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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.

No. 13.

Original Name of this Island.—Paumanok.—Shall it be resumed?—Future considerations.—One Reminiscence of the Red Men, at least, ought to be preserved here, in their own tongue.—Territorial Statistics of Long Island.—Length, Breadth, and Area.—Its small Islands Adjoining.—Future Population.—State of Paumanok.—Landed Interest Valued.—South Bay.

WE have heard it suggested, (and we think the idea worth serious consideration), that the original name of this island ought on many accounts to be resumed, and made the legal and customary name again. That original name was PAUMANOK, the sense of which is, or has been traced to be, as we have heard, "the island with its breast long drawn out, and laid against the sea."1 This is a beautiful and appropriate signification, as the word itself is a pleasant one to the ear.

It is argued that there are some dozen or twenty Long Islands here and there on the American coast and in the great lakes, and that this important territory ought to have something by which it could be specially known; something belonging to itself, which would by time and association become a sound [source?] of pride and convey the idea of home. It is perhaps best not to change the settled name of a place on frivolous or sentimental reasons; but as the region we are speaking of is going to be made in future times significant as the seat of one of the most beautiful and intelligent of the first class cities of the world, (namely, this Brooklyn of ours), we do not know but we would seriously favor a project for giving us back again, for the island on which it stands, the name of Paumanok.

The word occurs in all the aboriginal deeds, and was used by the first Dutch settlers, in speaking or writing of the territory here. It was then spelt in various ways, according to the custom which, until a comparative[ly] modern date, did not acquire or indeed allow a uniform standard of orthography, even in some of the commonest every day words. Some of the old deeds spell it Paumanake.

By the allusions of the Dutch and English settlers, and from old ecclesiastical records, (to which all historical memoirs are so much indebted), we gather also that there were several other terms by which the island was designated. It was sometimes called Sewant-hackey, (the place of the shells), and also Mattowak or Mattawake. The name of Long Island was given to it by the English at or soon after the period of their finally taking the government.2

So upon the whole we think it might be not only a verbal, but a utilitarian, piece of improvement to restore the old name of the island. It would be a kind of poetic justice to the departed tribes of the great nation of the Lenni-Lenape, or Delawares, of which stock the aborigines of this region were a part. Their language has been pronounced by the etymologists to be the most advanced and regular of all the Indian dialects; and both in natural intelligence and in courage they were up to the highest standard known here when the Europeans first landed. Now that they have all forever departed, it seems as if their shades deserve at least the poor recompense of the compliment connected in preserving the old name by which they themselves designated and knew this territory.

But while we are discussing the choice of the best nomenclature for what now passes as Long Island, there will be a very great portion of our readers who have by no means very definite notions of the important physical facts of the island itself. We will therefore devote this and the following paper to an abstract of such information. It will be found of interest, for we do not believe there is an equal extent of territory anywhere which has superior points of advantage in some of the first respects that make a country notable and interesting. In salubrity, Brooklyn is eminent, as has long been acknowledged, almost beyond comparison, and the remainder of the island is not less so. In the aspect it derives from the sea on the one side, and the great Sound on the other, it contains a long and varied panorama of the picturesque in scenery, for the tourist and artist, &c.

Long Island has a length of really about one hundred and forty miles, although the common notions, and most of the geographies put it at only one hundred and twenty. The total length, as first mentioned, is of course the distance from the now world-wide celebrated Fort Lafayette, at the Narrows, to the Light House on Turtle Hill, at the extremity of Montauk Point, looking out into the sea. Over this stretch of land, there are all varieties of soil and appearance, from the gradually sloping eminences of the great city of Brooklyn itself, with its noble public edifices, the long line of palaces in its streets, and the commoner dwellings too, representing so many millions and scores of millions of pecuniary value, with the immensely greater interests of three hundred thousand throbbing human lives, on to the wide flat plains of Queens and Suffolk Counties, toward the centre of the Island, where the cattle and sheep used to browse in common, a great privilege for the poor man; and thus and then through the "brushy plains," on eastward among pine and cedar and dwarf oak, to the richer regions of eastern Suffolk county.

