come tobe commonly known as the "Onion River."Early Vermont's dominant clan engineered the name change, Swift suggests.
As Feeney notes in his book, which was published by the Vermont Historical Society, the smallsettlement alongside the river's falls had emerged around that timeas "the center of the Allen family's vast real estate empire."
In addition to battling Brits andYorkers, Ethan Allen and his bros specialized in flipping propertiesto make quick profits. And, according to Swift, the wily Allen boysfully understood what's in a name.
"Since the Allens were buyingland for resale," she writes in Vermont Place Names, "they would not have wanted to use any name that might remindpotential buyers that the French and Indians were still rompingaround in New England."
"Winooski" wouldn't sell,but "Onion" would, the Allens reckoned. And so they decidedto call their real estate agency the Onion River Company.
Feeney offers a more generalizedaccount of the switch. English settlers viewedboth the French and the Abenaki with a suspicion that had culturaldimensions, he notes. Anglophones in Vermont were thus keen on"eliminating Abenaki place names," Feeney writes.
"Onion River" remained theprevailing designation for the 75 years or so after Vermont hadbecome, first, an independent republic and, later, a state.
Around 1850, however, "Winooski"returned to fashion, Swift relates, suggesting the reversion resultedfrom a PR campaign motivated by embarrassment over the English name."By the mid 19th century," she writes, "some residentsof Vermont's capital city were fretting over the fact that theircommunity was known as Montpelier-on-the-Onion."
That handle may even have broughttears to their eyes.
Feeney's explanation for the comebackof "Winooski" isn't as colorful. He attributes it to"romantic nostalgia about the region's Indian past."
The political and culturalconnotations having faded, the two names are now used pretty muchinterchangeably. There's Onion River Sports, for example, as well asthe Onion River Co-op, Onion River Chiropractic and Onion RiverPottery (which, oddly, is located in Middlebury). The city ofWinooski, of course, bears the same name as the river, as do numerousbusinesses based in Burlington's neighboring burg.
And it turns out that ambivalence overthis pair of names has been transplanted well beyond Vermont'sborders. James Stone and other Vermonters who moved to Wisconsin inthe 19th century gave the name "Winooski" to the town wherethey settled. But, apparently unwilling to choose sides, they calledthe river that flows through the town "the Onion."