William Wallace Tooker


img_587ebacf33ae4 William Wallace Tooker Jeremy Dennis On This Site
Courtesy East Hampton Library Long Island Collection

William Wallace Tooker (1848-1917) spent his entire life in Sag Harbor, Long Island. At the age of 5 he began collecting Indian relics, which, by 1895 consisted of nearly 15,000 pieces, one of the largest collections in the United States at that time.  As a youth he had inspirations to study at Yale but a serious fall damaged his back and continuing ailments prevented him from attending. Immediately following his 18th birthday on Jan 14, 1865 he joined the William Buch pharmacy as an apprentice. He remained dutifully employed there until 1869 when, apparently interested in art he began as assistant to his grandfather, the established portrait painter, Hubbard L. Fordham. Doubting art as a profession, he once again returned to the pharmacy. This time he was taken in as a full painter. One May 21, 1872 Tooker married Lillia Byram Cartwright and within three years he became the sole owner of the drugstore.1

Linguistic Work

inside-cover-Indian-Place-Names-William-Wallace-Tooker William Wallace Tooker Jeremy Dennis On This Site
Inside cover of Indian Place Names by Tooker, 1911

We have few records of the deliberations among the first settlers about the original names of Long Island places. All we know, for example, is that the Southampton settlers named their community after a town in England, whereas Smithtown and Gardiners Island reflect the egos of two prominent colonial settlers. In Patchogue and Ronkonkoma, however, the Indian names survived. Tooker, of course, was not interested in the question of why a name was selected, his fascination was with the Indian words themselves. This interest led him to a rigorous self-directed study of local colonial documents and the literature on North American Indian languages.

Indian Place Names 

Although Tooker wrote numerous ethnographic essays he is best known for his translations of Indian place names. Unfortunately there were no Algonquian speaking Indians living on Long Island by the time of Tooker’s birth. Undeterred by his lack of formal training in linguistics, Tooker studied the few existing lists of Long Island Indian words and consulted the data on neighboring Algonquian Indian languages from southern New England to New Jersey and the southern Hudson River 150 Long Island Historical Journal valley. Tooker began with a compilation of Algonquian names he found in seventeenth century colonial records. He then searched the existing word lists and vocabularies looking for similar words or portions of words. When he found what he considered to be significant correlations, he applied his common sense and made his interpretation.

Surviving Words

Tooker notes in his introduction to Indian Place Names on Long Island that only a few scattered lists of words spoken by the Long Island Indians have survived. The best known list, which included about 162 words, was compiled in 1791 by Thomas Jefferson when he and James Madison visited William Floyd on Long Island. Another list of only seventy-five words was given to John Lyon Gardiner in 1798 by George Pharaoh, a Montaukett Indian.

Use of New England Indigenous Languages

Tooker supplemented this very slim data base by drawing upon the research done by local historians in southern New England and New Jersey. Tooker felt that these were reliable sources because the native peoples living in these areas spoke languages which were very similar to those spoken on Long Island.

Interpretation Method

Tooker’s approach is illustrated in his entry for Poosepatuck , the name of the Unkechaug reservation near Mastic. It is located on Mastic Neck, a few miles east of Patchogue, where a small stream flows into the Forge River. He begins by citing the use of the word in the seventeenth century documents and reminding his readers that there was no uniform spelling for unwritten languages. The English scribes who wrote down the word had their own interpretation of the spelling. The variants of Poosepatuck, for example, include Pospatou, Pusspa’tuck, Pusspa’tok, and Poospatuck . The neck of land, said Tooker, was given to the Unkechaug by William Smith on July 2, 1700. He then quotes several lines from the grant and gives the citation in the Brookhaven Town Records. For modern scholars these citations are much more valuable than his translations.

After providing his readers with the historical background, he then explains how he arrived at his translation. Relying on data from three related Algonquian tribes, Tooker decided that the best translation would be “union of two rivers and a fall into tide water.” The prefix poosepa, he said, was similar to the Narragansett word Paspisha, which means “he rises,” and the Massachusetts word pashpishau meaning “he arises,” or “bursts forth,” or “blooms.” The suffix, tuck, means “tidal river or creek” in the documents describing the mouth of the Connecticut River. The Chickahominy in Virginia call the place where a freshwater stream flows into the ocean, Paspahegh.


