Monday, October 19, 2020

Mount Matumbla: The highest point in St. Lawrence Co.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Mount Matumbla is its odd name which “tumbles” off one lips (some pun intended) when pronounced. At 2,688 feet, Mount Matumbla is the highest point in St. Lawrence County, and is about 5-1/2 miles north of Arab Mountain. The peak overlooks the Raquette River to the west, and the St. Lawrence/Franklin County boundary line crosses the Mount Matumbla ridge. There is no trail to the summit, which is on private land, so please respect private property!

My interest in Mount Matumbla came about when someone on the ‘History and Legends of the Adirondacks’ Facebook group inquired about the name origin, for which there were a variety of answers. I researched not just its name origin, but the peak’s use in surveying and any historical events which occurred on or near the peak. In the end, I uncovered much more history behind Mount Matumbla than I anticipated.

A History of the Name

Prior to its current name, Mount Matumbla was known as Blue Mountain. What follows is a brief chronology of both names, in writing and on maps, which I hope will provide clarity when discussing the origin of the name “Matumbla.”

WW Ely Matumbla mapAccording to Paul F. Jamieson’s article “Coming Down the Raquette – Setting Pole Rapids to Sunday Rock,” published in the St. Lawrence County Historical Association’s newsletter, “The Quarterly” (Vol. 33, No. 4, October 1978), before Mount Matumbla was christened with a name, Macomb’s Purchase surveyor Benjamin Wright wrote of the peak as “a high mountain on the east” in his 1779 field notes.

The earliest mention of “Blue Mountain” I have found on a map is on Edwin A. Merritt’s 1860 “Map of the Racket River between Starks’ Falls and Tupper’s Lake.” However, it is not denoted by any name in the 1865 “New Topographical Atlas Of St. Lawrence Co., New York” by Stone & Stewart. When it came to maps for the Adirondack tourist, it is denoted in the first edition of W.W. Ely’s popular “Map of the New York Wilderness” (1867) as “BLUE MT.” (pictured at left).

The earliest mention of “Blue Mountain” I could find, in writing, is in Edwin R. Wallace’s 1872 classic “Descriptive Guide to the Adirondacks,” where he writes about the “Blue Mt. of Raquette R.” and “Blue Mt. Stillwater.” Wallace retained “BLUE MT.” in the 1876 edition of Ely’s map, revised for his book.

The first occurrence of “Matumbla” found in regard to the mountain is in Verplanck Colvin’s 1874 report for the Adirondack Survey, based on field work done in 1873. In his description of the views from Ampersand Mountain, he writes:

“In the view the nearest water is Round Lake or the Middle Saranac […] and far beyond at the horizon is seen Mt. Ma-tum-ba-la, beyond which lies Amber Lake. The name Ma-tum-ba-la is the old aboriginal title. I obtained it directly from the Indians and now for the first time publish it as a name precedent to the common “Blue Mountain” by which the whites know it.”

Thus, the name appears to have originated from the Native Americans whom Colvin spoke to (perhaps Mitchell Sabattis, an Abenaki who was one of Colvin’s most trusted guides). However, Colvin deemed to replace Blue Mountain with Mount Matumbla at the time.

It was not until six years following Colvin’s survey report that “Matumbla” first appeared in Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1880 edition of “The Adirondacks: Illustrated.” Stoddard wrote:

“Blue Mountain, the Matumbla of the Indians, and the legendary Indian burying ground on the banks of the [Raquette River], can be visited from here”

In the same year, Stoddard would place “MATUMBLA MT.” on “Map of the New York Wilderness”; it appears as “BLUE MT.” in the 1879 edition of his map, which is named “Map of the New York Wilderness.”

Wallace would follow up by replacing “BLUE MT.” with “MATUMBLA MT.” in his 1882 “Map of the New York Wildermess and the Adirondacks.” Furthermore, in the 1888 edition of his travel-guide, he refers to “Blue Mt. (Matumbla) Stillwater” and, in apparent reference to what Stoddard wrote, mentions “Matumbla Mt., the traditional burying-place of the Indians.”

Gradually, Blue Mountain was superseded by Mount Matumbla, especially around the turn of the twentieth century. The U.S.G.S. would always refer to the peak as Mount Matumbla, starting with the 1921 edition of the Childwold, N.Y. quadrangle map. However, some locals refer to Mount Matumbla as Blue Mountain to this day!

The Origin and Meaning of “Matumbla”

Given that Mount Matumbla was first known as Blue Mountain, one claim is that “Matumbla” is a bastardization of the French term “Montagne Blue” (Blue Mountain). That is, when said quickly, “Montagne Blue” evolved into “Matumbla.” However, based on Colvin’s statement in his 1874 survey report, this is clearly not the case.

Considering the Native American origins of the name based on Colvin’s survey report, I contacted John Fadden of the Six Nations Indian Museum (which emphasizes the culture of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora), Jim and Joseph Bruchac (who work extensively on the preservation of Abenaki culture, language, and traditional Native skills), and Melissa Otis (a historian and educator on the matter of Native American peoples).

Fadden referred my inquiry to his wife, who is a fluent Mohawk speaker. She said the word is not Mohawk or any other Iroquoian word.

