By Eric Gervais
Anyone who investigates the early history of the Ithaca area of Tompkins County will sooner or later find records of a man sometimes called Peter Hennepaw, as shown on the ‘Original Lane’ sign at Terrace Place and Buffalo Street. However, like many names from the 1700s, Peter’s surname was phoneticized, and in this case, taken from written records. Hennepaw, the name on the marker, is actually spelled ‘Heimbach’. This mistake was confirmed to me by SUNY Cortland Professor Emeritus Charles Yaple, who is a direct descendant of Peter ‘Hennepaw’s’ mother. His book “Jacob’s Land: Revolutionary War Soldiers, Schemers, Scoundrels and the Settling of New York’s Frontier” provides an in-depth account about life in the region before, during, and after the American Revolutionary War.
Peter Heimbach was one of Ithaca’s earliest known residents after the Revolutionary War. He and his brothers, the Yaples, and their new brothers-in-law, the Dumonds, came to settle in 1789 from Ulster County. They had lived on the Delaware River, the homeland of the Leni-Lenape, or Delaware Nation. Colonial treaties made after the French and Indian War had made the east side of the river, a place known as the Cookhouse, part of English territory. Peter Heimbach kept a trading post there that sold goods to the indigenous people across the river. It was basically the farthest outpost of New York’s western frontier at that time. After the war, when lands of the Cayuga Nation had been opened to settlement, these enterprising frontiersmen, the Yaples, Dumonds, and Heimbach, packed up and came to the ‘Head of Cayuga Lake’.
Unfortunately, these pioneers were forced to settle not once, but twice, due to the confiscation of their lands by local authorities. There is much speculation about this event, but in the end, Abraham Markle moved onto Heimbach’s land and in 1800, he built Ithaca’s first framed house. The settlement was even known for a time as Markle’s Flats. The Yaples and Dumonds resettled on South Hill, and Peter Heimbach received an 800-acre tract near today’s German Cross Road. He didn’t stay for long, and left the area for good in 1795. Heimbach’s name has been in Ithaca’s history books from the very beginning, and the way it is written and pronounced has caused confusion ever since.
This mispronunciation is due to multiple errors. The first, ‘Henne’, is derived from ‘Hine’ which was derived from ‘Hyn’. ‘Hyn’ and its long-i sound were later interpreted as a short-i. Another error is due to the suffix, ‘-paw’ being a German sound that is not present in the English language. This mistake is commonly made when English speakers speak the name of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The guttural -gh sound is spelled ‘ch’, but a native English speaker is likely to speak ‘ch’ with a -k sound. In Heinbach’s case, the German -ch was phonetically interpreted in many unique ways, although most commonly -pough or -paw. The correct pronunciation of the -ch sound also leads to the prior consonant sounds, -n and -m, and -p and -b, being nearly impossible to differentiate.
No matter how you spell or pronounce Peter Heimbach’s name, his settlement at the base of Cascadilla Gorge was the heart of early Ithaca. It is possible that anti-German sentiment in first half of the 20th century influenced the transformation of the name on local signage, or on the way Heimbach’s pioneer group is remembered today. Robert McDowell was recast as Ithaca’s pioneer in the 1930s, based on Jonathan Woodworth’s journal of 1788 being from the year before. That source may be the only reason for the change of story, but in reality, there were likely many unrecorded people here at that time. The position of the Heimbach, Yaple, and Dumond family, on the ground in the heart of town, tells the story between the lines. History is “what is written”, so in a sense, all of the ways Peter Heimbach’s name is spelled have become part of the larger tapestry of Tompkins County heritage.
Eric Gervais was born in Lewisburg, Pa. near the junctions of East and West Branches of the Susquehanna River and moved to Ithaca in the 1990s. His projects include Ithaca History Booklist, a curated list of free ebooks about Ithaca, and Ithaca Tours, a social media project that provides information about Ithaca’s heritage and natural features.