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.”
- 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.” 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.”
- 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. Colvin echoes Van Dyke’s theory in a footnote in his 1894 report.
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’.” 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. 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.” 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. I have come across the use of the character and word in children’s spelling books as early as 1808.
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.
Consultation of the writings on Native American place names in New York by William M. Beauchamp,, John Dyneley Prince, and Henry R. Schoolcraft 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. For some reason, Beauchamp seems to imply “am-per-sand” is a Native American term, but does not provide a translation.
 Colvin, Verplanck. Ascent and Barometrical Measurement of Mount Seward. Albany, N.Y.: The Argus Company, 1872, p. 9.
 Sweetser, Moses F. The Middle States, a Handbook for Travellers. Boston, MA: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876, p. 146.
 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.
 Van Dyke, Henry. “Ampersand.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Jun.– Nov. 1885, pp. 217-218.
 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.
 Albany Argus. October 20, 1838.
 “Issue of May 20, 2003.” The Word Detective (website). http://www.word-detective.com/052003.html. (accessed October 1, 2021)
 Pratt, Samuel J. Gleanings through Wales, Holland and Westphalia. London: T. N. Longman and L. B. Seeley, 1795, p. 311.
 Houston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. London: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 76.
 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.
 Otis, Melissa. Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquin Peoples of the Adirondacks. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2018, p. 68.
 Beauchamp, William M. Indian Names in New York, with a Selection from Other States. Fayetteville, N.Y.: Recorder Office, 1893.
 Beauchamp, William M. “Aboriginal Place Names of New York.” New York State Museum Bulletin 108. Albany, N.Y.: New York State Education Department, 1907.
 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.
 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.
 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.