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The origin of "Willowemoc" and some Native American History

Judy Van Put
Posted 9/5/23

Thanks to continuous showers and rainstorms during the end of August, we are now heading into September with our rivers and streams in good condition – with above-average flows that are still …

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The origin of "Willowemoc" and some Native American History


Thanks to continuous showers and rainstorms during the end of August, we are now heading into September with our rivers and streams in good condition – with above-average flows that are still very fishable and favorable water temperatures. 

Last week there was a terrific hatch along the Willowemoc by the Catskill Fly Fishing Center that occurred at about 5:45 p.m. You may still see these medium light-colored flies, along with Blue Winged Olives, various sizes and colors of caddis flies and the slate-colored Isonychia, which can be an important hatch in September.

Earlier this summer, we received an email from Jesse Vadala, Engagement Coordinator of Trout Unlimited’s Northeast Coldwater Habitat Program, inquiring about the historical name of the Willowemoc, which was mentioned in The Beaverkill: The History of a River and Its People. Jesse was writing an update on the stream project TU is completing on the Willowemoc Creek and was looking for the origin of the quote “The kettle that washes itself clean,” that was attributed to the indigenous people who first inhabited the region.

My response to Jesse was that the origin of the Willowemoc’s moniker ‘the kettle that washes itself clean’ - was taken from an article that appeared in the May 6, 1880 issue of Forest and Stream, written by George W. Van Siclen, a pioneer Beaverkill fisherman.

Van Siclen wrote that when the first non-native pioneers came to the region, they learned the meaning of the name from the Lenni Lenape: “It is ‘the kettle that washes itself clean,’ and the stream was so called because of the spring freshets, which carry off all the driftwood, etc. from its banks.” 

But “Willowemoc” was originally “Whelenaughwemack,” the name the early pioneers derived from the Lenni Lenape, which evolved into “Welawemacks” and eventually “Willowemoc” as we know it today. Depending on date, early maps depict both original names - although at different times.

Interestingly, although today the Willowemoc is considered a major tributary of the Beaverkill, the opposite may be true - as the river below Junction Pool in Roscoe was originally called the Whelenaughwemack, and the upper Beaverkill was then known as the Great Beaverkill! 

If you look at a map, you’ll see that the Willowemoc flows in a generally westerly direction, and the upper Beaverkill flows in a south-westerly direction, entering the waters of the Willowemoc just below Roscoe, at the famous junction known as Junction Pool, one of the most celebrated pools in angling history. And from that Junction, the two joined rivers continue westerly, today known as the lower Beaverkill, until meeting with the East Branch of the Delaware River at East Branch.

The Lenni-Lenape that the first European settlers encountered inhabited vast lands from the Catskill Mountains to the Potomac and were composed of three principal tribes: Unami (“Turtle), Unalachto (Turkey) and Minsi (Wolf). The Minsi (also known as “People of the Stony Country” or “Mountaineers”) lived along the rivers of the Catskills. The sub-tribes or groups took their names from the places where they lived, such as the Esopus, Navisings (which became known as Neversink) Papagonk (now East Branch of the Delaware) and Whelenaughwemack, which is what the indigenous tribes called the Beaverkill.

The Minsi traveled the rivers and streams of the Catskills, hunting, trapping and fishing, but did not settle in the higher elevations, preferring to live in seasonal villages along the lower, larger sections of the streams where the land could be cultivated. 

Rivers were important to the Lenni Lenapes as sources of food, water, and travel as can be imagined. Most likely these Delaware tribes (so called as they traveled up and down the Delaware River) were here during the warmer months of the year when they hunted, fished and farmed the land, returning to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and warmer places south during winter.

The few sites along the Beaverkill that were suited for agriculture were the Rockland flats, the area near the mouth of Russell Brook, and the hamlet of East Branch near the mouth of the Beaverkill. Another interesting note is that when the Lenni Lenape had their settlements at these flatlands, they raised corn - a crop that has still been raised in those areas today!


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