From Asquamchumauke to Baker: What’s in a Name?

The Baker River flows from Mount Moosilauke to the Pemigewasset River in present day Plymouth, New Hampshire. On the map the name is cut and dried: Baker. But when you cross the river at the Gorge Brook Trailhead another name emerges from the past: Asquamchumauke. History once again whispering for all who might hear.

Dartmouth College honoring the original name

Asquamchumauke means “crooked water from high places” in the language of the Abenaki tribes that once thrived here. It’s a lovely, descriptive name that brings romantic notions of Native Americans living in this place for generations. Yet we’ve called it Baker since well before the American Revolution. The story behind the name change is another fascinating chapter in the violent history of New Hampshire.

Thomas Baker was a soldier in Deerfield, Massachusetts on February 29, 1704 when the Deerfield Raid occurred. Deerfield was a seminal event in Queen Anne’s War and New England history. French and Native American warriors overran the fortified settlement, 47 settlers were killed and 112 captives, including Baker, were marched up to Montreal. The Native American warriors came from around the northeast, including several tribes of the Wabenaki Confederacy. One of them was a Pennacook sachem named Wattanumman.

Whether Baker and Wattanumman met during the fighting or forced march to Montreal is unclear, but events would bring them together again eight years later. Thomas Baker led an expedition north with around 30 men and ambushed Wattanumman, a dozen of his men and their families at the site in present-day Plymouth where the Asquamchumauke River meets the Pemigewasset River. Wattanumman and several others were killed and scalped. The men collected furs and anything of value and brought it all down to Massachusetts where Baker was rewarded for his efforts with £40.

And this is where present-day morality meets the violent frontier morality of New England in the earliest days of our history. Both men participated in violent raids against the other in a time of war. But for fate Baker might have been killed in Deerfield, which may have extended Wattanumman’s life a few more years. Who knows? All of us are subject to the whims of fate.

There was one other reward for Thomas. To honor what Baker and his men did in this place the name of the river was changed from Asquamchumauke to Baker, a name it still has today. With one event the life of Wattanumman was erased, and the legacy of Baker was sealed. We Americans tend to honor people with place names, while the Native Americans honored the spirit of the place itself. Asquamchumauke: crooked water from high places.

Has a nice ring to it.

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