William Starna (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the State University of New York College at Oneonta) has a fascinating short article on the Origins of the Name Manhattan:
The event is a storied one. In 1626, Peter Minuit purchased a large island at the mouth of the Hudson River from unknown and unnamed although otherwise Munsee-speaking Indians, at a yet undiscovered location, for an equally obscure price. The acquisition has been celebrated by any number of paintings and sketches—all of undeniable invention—but also tarnished by the unmasking of a phony deed of sale. The island’s name, however, is no mystery. Indeed, it is the first native language place name recorded by European interlopers between the Maine coast and Chesapeake Bay. Entered in Robert Juet’s log of Hudson’s third voyage of 1609 and engraved on the 1610 Velasco map are the words Manna-hata, Manahata, and Manahatin—today’s Manhattan. And as is the case with all place names, no matter the original language, attempts have been made to pry meaning from this word’s oldest recorded forms.
Although a comprehensive listing is not offered here, a first effort to find a meaning, a translation of Manhattan, is that of the late-eighteenth-century Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who provided what turns out to be a folk etymology— “the island where we all became intoxicated.” Henry Schoolcraft, an acknowledged authority on Indians, added “people of the whirlpool,” a nod to conditions at the tidal strait called Hell Gate on the East River. J. Hammond Trumball, a philologist of some note out of Connecticut, supplied “island,” echoed some years later by William Wallace Tooker’s “an island” and “a hill island.” Edward Ruttenber, of Hudson Valley history fame and following what others had to say, simply made it the name of the native people who inhabited the island—the Manhattans. Today, however, there is a popular consensus that Manhattan means “land of many hills,” “island of many hills,” or “hilly island.”
In 1907, William Beauchamp, in his notable Aboriginal Place Names of New York, summarized all that was known at the time of Manhattan’s meaning, adding, however, an 1885 account by a Delaware Indian that “Manahatouh” (Man-ă-hă-tonh in the original) was a place where wood to fashion bows and arrows could be found. This Delaware, Albert Anthony, as linguist Ives Goddard tells us, knew full well the meaning of Manhattan as rendered in Munsee, his native language. Educated at Huron College in London, Ontario, Anthony was ordained an Anglican priest in 1873. In the 1880s he worked with ethnologist Daniel Brinton, co-authoring A Lenâpé-English Dictionary (Philadelphia, 1889). Still, what Anthony had offered became lost among the many guesses, misattributions, and inventions where place names are vulnerable to distortion and corruption. But thanks to Anthony, and most recently an expert historical and linguistic analysis by Ives Goddard, beginning with the three original early-seventeenth-century versions of the word “Manhattan,” it can confidently be said that it carries the meanings: “where one gathers the wood to make bows”; “place for gathering the wood to make bows”; and “at the place for gathering the wood to make bows.” As Goddard reminds us, “The true word recovers the true history.
“Information drawn from Ives Goddard, “The Origin and Meaning of the Name ‘Manhattan,’” New York History 92, 4 (2010): 277–293.