In 1888 The Brooklyn Eagle, which at that time was Long Island’s major newspaper, published his first list of place name translations. The readers were delighted and wanted more. Tooker soon became a regular contributor. Local boosters put the translations in their public relations William Wallace Tooker 151 brochures and others gave their boats, country cottages, hotels, and clubs Indian names. He eventually expanded his word list to include more than 500 words before crippling arthritis gradually limited his mobility and sapped his energy. The wealthy heiress to the fortune of Russell Sage, who had taken up residence in Sag Harbor, came to his aid in 1906. She provided him with a trust fund enabling him to devote his time and energy to completing an encyclopedia of place names. By the time his book Indian Place Names on Long Island was published in 1911, Tooker had established a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable scholars of Indian culture on Long Island. The book, however, was for the general public. His first appendix was a list of Algonquian names, “suitable for country homes, hotels, clubs, and motor boats.”


Professional linguists dismissed his translations because they were based only on comparisons with other Algonquian languages. Such “mere coincidences,” they said, were “scarcely worth the trouble of noting, much less of serious study.”

When Tooker was working on the first list for the Eagle in 1887, he sent a copy of his translations to James Pilling, the linguist for the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE). The bureau had been established in 1879 under the direction of John Wesley Powell. Powell moved very aggressively to raise the standards of scientific research in the relatively new academic discipline of ethnography. Pilling, who had begun working on a linguistic classification and bibliography of North American languages in 1877, was brought to the BAE by Powell to apply scientific rigor to the study of Indian languages. Neither man had any patience for amateurs and lay scholars such as Tooker.

Pilling responded to Tooker rather curtly, telling him that one could “reach no satisfactory results in tracing etymologies unless you have good vocabularies of the Algonquian dialects spoken on or about Long Island, and unless you possess as well an extensive knowledge of Algonquian languages generally . . . The origin and significance of Algonquian place names is to be found by searching Algonquian languages and in no other way.”

Ives Goddard of The Smithsonian on Tooker

Ives Goddard, Smithsonian’s current expert on Native American linguistics, is less severe. He told Newsday reporter Steve Wick, that “I have read Tooker for years. I keep his book right on the shelf by my desk. I take a generous view of my predecessors. He should not be beat up today for not figuring it out. After all there were no native speakers he could have gone to to decipher the place names. His book can still contribute to our knowledge of Indian history on Long Island. And I am sure that he is right in some areas, and his cultural information is most valuable today . . . Tooker did the spade work and that is good for us today.” Historians today are willing to grant that some of Tooker’s 152 Long Island Historical Journal educated guesses about the meaning of some place names may be correct or at least close.

Tooker may have been disappointed, but he was not discouraged by Pillings’s critique of his methods. This was fortunate because, as Goddard pointed out, Tooker’s exhaustive research in the colonial deeds and related primary documents have provided modern ethnographers with a rich data base. Scholars studying the seventeenth century deeds, for example, can consult Tooker to get the locations of boundaries, and other useful information about the historical context.2

Goddard believes Tooker’s 1911 Indian Place Names of Long Island is very good for giving accurate information on the early attestations of names, but it is not reliable for translations. There was no comparative linguistic study of Algonquian at the time, and the scientific understanding of sound systems and how to transcribe them (how to spell sounds) was only just beginning, and even what techniques existed had not become known to avocational scholars like Tooker.3


Tooker has created an early anthropology of the Algonquian people of Long Island, specifically he created interpretations of Indian Place names by comparing other local languages and translations, in the following books;

Indian Place-Names On Long Island and Islands Adjacent With Their Probable Significations – 1911

Some Indian Fishing Stations Upon Long Island With Historical and Ethnological Notes – 1901

The translations in these books are largely credited for the preserved place names of Long Island and local indigenous language.

  1.  http://www.tookerphotocollection.com/content.html?page=1[]
  2. John Strong, The Long Island Historical Journal Fall 2003 / Spring 2004 Volume 16, Nos. 1-2 pp. 149-152[]
  3. Ives Goddard, Email Correspondance, 2017[]