The Question (C.S.T. 5/1/1902)
I would like to know something of the Etymology of the word Owahgena, that is the name of Cazenovia Lake. Is it a true Indian Name, or the Fanciful Creation of The White Man? It is a pretty one and worth preserving, if correct. Although the name is common today, a number of local histories and public documents refer to the both the lake and Chittenango Creek as "Canaseraga."

Dan Weiskotten's Answer (10/2/1993)
According to Joshua V.H.Clark the native name for the outlet of the Oswego River is called "Osh-wah-kee," meaning "I see everywhere and see nothing" - not a very flattering name for the city of Oswego. Cazenovia Lake has an ancient name too, and we tend to accept its form and meaning without much challenge. I had thought little on the matter of the origin and authenticity of the name "Owahgena" and its translation as "Lake of the Yellow Perch" until I came across a reference to the lake that predated the settlement of the village by John Lincklaen and his contemporaries.

In the May 1, 1902 Cazenovia Republican C.S.Titus, a native of Madison county, asked the editor to track down the origin of "Owahgena." Editor Loyster noted that "A Subscriber Would Like to Know Something of the Etymology of the Word. - Is it a true Indian Name, or the Fanciful Creation of The White Man." Titus pointed out that the name is "a pretty one" and "worth preserving" if correct, but that it doesn't seem to have been known to the early pioneers, and the lake was not so called by residents prior to 1860. He pointed out that a number of local histories and public documents refer to the both the lake and Chittenango Creek as "Canaseraga."

A week later, in the May 8 issue several responses indicated that the local history books referred to the Lake as "Lincklaen's Lake" and then had gradually become known as "Cazenovia Lake." James Sims, then one hundred years old wrote in to say that an 1818 gazetteer noted the Indians called the lake "Hawhaghinah" and the English "Canaseraga", but by common consent it was called "Lincklaen Lake." Sims had always known of it as Owahgena, meaning "Yellow Perch."

On May 22 Mr. Titus responded by saying that while Owahgena may have been an early name for the lake, it was more commonly known in the first days of settlement as Canaseraga Lake. He concluded with remarks that Owahgena was an unromantic "and far less appropriate and suggestive than is the original name Canaseraga, with its wealth of traditional and poetic meaning."

Several years ago I came across a text of the description of the Oneida territory made for the treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. The land which the Oneidas and Tuscaroras "shall be secured in the possession of" by this treaty were bounded on the west by a line run up Chittenango Creek, through the falls, to the lake outlet, and then south. The description reads in part: "where the water runs over a Ledge of Rocks and from thence runs up the said Creek to a Lake out of which it empties called Anagwolas and from thence to the head of the Owego River." The ledge of rocks is Chittenango Falls, and the lake, called "Anagwolas," is Cazenovia Lake. This is the earliest reference that I have found to the lake and it has a name that is not found in any later source. Inquiry as to its meaning and origin lead nowhere.

When the Road Township was surveyed by H.P.Schuyler in 1789 the lake was noted only as a lake. When John Lincklaen first saw the lake on October 11, 1792 he called the creek "Canaseraga" but simply referred to the lake as "the Lake" and "the little Lake." Nearly forty years after Samuel Forman first saw Cazenovia lake in 1793 he called it "Owagehega" which he translated as "Yellow Perch." A 1794 map of the future "City of Cazenovia" noted the creek as "Canaseraga Creek and the lake as "Lake Waugena."

The best reference to the native name of Cazenovia Lake comes from an unpublished and anonymous (perhaps Theophile Cazenove) journal. The manuscript is found in the archives of the Holland Land Company in Amsterdam and describes a journey to the newly formed Cazenovia settlement in the fall of 1793. Five times the native name of the lake is used and a translation is given in Dutch. The writer notes that the name of the lake is "Awhatghigo" and that the name comes from the "type of very good perch with yellowish scales" that is found in the lake. Indeed the Dutch term by which the author names the lake on one occasion, "Geel Baars meer," translates literally as "Yellow Perch Lake."

In 1851 the noted anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, noted that the name of the lake was "Ah-wä'-gee" and gave its meaning as "Perch Lake." In 1906 William M. Beauchamp, in his study of "Aboriginal Place Names of New York" noted Morgan's name for the lake, gave an alternative name for Chittenango Creek as "O-wah-ge-nah, or perch creek." He gave the name of Cazenovia Lake as also "Hoh-wah-ge-nah" an Onondaga word and "O-wah-ge-ha-gah" an Oneida word, both of which the Oneidas and Onondagas of that date assured were essentially correct and meaning perch lake, without the word yellow being part of it.

Today the word Owahgena has become ingrained into the fabric of many parts of our lives. It is found in the lyrics of our school song, the name of a branch of our fire department, a road name, and in a convoluted form the name of a condominium complex, among other things.

Canaseraga has lost all meaning in Cazenovia, except to those who know of the little community just east of Chittenango village and the small winding creek of that name which passes through it. Lincklaen's Lake is gone for good, I suppose, and Anagwolas, perhaps an error in recording the proper form of the word, was never mentioned again. It does seem though that Owahgena is a slightly altered form of the real word that was known when the first setters arrived to begin a new life in Cazenovia. The name comes to us in the record in several different forms, all of similar etymology and pronunciation and it does seem clear that something akin to "Owahgena" is the native name for Cazenovia Lake. And to Mr. Titus: sorry I didn't get around to answering your inquiry sooner!
 

Click here to go back to the Short Histories Main Page
Click here to go back to the Cazenovia, Fenner, and Nelson RootsWeb Main Page