Origin of Mon's Name a Mystery

Washington PA  Observer Reporter
23 May 2011
By Scott Beveridge, Staff writer

Judging from the massive landslide that recently buried a road along the Monongahela River near Fredericktown, the Indians who once roamed the region were onto something when they called it the "river with falling-in banks."

No one knows for sure, though, which European settler stood along its banks and proclaimed it should be named the Monongahela, said historian John K. Folmar of California.

"It was just used by the first white guys who heard them talking. There was no unification as to how to spell it," said Folmar, a retired history professor at California University of Pennsylvania.

Journalists who covered the May 13 landslide at a steep cliff near the river that put 1,700 tons of rock, mud and debris on Route 88 were reminded of what they thought was a legend about the naming of the river.

But it turns out to be a true story about Indians using the word to describe a river with unstable banks, according to Folmar's research.

There is a mention in the 1937 book, "The Monongahela: The River and its Region" by Richard T. Wiley about a Moravian missionary named John Heckewelder hearing the word while laboring among the Delawares, Folmar said.

Heckewelder collected in the 1760s the names the Delawares had given to Pennsylvania's rivers, and spelled Monongahela Menaungehilla.

It wasn't until the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 26, 1786, published a story about the naming rights to the river that a reputable source linked the name to the American Indians, Folmar said.

That story indicated the word had signified in some of the Indian languages a river with "falling-in banks," or a stream with collapsing or mouldering banks, Folmar said.

There were still as many as 20 different spellings for the river name, and the county around Morgantown, W.Va., calls itself Monongalia to this day.

Of course the river didn't look as it does today, either, before it was transformed in the 20th century into a network of locks and dams with pools maintaining a navigation depth of at least 9 feet. People could walk across the Mon during drought season, including one in the 1860s when that was possible to do that between Pittsburgh and its South Side, Folmar said.

And, he said, there were no tribes native to Southwestern Pennsylvania living in the area when the European settlers began to arrive in the 1700s. It remains a great mystery as to why the native mound builders disappeared, leaving behind vast archaeological evidence of their primitive settlements, Folmar said.

"It would have been a different history had there been Indians in the valley when the white folk arrived here," Folmar said.

Those tribes had been gone for hundreds of years. The natives who did show up had moved in from the West to take part in frontier battles with the French as the New World was expanding, Folmar said.

He then joked that the river's name would be appropriate to describe the blight the Mon Valley has experienced in the decades since the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s.

"The valley is crumbling in more ways than one," he said.