Joseph Bruchac referred my inquiry to his younger son, Jesse, who teaches the Abenaki language at the University of Southern Maine. Jesse said “Matumbla” is clearly an Abenaki word, which appears to coincide with the fact that Mitchell Sabattis, Colvin’s trusted guide, was Abenaki, and Colvin may have consulted with him. Jesse broke the word down as follows:

  • matôba – it runs out, end on a river
  • madôba – go to the shore; go ashore from the water, especially to the end of a carry; where a stream goes to the water, a mouth or confluence, where it comes to bigger water
  • -hla – becoming, becomes, become

He said the term “Madǒbahla” (sometimes written “Mad8bahla,” where ǒ is written as 8) probably means a carry or carrying place. The ǒ (8) is pronounced with a nasalized sound, like “un” in “skunk”; “ǒb” (“8b”) would explain the “umb” sound. Also, “d” may have sounded like a “t” to Euro-American ears.

In regard to the existence of Abenaki natives in the Mount Matumbla region, Otis said there would have been Abenaki (and Mohawk) in the region “at least hunting and perhaps seasonal camping to fish/hunt.” “There were Abenaki encampments near Picketsville and Coreys starting in the 1700s that we know of so this area could have been part of their rounds,” she wrote. The region was Mohawk territory, so the Abenaki would have needed permission from the Mohawk to be in the area.

Otis also agreed that, if “Matumbla” is based on an indigenous language, it is likely Abenaki.

As for the existence of an Indian burial ground by the Raquette River, Otis said she could find nothing in her records on one. However, she noted that only a handful of Indian burial grounds have been found in the Adirondacks. She said that, just as Jesse Bruchac noted, the name likely referred to a carry in the area. Someone may have felt they were entitled to name the mountain, thus, used an Abenaki word for it they had heard mentioned.

I should note that I found no mention or variant of “Matumbla” in the following resources:

  • “Indian Names in New York” by William Beauchamp (1893)
  • “Aboriginal Place Names of New York” by William Beauchamp (1907)
  • “Abenaki Place-Names in the Champlain Valley by Gordon M. Day, published in the “International Journal of American Linguistics” (Vol. 47, No. 2, April 1981)

Almost three miles west of Mount Matumbla is Lake Massawepie, which appears as early as in Andrew E. Rogerson’s 1858 “Map of St. Lawrence Co., New York.” According to Beauchamp’s 1907 work, “Massawepie” is Indian for “large water.” He does not say what tribe it may have originated from.

In regard to the name origin of “Blue Mountain,” it is unclear how this name came about and from whom. Given that many peaks were named “Blue Mountain” due to their bluish hue, this may be how the name came about.

Matumbla surveyVerplanck Colvin’s Adirondack Survey

According to Francis B. Rosevear and Barbara McMartin’s text “Colvin in the Adirondacks: A Chronology and Index” (1992), Verplanck Colvin had a signal station built on Mount Matumbla on September 19, 1879 (as per his field notebook no. 295, p. 42). The peak was also established as a triangulation station for his Adirondack Survey, as shown in his “Sketch of the Progress of the Primary Triangulation for 1872-1873” (see figure). In this sketch, one sees the lines-of-site drawn from Mount Matumbla to the triangulation stations of Mount Morris, Mount MacIntyre (Algonquin Peak), Ampersand Mountain, and St. Regis Mountain.

As noted earlier, Colvin mentions “Mt. Ma-tum-ba-la” in his 1874 report for the Adirondack Survey and appears to have replaced the name “Blue Mountain with the current name.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):

A view of Mount Matumbla from the cab of the fire tower on Arab Mountain. John Sasso photo
W.W. Ely’s 1867 “Map of the New York Wilderness” with Mount Matumbla denoted as “BLUE MT.”  (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

A portion of the 1897 “New map of St. Lawrence County, N.Y.” by Edgar G. Blankman and August H. Mueller, which shows Mount Matumbla denoted by both names (upper-right corner). (Source:  Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. (1897). New map of St. Lawrence County, N.Y Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/59f18310-4e63-0133-b0c3-00505686a51c)

Portion of Verplanck Colvin’s “Sketch of the Progress of the Primary Triangulation for 1872-1873” showing the lines-of-site drawn from Mount Matumbla to the triangulation stations of Mount Morris, Mount MacIntyre (Algonquin Peak), Ampersand Mountain, and St. Regis Mountain. (Source:  NYS Archives Digital Collections.  Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.archives.nysed.gov/index.php/Detail/objects/10749)

Related Stories


John Sasso

John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.




3 Responses

  1. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Hello John,
    Nice job on this article tracing the two names for this mount in St. Lawrence County, Blue and the one that is current, Matumbla. I have done much reading in all these resources, Wallace, Colvin, etc., and we can learn a lot from them. Mitchell Sabbatis was one of Verplanck’s trusted guides for his work on Seventh Lake, then up through Big Moose and Twitchell Lakes to the Beaver River area. One of his Field Books I have has a series of native American names he wrote down from Mitchell, so your theory is solid. Interesting to consult with the Native American experts. Great article!

  2. John Fadden says:

    Good article. I enjoyed the read.

  3. Tom Stuart Sr says:

    Great job and read John. I love the history of the Adirondacks and wish more
    people would learn,research and read the great stories of our Adirondacks.

    Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Wait, before you go,

sign up for news updates from the Adirondack Almanack!