Naming the Finger Lakes

by Carol Kammen

The Finger Lakes Region of New York is as much a state of mind as it is a place. It is also much more than lakes, for there is rolling land created by glacial activity, there is a national forest, and there is the history of those who have lived and used this land—from roaming hunter-gatherers, to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and then to those who came to settle, demarking the land on maps—our stories piling up on each other like glacial rubble. We live on a seven-layer cake of geography and history.

The Finger Lakes is bounded on the north by Routes 5 and 20, from which the larger lakes—Skaneateles, Owasco, Cayuga, Seneca, and Canandaigua—hang like socks on a clothesline. The southern border of the region could be a line drawn from Ithaca to Watkins Glen, then dipping slightly southwest to Hammondsport, a notable Finger Lakes community and probably, while the railroads ran, one of the most popular entry points into the area. To the west, Route 390, and Route 81 in the east complete the encirclement. Even though geographically defined and distinctive—an inland island, perhaps?—the borders are porous.

Counting the Finger Lakes can be difficult. Are there twelve, or thirteen, or are there only eleven Finger Lakes as the Dictionary of New York State reports and current tourist information likes to boast? I include tiny Cayuta (two miles long), Lamoka (four miles long), and Waneta (also known as Green Lake, almost seven miles in length) looking like snowflakes falling to the south, while in the west, there are the pinky lakes, Honeyoe, Canadice, Hemlock, and Conesus that look rather like nail clippings on the land.

All together the lakes appear as a toss of bent nails on a workbench. In the language of type-fonts, they might be considered dingbats. Their names are variations of Haudenosaunee words and are mostly descriptive: Long Lake (both Canadice and Skaneateles); Canandaigua from “chosen spot;” Lamoka from “mud lake.” Only Hemlock is an English word whose derivation is obscure. They are always, all of them, spoken with the word lake following the name: Cayuga Lake, Otisco Lake, Oneida Lake, unlike other bodies of water in the state where the word lake precedes the name: Lake Placid, Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario.

. . .

800px-new_yorks_finger_lakes
An astronaut aboard the International Space State captured this photo of the Finger Lakes outlined in snow in December 2004. Retreating glaciers carved out these long, narrow “fingers” that lie roughly parallel with one another. (NASA)

It is a wonder that the Iroquois who lived here first and never flew above the land in an airplane called these lakes “fingers” and believed themselves to be living on the Hand of the Great Manitou. Theirs was a spiritual connection to the land as well as a geographic and political one. Yet, how could they have known these were fingers of water excepting that to move across the land, they had always “to go around.”

. . .

simeon_dewitt_central_ny_military_tract_c-1792
Simeon DeWitt’s 1792 map of the New York Military Tract imposed a grid-like pattern on the land, affixed with new townships named after classical European people and places.

Time is visible in the names on the land. We were once laughed at as the “land of Silly Names,” when Europeans encountered towns named Rome and Ulysses and Romulus where there were three or four houses and a smithy perhaps, places deemed unworthy of their name’s classical origins.

Once we named our roads for their destinations—Aurora Street, Tioga Street, or Owego Street—or for the families that lived upon them. Now our roads proclaim bucolic retreats. We have gone from Jerry Smith Road or Town Line Road, or even Schoolhouse Road, to Stormy View, Reach Run, Whispering Pines, Sun Path, and Tigerlily Lane.

. . .

There is no indifference to the specialness of this place. Our geography determines a consciousness that infuses life, presents opportunities, and creates limits. With pride people are happy to remind us that Francis Perkins, while resident at Cornell, stated that Ithaca was the most isolated place on the Eastern Seaboard, and bumper stickers proclaim that it is ten square miles surrounded by reality. Yet, attachment is more than to the land: it shows in speech patterns, in ruggedness necessary to cope with winters that are often harsh, in the way people combine to tackle problems, and how they divide too, over just about everything. Attachment to place shows in attitudes and how those from the Finger Lakes self-identify when they speak of where they are from. The region is not a quaint past or a forgetful present: you know when you are here and many are homesick when they leave. The Finger Lakes is a state of mind. It is no one thing but many, it is no one time, but all time, it is no one way but many ways. It is, as my friend Art said recently, “Finger-laking good.”

It is a place of distinction.

Mostly, for many of us, it is home.


This essay is excerpted from the introduction to From the Finger Lakes: A Prose Anthology (2015), edited by Rhian Ellis and published by Cayuga Lake Books. 

carol-kammen-newWriter and historian Carol Kammen is the Tompkins County Historian. Kammen is the author of multiple books on local history, including Part and Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell, 1865-1945 (2009),  Ithaca: A Brief History (2008), First-Person Cornell (2006), and Cornell: Glorious to View (2003). She is also the editor of Place Names of Tompkins County and the Encyclopedia of Local History, as well as a regular contributor to the Ithaca Journal and History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History.

Leave a Reply