If you’ve ever written down the word “Mattapoisett” and stared at it for a second thinking, gosh, that just doesn’t look right to me for some reason, you are not alone. Sometimes we type it out and even Microsoft doesn’t think it looks right and throws that ominous squiggly red line beneath it. Clearly, Wampanoag was not on Microsoft’s list of high priority language options.
Literally meaning “place of resting”, the Wampanoag word ‘Mattapoisett’ was what the indigenous SouthCoasters called this beautiful place. Once it split from old Rochester in 1857, Mattapoisett became one of the very few towns in Massachusetts – 15 out of the 351, to be exact – with a name based on a Native American language and not named after a settler, notable person, or a city that already existed in England.
A hundred and fifty years ago, imagine how it must have seemed to someone, say, an immigrant who travelled to America with a destination he had only ever heard spoken and not written. And what would be the result if that person had only heard it spoken by another who had only ever heard it spoken and never written from another person who had only ever heard it spoken? What you might get are letters addressed to someone in Maripostee, Mathipoiset, Mattapolsvet, and Mosbatasett.
More likely than not, most of us living in these contemporary times never knew there were 113 other ways to spell Mattapoisett until many decades later when a Mrs. Katharine Hammond Frizzell (1899-1974) found a handwritten list of funny nonsense words written by her grandfather, Ellis Mendell (1834-1907).
Mendell was the Mattapoisett postmaster before the turn of the century, a time between 1870-1900, when the prospect of a better life prompted 12 million immigrants come to America, many of them settling in the northeast and desperate for work. It was also a time when the whaling and fishing industry lured many to the New Bedford region. It was during this time that Mendell began diligently jotting down the various misspellings of Mattapoisett that appeared on the letters that arrived to his post office, and we are so thankful that he did.
It’s just a hypothesis that many of the misspellings were made by immigrants of foreign tongues from faraway lands, but given that a significant population of Polish immigrants headed for Chicago took the wrong train and wound up in Chicopee, Massachusetts, anything is possible.
Behold Ellis Mendell’s long, lovely list of Mattapoisett Misspellings:
(Paul to create columns of the following misspellings)*
This list created by Mendell, rediscovered by his granddaughter, and then graciously re-typed and submitted to Town Hall by Charles Mendell, Jr. is kept safe inside the Town Clerk’s Office to this day. It might only be a trivial part of Mattapoisett’s history, but it is certainly is one gem of a relic from the past of the hard-to-spell town called Mattapoisett.
Many things make Mattapoisett unique – its whaling history, pristine estuary, stately yet quaint village, historic lighthouse, and big, beautiful seahorse named Salty – aside from the uniqueness of its name. And lucky are we with the privilege to call it something much easier to spell: h-o-m-e.
By Jean Perry