Skaneateles, a history of false etymology

I grew up on Skaneateles Lake, one of the cleanest public lakes in the world, Syracuse’s drinking water, and one of two locations where hydrofracking is banned in New York State. Other than the beautiful lake, the beautiful village, and the exemption, Skaneateles-ians have something extra special: a love for the word Skaneateles. It’s a weird love.

It certainly was not love at first pronunciation. It can produce anxiety in those new to the word, and most telemarketers give up without even trying. Those who try are bound to fail. Twice over the last two weeks I’ve heard it pronounced “ska-needles” and “skittles.” I applauded their effort and laughed in their faces. It’s “skan/ee/at/eh/liss” or “skinny-atlas.”

Another reason for our pride and love of “Skaneateles” is its meaning. Everyone agrees Skaneateles is an Iroquois word, and for good reason, it’s the truth. Most people agree that it means “long lake,” and for good reason, it’s the almost the truth (“long water” is more accurate). But my interest does not lie in the truth, but in the lies. The fictional origins of “Skaneateles” are more fun than the truth.

There are fat stories. My mother’s favorite version concerned an overweight lady, who upon gazing at the lake from the top a hill, tripped and tumbled all the way to the lake shore. When she stood up, miraculously thinner, she yelled “Skinny at last!” The same punch-line is used in the story of a fat Native American who ran around the lake 20 times.”Skinny-atlas” has been around since at least 1902, but I know of no story about a fat map. So here’s my try, focusing less on the obese:

Two land-surveyors were debating if they should map the whole world, or just a small area. When they set their eyes upon our beautiful lake, they agreed: Skaneateles.

The Reverend William E. Danforth, in a two-act farce called “The Old District School,” claims Skaneateles is “the heathen that held the world up on his shoulders — they called him Skinny Atlas because he was skinny.” The joke would work better if Danforth (who died in 1941, in Skaneateles) had related it back to the lake itself. Let me try:

The great Titan, Atlas, after years of holding the world up on his shoulders, retired to a relaxing lakeside home upstate. He did little but look at its beautiful waters. Whenever his old friends would visit, they’d exclaim, “wow, Skinny Atlas!”

Some 19th-century writers wrote more believable (though still untrue) accounts of the word “Skaneateles.” In the 1886 non-fiction book, “The Truths of Spirituality,” author Ebenezer V. Wilson claims there once was an Onondagan Chief named Skaneateles. While under the influence of “King Alcohol” the imbibed chief accidentally drowns in the lake. As a spirit, he oversees the citizens of the lake as “an angel of mercy,” aiding even those white-men who stole his land. As of 1886, the fake Chief Skaneateles was still in contact with mediums through seances.

beautifulsquawThe most-referenced false meaning of Skaneateles I could find, is “beautiful squaw” in the Mohawk language. The “beautiful squaw” is meant to mirror the coastal outline of the lake (as one poet put, “she appears molded in thy translucent waters sweet.”). If you think about this, the theory doesn’t hold water (pun intended, sorry). This theory would work if the Iroquois tribe: 1) cared what the lake looked like from 5 miles above the Earth, and 2) viewed all objects facing northwards.

Onondagan Chief Totowahganeo, on March 18th, 1862, looked to put such silliness to rest. He wrote the Skaneateles Democrat, Skaneateles, “literally rendered, is Long Water.” Yet, the myths and the jokes did not abate. Nor should they discontinue. It’s a fun name.

Additionally, in his article, Totowahganeo states the lake should be pronounced, “Skeh-ne-a-ties.” I guess this means:

A man who dropped his fat tie in the lake. When he picked it up, it reappeared as three smaller pieces of fabric. So the guy says…