Tuesday, November 2, 2021

A New Clue to the Origin of Saranac Lake’s “Ampersand”


One of the most popular hiking destinations in the Saranac Lake region is Ampersand Mountain.  Standing at 3,353 feet, Ampersand provides one of the most exceptional view of the Saranac Lake region – and beyond.  From the expanse of the bare, granite summit, your eyes will gaze about a 360° panorama, whose beauty you will wish you could seal in your mind indefinitely.  The waters of the Saranac Lakes, Raquette Pond and River, Long Lake, and Ampersand Lake.  A plethora of Adirondack peaks such as Mount Van Dorrien, the MacIntyre Range, the Sawtooth Mountains, the Seward Range, Stony Creek Mountain, the McKenzie Range, Whiteface Mountain, and the Sentinel Range.

The general consensus is that Ampersand Mountain takes its name from the like-named lake and brook at the southern base of the Ampersand Range.  It is unclear whether Ampersand Brook was christened before Ampersand Lake, or vice-versa.    The question which has confounded historians for over 150 years is:  where did the name “Ampersand” come from?

I have uncovered a clue from a letter written in 1858, which presents a new and more viable theory for the origin of the name.  I contend that Saranac Lake’s “Ampersand” is derived from a Native American term.  Inquiries with numerous historical organizations to help translate the term I have found have not proven fruitful.  Thus, my hope that the Adirondack Almanack’s readers will come through with an answer.

The following table shows the earliest instances for the three names I have found, both in writing and on a map.








There are three theories which have been floated on the origin of the name “Ampersand,” in regard to the brook and lake:

  • A reference to the sandy shores of Ampersand Lake. Colvin originated this theory in his 1872 report, Ascent and Barometrical Measurement of Mount Seward, where he states in a footnote:

“’Ampersand.’  I believe this to be the incorrect etymology, and do not think it is derived from the and-per-se-and termination of old alphabets; but attribute the name to the bright, yellow sandy shores and islands, which make it truly Amber-sand lake.”[1]

  • A reference to the shape of Ampersand Lake. In the 1876 travel-guide The Middle States, a Handbook for Travellers, it is claimed that the shape of the lake resembles the character &, “whence comes its name.”[2]  Colvin echoes this theory in his 1897 report, where he further asserts that the lake “was named (from its form &= ‘and per se and’) by ‘The Philosophers,’ Louis Agassiz, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes and others.”[3]
  • A reference to the shape of Ampersand Brook. In an 1885 essay by Henry Van Dyke entitled “Ampersand,” which recounts his three-week stay at Ampersand Lake and a hike up Ampersand Mountain, he claims the brook was named so because its bent and curved shaped resembled that of the character &.  He also conjectures that the brook was the first to be named.[4]  Colvin echoes Van Dyke’s theory in a footnote in his 1894 report.[5]

The inconsistency of Colvin’s claims as to how “Ampersand” came about seem to indicate his claims were based more on his own speculation.  As for the shape-based theories, an article in the October 20, 1938 edition of the Albany Argus refers to a railroad as having “more crooks and turns than an ‘ampersand’.”[6]  Thus, there is precedence for the shape of something being equated to the character & in the early nineteenth century.

A brief aside on the use of the word “ampersand.”  It is purported that the word came into common usage in the English language around 1837.[7]  However, I have found its presence goes back further.  It appears in the 1795 book Gleanings through Wales, Holland and Westphalia by Samuel J. Pratt, where he wrote, “At length, having tried all the historians from great A, to ampersand.”[8]  According Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, the ampersand was routinely taught during the nineteenth century as the 27th letter of the alphabet.[9]  I have come across the use of the character and word in children’s spelling books as early as 1808.[10]

I shall introduce a fourth theory on the name origin, based on the contents of an early letter by William J. Stillman to James R. Lowell.  Stillman and Lowell are among the principal figures of the Philosophers’ Camp, the legendary nineteenth-century encampment of the Saranac Lake region.  In his letter to Lowell describing his effort to search for a site for the Adirondack Club’s new camp, Stillman mentions the term “Am-peh-ah-san-at Pond” (in quotes).  In a footnote, he says Am-peh-ah-san-at is “commonly called Ampersand.”


Annotated portion of a letter from William J. Stillman to James R. Lowell, dated December 1, 1858, in which Stillman refers to Ampersand Lake as “Am-peh-ah-san-at Pond.” The Stillman letter is held by the Schaffer Library of Union College, New York, in their William James Stillman Collection (SCA-0144).  (Courtesy of:  Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College)

The appearance of hyphens in the term implies that it is likely of Native American origin, and if so, it may be an Abenaki term.  According to Melissa Otis in Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquin Peoples of the Adirondacks, Upper Saranac Lake guide Carlos Whitney (c.1838-1917) said the “Saranac” Indians had two communities at the Indian Carry (between Upper Saranac Lake and the Stony Creek Ponds) as late as the 1850s.  Furthermore, Abenaki Maurice Paul Dennis claimed the “Saranac” Indians were Abenaki, and anthropologist John Dyneley Prince believed the word “Saranac” to be a corruption of the Abenaki word “Salanac” (sumac bud or cone).  Otis believes it is plausible there was a group of Abenaki who settled in the Saranac Lake region and came to be known by the settlers as the “Saranac” Indians.[11]

