What's in a Name No.6: Niskayuna

I've heard the place name "Niskayuna" around, specifically during this week's WAMC fund drive as the locations of donating parties were announced, and it has piqued my curiosity.* What kind of name is Niskayuna? It looks and sounds like a name better suited to a Japaneses island than an upstate town. So I decided to investigate.

Niskayuna is the name of both a township and a hamlet in Schenectady county on the Mohawk River, formed from Watervilet in Albany County in 1809. The name in the region is a much longer history, from when the area was settled in the the late 17th century by the Dutch, and prior to that was home to the a tribe known as Conistigione (also spelled Canastagione, and about five other ways on early deeds.) This word, in its many spellings and variations, is also noted in histories of the area as the Indian word meaning "extensive corn flats" from which the town's name is somehow derived. [1] Other sources indicate that the word "Niskayuna" means "extensive corn flats" and that the Conistigione was the name of the place before Niskayuna, and was named after the tribe of Indians (who themselves were named Canastagione because they spent too much time playing Canasta) [2] A Shaker community that settled in the area where the Albany Airport is currently called their settlement Niskayuna.

It seems unlikely at first that the name Niskayuna could be derived from a word like Casnastagione (or one of it's variants) but it could indeed be the case if you use your imagination. A patent for the area granted in the early 18th century is called the Nestigione Patent, and this term may be the missing link between the two words, especially considering the lack of standardized spelling into the 19th century. [3] Albany resident Herman Melville makes mention of the Shakers in Moby Dick, spelling the name 'Neskyeuna'. [2]

While the origins of the place name Niskayuna in an American Indian word are clear, it's journey from contact period place name to the town name we know today is a nebulous one. Similarly, many elements of our nation's (comparatively short) history are clouded in uncertainty or dispute.

Thank you for joining us for this edition of What's in a Name.

Posted by Natalie

*The WAMC fund drive is more entertaining to listen to in the morning than silence or commercials on TV. Though I'm getting a bit tired of hearing "Don't Let the Light Go Out."
[1] From Austin A. Yates' Schenectady County, New York: Its History to the Close of the Nineteenth CenturySchenetady Digital History Archive
[2] Ed Reilly's How Far from Canastagione to Niskayuna? Talk of the Town, from the Schenectady County Historical Society
[3] From A Gazetteer of the State of New-York, Embracing an Ample Survey and Description of Its Counties, Towns, Cities, Villages, Canals, Mountains, Lakes, Rivers, Creeks and Natural Topography. Arranged in One Series, Alphabetically: With an Appendix… by Horatio Gates Spafford, LL.D. (1824)
Chapter XXVII (pp. 410-416)


Joe said...

Herm Melville a yorkstater? I think he was but some would object. My all-time best buddy, Melly, was born in the artificial section of New York, which we'll refer to as 'the city', but his pops business went bust and they moved to albany where Melly grew up, then they moved to lansingburg on the Hudson -which i've never heard of, and then he attended the albany classical school, which didn't last long. Mel got a job as a surveyor on the erie canal, then went to sea and wrote some stories. Yo, I think he's got some yorkstater potential.

Roon said...

Thanks for some interesting history on my hometown.

Growing up, I remember being told that Niskayuna meant "Land of Tall Corn."

I've also heard that Niskayuna is an old Indian word for "high taxes." ;-)

mac said...

I seem to remember being told in 4th grade at Hillside Elementary that Niskayuna meant "Land of Much Corn", which is more or less the same as "extensive corn flats". Either way, given the current number of farms in ole' Nisky it is a humorous name nowadays.

Emily said...

I've heard the high taxes joke too.:)

I was taught the name mean field of golden corn.

Robert Plante said...

Niskayuna, where I'm moving to in a week or two, is a nice suburb of the city of Schenectady, and sits between it and the town of Colonie (where the historic Shaker settlement still stands, right next to Albany International Airport). The taxes are in line with other suburban communities: lower than the cities, but higher than Colonie.

Lansingburgh, where I grew up, is the oldest section of Rensselaer County, and was later incorporated into the city of Troy. It was a nice, mainly Irish blue-collar neighborhood, but has gone downhill in the last few years, which is terrible, because so much of the architecture is beautiful.