Name change: Thames or Pequot River?
The first thing to know about the bill state Rep. Anthony Nolan has submitted to change the name of the Thames River is that the final naming decision, if the bill were to pass, would be up to the U.S. Geological Service, not the state of Connecticut.
The Democrat representing the 39th House district is proposing this brief language to start the process of renaming the Thames -- so dubbed by English colonizers in the 17th century -- as the Pequot River:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened: That the Commissioners of Transportation and Energy and Environmental Protection certify an update to the list filed pursuant to section 3-100 of the general statutes renaming the Thames River as the Pequot River.
Statement of Purpose: To revert the name of the Thames River to a former name, the Pequot River.
The bill has co-sponsorship from state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, D-Groton, and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. Bills introduced by individual legislators go first to the purview of a relevant committee. This one, HB 5503, is before the Committee on Transportation because not only is the river of great historical significance, it is also a waterway vital to the national defense, commerce and quality of life.
Historic names come to seem almost sacred, a result of being so familiar that people can’t imagine a certain hill or stream with another name -- that is, until someone has an argument for why the existing name is inappropriate, inadequate, offensive or even derogatory. Applications citing such problems with existing names go to the USGS, an agency within the federal Department of the Interior. Such requests have led to changing names that were ethnically or racially offensive, for example; similar ones are pending.
Any citizen may apply to the federal agency, but the process depends on input from a state office most people may not even know of. Meghan Seremet, a Mystic native, became the new Connecticut state geologist late in 2022, after the retirement of Margaret Thomas. Applications to change place names within the state require the state geologist, as chair of the Connecticut Geographic Names Authority, to seek public input, consider the request and share their findings with USGS. Members include the state librarian, state archaeologist, historians, representatives of the military, survey and geospatial agencies and environmental justice office, among others.
Unsurprisingly, Nolan’s proposal is generating opinions on all sides. Early critics cite overall costs for changing highway signs, maps and charts and potential distraction from state business they believe should have priority.
No doubt erasing “Thames” for a different name would cause upheaval, but it wouldn’t be a first. A summary report from USGS on past names for the river includes 11 entries. Several are variations, such as Pequot and Pequod, and Mohegan, Monhegin and River of Monheag.
Historically, the river has carried the name that the people of the time gave it. And that warrants a long and deep community conversation: If it is to be changed from the name the colonists gave it, what should its new/old name be? Besides the Pequots, other tribes have long histories with the river -- predominantly the Mohegans.
Nolan has evidently thought about this for a while, telling The Day that when he was a city councilor, young people pointed out to him a lack of acknowledgment of Native Americans’ place in the history of the region.
Indigenous language names in fact exist all over the area. People are attached to them and the history they represent. A proposal to rename Pawcatuck, the Oswegatchie Hills, Pequot Avenue or Noank would generate a response similar to criticism of renaming of the Thames.
Anthony Nolan is obviously not the first to call attention to the overwriting of tribal language names, and what that tells us about overpowering newcomers. At the University of Connecticut and Connecticut College and many other institutions it is now common for a person to identify their address with the addendum of who historically populated that particular place.
In 2010 The Day published a series called “The River that Shapes Us.” It would be good reading for all who live in the region as a way to come to an understanding of what the estuary currently known as the Thames River means historically, environmentally, militarily and economically, and what if anything to do about its name.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.