I have previously written about how the Hocking River got its name and how that was applied to the Hocking Hills it passes through. This time I’d like to write about how the Licking River got its name.
Not only is there a Licking River, but there is also a Licking County here in Ohio, a bit to the east of Columbus. This always gives the news people a bit of a chortle, particularly if the story involves any sort of a sex angle.
The standard explanation for the name “Licking River” says that it was named for salt licks in the area. I’m not sure I believe that.
The thing is, there appear to be absolutely no decent historical records that show how the Licking River got its name. In contrast, you may recall that for the Hocking River there are all sorts of records (admittedly, the name for the Hocking is more interesting, and thus more likely to generate a discussion). All one ever reads is the assumption that the Licking is named for salt licks. For instance, we find this explanation in “Centennial history of the city of Newark and Licking County, Ohio (Vol. I)”, by Edwin M. P. Brister (written well after the fact, in 1909):
One of the Indian tribes called the north fork “Pataskala,” and the main stream below was also so called; but one or more of the Indian tribes also called the latter Lick-Licking. The latter name is supposed to have been given it from the fact of there being in early times some “salt licks,” as they were called, upon or near its banks, which were much resorted to by deer and buffalo, and, subsequent to the settlement of the country, by domestic animals.
This does seem less than satisfactory. For one thing, why would Native Americans suddenly switch to English to name a river? For another, why would they use a combination of both English (“Lick-“) and Lenâpé (“-ing”)?
But that is really a rather odd way to refer to salt licks, isn’t it? Licking? In other parts of Ohio, folks were perfectly capable of using a more normal name referring to salt licks. For streams and rivers we have names Claylick Creek, Drylick Run, Lick Run, Bee Lick, Bluelick Run, Salt Lick Creek, Sulphur Lick, Pond Lick Run, Flatlick Run, and Salt Creek. No odd “-ing” construction on any of them.
So, if it wasn’t that, where did the Licking get its name?
Keep in mind that whatever conclusions I come to are pure speculation. There is no way to prove that they are right. I can make it seem as plausible as possible, but there are no records to back it up, or disprove it. It’s just a fun exercise.
As I wrote regarding the Hocking River, this area of Ohio was occupied by the Lenni Lenâpé (also known as the Delaware Indians) when Europeans arrived, and a lot of the place names here were given their names by them. Not only that, but many, many of the stream names end with the Lenâpé locative suffix, -ing. We have the Hocking (bottle) River, Kokosing (owl) River, Wheeling (head) Creek, Walhonding (ditch) River, and Mahoning (salt lick) River. (Go back and look at how the Hocking River got its name for a bit more detail on those.)
When I was on the Walk with the Ancients, after I gave my talk about the Hocking River, somebody asked me if Licking might also be a Lenâpé name.
Interesting thought. If so, what did the name signify?
The Lenâpé word for sand or gravel is lekau. In addition, the vocabulary at talk-lenape.org even has its locative form: lèkunk. Now, -unk is just a variant on -ink or -ing, so, given how much Native American names get corrupted through mishearing, I really suspect that the “Licking” in Licking River really means sandy or gravelly, so “Sandy River” might be a good translation.
In addition, I’ve canoed the Licking River through Blackhand Gorge (east of Newark) many times, and I can attest that the trip is full of sand and gravel bars. The sand itself comes from the erosion of the Blackhand Sandstone that makes up the walls of the gorge and surrounding hills. This sandy, gravelly location might also have been considered an important place for the Lenâpé for Blackhand Gorge is the location that the eponymous Black Hand appeared back then on the wall of the gorge. (For those unfamiliar with the Black Hand, it was a twice-normal size carving and painting of a black hand high up the wall of the gorge. When the Ohio and Erie Canal was dug through the Gorge, the workers destroyed this native artifact by blasting away the rock to make room for the towpath.) In addition, the river at this point is closest to Flint Ridge (and there is speculation that the Black Hand was a marker to let travelers know that this was the point to leave the river to get there). When canoeing the river, one can easily find pieces of Flint Ridge flint that have eroded away and washed down into the Licking at this point.
Lekau does appear in other constructions. Back in Pennsylvania, where the Lenâpé lived before being driven west, there are a lot of Lenâpé place names, including Lycoming Creek. In “Names which the Lenni Lannape or Delaware Indians Gave to Rivers, Streams and Localities”, a compilation by John Heckenwelder (a Moravian missionary who lived among the Lenâpé), we find
LYCOMING, (a branch of the Susquehanna in Lycoming County), corrupted from Legaui-hánne, signifying sandy stream. The Delawares called it invariably by this name.
Hánna means stream, and while it is used in waterway names in Pennsylvania (e.g., Susquehanna), it’s not found in Ohio names. Different usages, different dialects. So it would not be unusual that it would be the Licking River instead of Lycoming River here in Ohio.
Finally, I should note that there is another Licking River, this one in Kentucky. This actually gives some trouble to my interpretation, since the Licking River in Kentucky is not in Lenâpé territory. It’s in Shawnee territory.
The original name given to this river was “Frederick’s River”, and then on most old maps it was called “Great Salt Lick Creek.” It also has one of the silliest explanations for the name “Licking” I’ve seen. In the “History of Kentucky” by William Elsey Connelley (in 1922), he writes:
The Licking River has a name of beautiful significance. “Licking” denotes a country or a land diversified with springs and meadows. The Upper and Lower Blue Licks are upon its banks. These Licks were discovered by a party of explorers from Pennsylvania, in July, 1773. They at once became famous, and were the principal source of the supply of salt for the early settlers in Central Kentucky. Boone was captured by Indians near the Lower Blue Lick, where he and others had gone to make salt, on February 7, 1778. The beauty and fertility of the lands, and the thousands of buffalo, deer, and elk which were seen pasturing on the cane in its broad bottoms, caused the early settlers to add the old Saxon word ing, meaning “a pasture or meadow, generally one lying low, near a river,” to the word Lick, thus forming this appropriate name. It was at first called Great Salt Lick Creek, and was marked on the old maps by that name.
Right. Because the early settlers just happened to all know an ancient Saxon word, and they just appended it onto “Lick”. Not too plausible in my book.
My guess, assuming that the Licking River in Ohio really is from Lenâpé, is that the Kentucky name was influenced by it. As already mentioned, for the longest time it was “Great Salt Lick Creek”, and I can see that being shortened and influenced by “Licking”. But, I have to admit that is pure speculation.
So, in the end, if you are passing through Licking County and along the Licking River, you should at least consider the possibility that the name doesn’t come from the salt licks in the area (or some odd sex act), but might instead just be an old Lenâpé word describing the river as sandy.