The breadth of Long Island is from ten to twenty miles—running broader at its western extremity, and narrower at its eastern. It has also belonging to it a retinue of smaller islands, one of them, however, (east of Peconic Bay) nearly the size of Staten Island. The following are the names of these adjacents of our little continent:

North Brother Shelter Island
South Brother Gardiner's Island
Riker's Island Fisher Island
Plumb Island Robin's Island
Great Gull Island     &c., &c.
Little      "    "  

Then there are the long stretching beaches and sand-islands on the south side, adjacent to the ocean.

Upon the whole, the area of our territory would make a very respectable figure among the crowd of smaller principalities, or even the little kingdoms of the continent of Europe; amounting to about 1550 square miles, or 960,000 acres, with a population that in two or three more lustrums will exceed half a million, and in the life time of persons now living will, (in the opinion of the writer hereof) exceed the present population, of either one of about three-fourths of the States of the Union, or of Canada. This seems a daring statement, but it is fully born out by a sifting of figures, and an estimate, not to say of probabilities, but what amounts to certainties.

The reader will perceive, in view of the foregoing facts, that it is not so very preposterous for our politicians, when they get within control of half-fun and half-whiskey, to draw out grave programmes of the "secession" of Long Island from the good old mother state of New York, and setting her up as a "sovereign," on her own hook.3 The State of PAUMANOK! with our own beauteous Brooklyn for the Capital; and a live Governor of her own, and a whole swarm of legislators and executive personages, and lobby gentlemen, and contractors, &c., &c., &c., &c.! To be sure, there is something very grand in the picture of all this; only, our taxes hereabout being already up to the hideously outrageous rate of two per cent., we do not feel like piling on the agony any higher. Nor is "secession" likely to be popular or profitable in these quarters, these times, or any future times. So we fear we shall have to dismiss the scheme of the independent state of Long Island, or Paumanok, as something that serves very well, it may be, to write a paragraph about, but would not do to try the scheme in the furnace of practical work,—and so let well enough alone.

Of course the personal and financial interests of Long Island are overwhelmingly concentrated here in Brooklyn. Four fifths of the inhabitants of the whole territory belong in this western corner alone. Of wealth, the proportion is perhaps not as great. For the valuation of the "landed interest" of the island can foot up an immense figure, when an estimate is made by a competent person, including the value of the farmhouses, buildings, stock, products, &c. We should think the farming interest of the three Counties of our island, Kings, Queens, and Suffolk, would represent, at the lowest figure, $100,000,000. There are some farms in this county that represent $2000 an acre, and plenty of them that represent $1000 an acre, and are good for the annual interest on that amount to their owners.

Then the fishing, eeling, clamming and fowling interests of the island, for over a hundred miles along the south bays, from Gravesend to Easthampton, stand for a large and solid value, affording a good living to hundreds and thousands of families, and an unfailing supply to the city markets.

The Great South Bay, as it is called, affords of itself a capital theme for one of these papers, which we shall take an early opportunity to furnish. How few of the million of inhabitants of New York and Brooklyn know anything about that inexhaustible sea-mine, full of treasures, that are really worth as much as the mines of California. There it stretches along, affording a safe and sheltered navigation for many a smack and sloop and village "packet." There, too, is Rockaway beach, so white and silvery, calm and pleasant, enough, perhaps, with its long-rolling waves in summer, sounding musically soft against the hard sand; yet how many a ship has met her death-wreck, driven on those sands, in the storms of winter.


1. Paumanok, meaning "land of tribute," was the aboriginal Lenape name for Long Island. Whitman often used this name for Long Island in his writing, and he also used the pseudonym "Paumanok" for some of his early work. For more on Whitman's associations with Paumanok, see Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman's Native Representations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 85–87. [back]

2. The name "Long Island" had been applied by the English early in the colonial period, but in 1693 an act was passed changing its official name to the "Island of Nassau." Though technically not repealed, this name soon fell out of use in favor of "Long Island." [back]

3. Long Island and other islands in New York state made some efforts toward secession as early as 1851. [back]

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