I do a lot of hiking in Hocking Hills, which got its name from the Hocking River that passes through it. The Hocking River was named from a geological feature around Rock Mill, which is along Lithopolis Road to the west of Lancaster (Ohio). It got that name from the Delaware Indians living in the area . . .
But wait, why are they called Delaware Indians in Ohio, 300 miles from the state of Delaware? For that matter, what’s the city of Delaware doing just northwest of Columbus? And “Delaware” is not an indigenous word at all. The State of Delaware itself was named after England’s Thomas West, the 3rd Baron De La Warr, Virginia’s first colonial governor. The Native Americans that used to live all up and down the east coast, from Delaware to New Jersey to part of New York were the Lenni Lenâpé, but for a long time they’ve been known as Delaware Indians.
When the east coast was settled (or “invaded”, if you prefer), the Lenâpé were pushed out and ended up moving to Ohio, mostly in the southeastern part of the state. At about the same time, the Wyandott moved into the north, and the Shawnee into the south and west. So, the town of Delaware got its name from the Delaware Indians living nearby. Additionally, many place names, particularly in the south and east, come from the Lenâpé language from those Lenâpé living here.
You can tell many of those names because Lenâpé has what is called a “locative suffix”, “ing”, or sometimes “ink”, or “unk”. And “locative suffix” just means a word form on the end of a word designating it as a location. If you find a place name ending in “ing” anywhere the Lenâpé lived, they are probably the ones who gave it that name. For instance, the word for “owl” in Lenape is “gokhos”, so the “place of the owl” would be “gokhosink”, or today, the Kokosing River. “Walhandi” means “ditch”, “trench”, “pit”, or “cave”, and from that we get the Walhonding River. “Mahoni” means “salt lick”, and that gives us the Mahoning River, up near Youngstown. Even Wheeling is Lenâpé, from the Lenâpé word for head, “wil”. Supposedly, it was named from a head stuck up on a pole there after a massacre.
Now, the original name for the river was the Hockhocking River. Here is an early description, from the History of Athens County Ohio by Charles M. Walker:
Hockhocking is a Delaware (Indian) name, and meant, in their language, Bottle river. In the spring of 1765, George Croghan, a sub-commissioner of the British government, embarked at Pittsburg, with some friendly Indians, intending to visit the Wabash and Illinois country, and conclude a treaty with the Indians. Five days from Pittsburg, he notes in his journal that “we passed the mouth of Hochocen, or Bottle River.” This translation of the word Hochocen or Hockhocking, is also given by Heckewelder and Johnson, and is undoubtedly correct. The Shawanese called the river Weathakagh-qua, which meant, in their dialect, the same as Hockhocking; and one of the other tribes called it by a name signifying Bow river. All of these names had reference to the winding, crooked course of the stream. The origin of the name Hockhocking—Bottle river—is thus explained by a writer in an old number of the American Pioneer, who says: “About six or seven miles northwest of Lancaster, there is a fall in the Hockhocking of about twenty feet; above the falls, for a short distance, the stream is very narrow and straight, forming a neck, while at the falls it suddenly widens on each side, and swells into the appearance of the body of a bottle. The whole, when seen from above, appears exactly in the shape of a bottle, and from this fact arose the Indian name of Hockhocking.” It is to be regretted that the name of the river is now almost invariably abbreviated to Hocking. True, it takes longer to write or pronounce the real name—Hockhocking; but the whites have never rendered such distinguished favors or services to the Indian race as to entitle them to mutilate the Indian language by altering or clipping the few words that cling to the geography of the country.
Here’s a picture of falls at Rock Mill and the pool beneath it.
As you look down into the river, you can see the narrow creek before the waterfall, and below the waterfall is the big, round pool. The two together really do have the appearance of a bottle or gourd (with a little imagination). (The Rock Mill itself is to the left, and you can see some of the equipment being used to renovate it.)
The description above is from 1841, but there are much earlier references. John Heckewelder was a Moravian missionary, and he said:
The chief from Achsinink, (in English, solid rock,) on Hockhocking (place of bottle shaped gourds,) called Welapachtschiechen, otherwise named by the white people, captain Johny, a man much esteemed by all who knew him, whether Indians or whites, likewise came on with his family, and joined the congregation, declining to act in the capacity of a chief in future.
“Achsinink” is actually “place of the big rock” (see that locative “ink” suffix attached to “achsin”, rock), and it refers to “Standing Stone”, or Mt. Pleasant (Rising Park) in Lancaster. And here we again see the waterfalls and pool likened to a bottle or a gourd.
There is also a defintion for “bottle” from when the Delaware were still back in New Jersey,
The descendants of the Delawares often spoke to Heckewelder of the manner in which the white skins first dealt out strong drink from a large hock-hack, (a gourd or bottle) which produced staggering and happy feelings.
We can also delve a little deeper and find out just where “hock-hack” came from. I could not find that word in any of the older dictionaries from the early 1800s, but there is a website, talk-lenape.org, with a dictionary, and “hàk-hàkw” is there as the definition of “bottle”. Now, one always has to be careful about backformations — maybe the person who put together that online dictionary got that definition from the descriptions above, not from a contemporary native speaker. Is there any independent confirmation for “hàk-hàkw”?
That can be found in another of Heckewelder’s works, in which he defines the word “Machgachk”:
Macock, corrupted from Mitzhack, the name given by the Delawares to the edible kinds of hard-shelled fruits or pepones, such as the pumpkin, the cashaw, &c, compounded of mitz, (from mitzin, to eat) and hack, rind or shell. Hackhack is their word for gourd. Each variety of pepo has its specific name. Geskondháckan is the generic name.
So, we see that the second “hack”, “hàkw” means rind. But I think Heckewelder is wrong about the “Mach” part coming from “Mitz”. For “Mach” is the Lenape word for “red”. There’s “mach-achsin”, red stone or brick. The word is also used for copper. There’s “max-kwim”, or red corn.
So, “max-hakw”, or pumpkin, is probably “red rind”.
Finally, “hàk”, or “hàki” means “earth, or ground”. So “hàk-hàkw” basically means earth-rind. That sure sounds like a gourd to me. It could also be that the Lenape in New Jersey saw glass bottles being made, where earth was melted to form the glass. So, the relation to “gourd” might not only the shape, but that the bottle truly was made of earth.
Thus, we see that “bottle” comes from the Lenâpé “earth-rind”, and that was used to describe the falls and pool at Rock Mill, with the locative suffix “ink”, and we end up with the Hockhocking River, since shorted to the Hocking River.
And that’s where the Hocking River got its name.