Consultation of the writings on Native American place names in New York by William M. Beauchamp,[12],[13] John Dyneley Prince,[14] and Henry R. Schoolcraft[15] provided no clues as to the meaning of “am-peh-ah-san-at.”  In the section on place names of Franklin County in Beauchamp’s Indian Names in New York, with a Selection from Other States, he simply writes “Am-per-sand pond and mountain,” without any further clarification.[16]  For some reason, Beauchamp seems to imply “am-per-sand” is a Native American term, but does not provide a translation.


A portion of W.W. Ely’s Map of the New York Wilderness from 1867, showing one of the earliest instantiations of Ampersand Brook (“Ampersand Br.”) and Ampersand Lake (“Ampersand P.”) the author has found on a map. (Source: New York Heritage Digital Collections, Adirondack Experience Library, https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16694coll65/id/7033/rec/1)


[1] Colvin, Verplanck.  Ascent and Barometrical Measurement of Mount Seward.  Albany, N.Y.: The Argus Company, 1872, p. 9.

[2] Sweetser, Moses F.  The Middle States, a Handbook for Travellers.  Boston, MA: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876, p. 146.

[3] Colvin, Verplanck.  Report of the Superintendent of State Land Survey of the State of New York.  Senate Doc. No. 42.  Albany, N.Y.: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Company, 1897, p. 457.

[4] Van Dyke, Henry.  “Ampersand.”  Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  Jun.– Nov. 1885, pp. 217-218.

[5] Colvin, Verplanck.  Report on the Progress of the State Land Survey of the State of New York.  Senate Doc. No. 84.  Albany, N.Y.: James B. Lyon, 1894, p. 278.

[6] Albany Argus.  October 20, 1838.

[7] “Issue of May 20, 2003.”  The Word Detective (website).  http://www.word-detective.com/052003.html. (accessed October 1, 2021)

[8] Pratt, Samuel J.  Gleanings through Wales, Holland and Westphalia.  London: T. N. Longman and L. B. Seeley, 1795, p. 311.

[9] Houston, Keith.  Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.  London: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 76.

[10] Bingham, Caleb.  The Child’s Companion; Being a Concise Spelling-book: Containing a Selection of Words, in Modern Use, Properly Arranged.  Boston, MA: Manning and Loring 1808, pp. 3, 74.

[11] Otis, Melissa.  Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquin Peoples of the Adirondacks.  Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2018, p. 68.

[12] Beauchamp, William M.  Indian Names in New York, with a Selection from Other States.  Fayetteville, N.Y.: Recorder Office, 1893.

[13] Beauchamp, William M.  “Aboriginal Place Names of New York.”  New York State Museum Bulletin 108.  Albany, N.Y.: New York State Education Department, 1907.

[14] Prince, J. Dyneley.  “Some Forgotten Indian Place-Names in the Adirondacks.” Journal of American Folklore.  Vol. 13, No. 49, Apr.-Jun. 1900, pp. 128-128.

[15] Schoolcraft, Henry R.  Report of the Aboriginal Names and Geographical Terminology of the State of New York: Part I – Valley of the Hudson.  New York: Wm. Van Norden, 1845.

[16] Beauchamp, William M.  Indian Names in New York, with a Selection from Other States.  Fayetteville, N.Y.: Recorder Office, 1893, p. 28.

Photo at top: A view of Ampersand Lake and the Seward Range. Photo by John Sasso.

Related Stories

Kid next to water

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.

18 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Very interesting. It is my hope that the term originates in Native American language.

  2. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Hey John, excellent article, well researched, with an interesting and persuasive new theory offered for the name Ampersand Mtn, Pond, and brook. I love the research into Native American sources for ADK names, and this is all about that. Interesting that one of the members of the Philosopher’s Camp offered these names. Of course, one question was what his source was, but this is a promising theory. As you know I am still researching the source for the name of Twitchell Mountain, Lake, and Creek, with an open question of which was named first, second, and third, and of course who Twitchell was. I have a theory, too, but will have to dig to try to support it. Congrats on a great article.

    • John Sasso John Sasso says:

      Thank you Noel. I may be mistaken, as I thought you figured out whom this Twitchell was.

      • Alexis Ward says:

        Thanks for a fascinating and well-researched article. Can’t wait for your next one. Place-names hold so many secrets, around the world, if we are only patient enough to dig into their origins.
        Really enjoyed your piece !

        • John Sasso John Sasso says:

          Thank you, Alexis. I greatly appreciate it. With apparent concern about the place names given by Native Americans being superseded by those of European settlers, I would think this particular finding would be important and rise to some interest, esp. among Native American scholars.

          If you are on Facebook and enjoy reading about the history of Adirondack peaks, follow my group on Facebook: History and Legends of the Adirondacks. I have posted more than 100 histories on there.

  3. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    If Ampersand is an official name, check USGS online records for when so named and perhaps why.

    • John Sasso John Sasso says:

      They will not have such information (and yes, checked such long ago). I have researched the history of about 250 Adirondack peaks (among others), and I can tell you from experience that the USGS/US Board on Geographic Names is a poor resource for checking name history of landmarks, unless the landmarks were (re)named in about the past twenty years.

  4. JB says:

    I’ve spent time listening to Mohawk, Onondaga and Abenaki speakers, and, with what little knowledge that I have, Am-peh-ah-san-at sounds like it could be either Iroquoian or Alogonquian. There are few fluent Iroquois speakers and even fewer Western Abenaki speakers left. Maybe try reaching out to the Bruchac family–they are world-class Western Abenaki experts who lived in our area the last time I checked.

    • John Sasso John Sasso says:

      Hi JB. I did reach out to the Bruchacs (who helped me with Matumbla) after I discovered this but received no response. I have tried contacted several other Native American speakers/organizations but they either did not have an answer or I got no response.

      • JB says:

        John, I hope that someone responds with good news. It is also possible that the knowledge of the term has been lost. Look at the debate over the name of the country “Canada”: is it from the Portuguese “cá nada” (“nothing here”), the Spanish “cabo de nada” (“Cape Nothing”), or from the St. Lawrence Iroquoian “kanata” (“village”)?…Hard to prove given that the St. Lawrence Iroquoian language has been extinct for centuries.

        The situation with Ampersand could be similar, but I sure hope not. And your discovery is certainly a major contribution. Maybe after a few more years of pouring over Iroquois ethnographies, lexicons and grammars in my own non-related research, I’ll even find something. That’s part of the magic while also serving as a solemn reminder of what has been lost. Keep us updated on where your research takes you; it is always fascinating.

        • John Sasso John Sasso says:

          Its possible. The term which Stillman wrote down (“Am-peh-ah-san-at”) during his recon trip may have been a phonetic spelling. That is, when Stillman was talking to Saranac Lake woodsmen and guides, they either spelled out the term for him, OR Stillman wrote it out, based on how they conveyed it to them. Nonetheless, my theory is that the woodsmen & guides had heard the term from a tribe in the area, then they conveyed it to Stillman. How Stillman wrote it out is typical of how Native American terms were written out. However, perhaps some of the parts of the term were “misspelled” (e.g. the first part, “am,” should have been a similar-sounding term, which could be translated my Native American scholars).
          Nonetheless, my inability to interpret led me to try and contact a number of Native American speakers.

    • JB says:

      John Sasso,
      A correction: In my ignorance, I said that ‘am-peh-ah-san-at’ “sounds Iroquoian”. Now that I’m becoming more knowledgeable about Iroquoian languages, I would refute that statement. Iroquoian languages notably lack the bilabial consonants /m/ and /p/, except as peripheral phonemes in introduced words from English and French; in fact, in Mohawk, /m/ or /p/ consonant clusters are non-existent even in those introduced words (with one well-known exception). So, if ‘am-pe-ah-san-at’ is indeed an Iroquoian phonetic transcription, it is almost certainly derived from the English word “ampersand”. Further, at risk of being wrong again (Iroquois languages seem particularly difficult to learn for me), my gut is that ‘am-pe-san-at’, even disregarding /m/ and /p/, doesn’t have a typical Iroquoian morphological structure, or “sound”. It’s far more likely to be either English, French or Algonquian (words like ‘wampum’ come to mind). (Again, what do I know, though.)

  5. Andrew bowes says:

    Great work. I lived in Glen’s falls in the 70’s and when I became quite enamored with both the social history and natural history of the area, Adirondacks eventually central New York and regional. I am in central New York and started somewhat on collecting original place names for waterways I have had the opportunity to paddle. Perhaps someone has gotten further than I have or has an interest.

    • John Sasso John Sasso says:

      Hi Andrew. I have researched the history of about 250 Adirondack peaks (among others). I deal primarily with mountains and hills, so if there are peaks you are curious about let me know

  6. Bob Meyer says:

    This is a wonderful mystery. Carry on Mr. Sasso!

  7. Todd Eastman says:

    After cracking the &, let’s question the ?…😎

  8. Worth Gretter says:

    Looking at the 1867 map, it is fun to see that some of the places I’ve paddled or camped still have the same names, i.e. South Creek, Weller Pond, Raquette Falls, Stoney Creek, and Hungry Bay. But I can’t make out the name on Middle Saranac Lake. It doesn’t look like the previous name, Round Lake, but it could be — it is hard to make out the letters superimposed on the “waves” of the lake.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Wait, before you go,

sign up for news updates from the Adirondack Almanack!