At first glance county names in Pennsylvania seem simple. The state has a Washington and a Jefferson county, the usual suspects in the long dead president category. Centre, even if spelled like it should be located outside of London, is right where it is supposed to be in the center of the state. Head east and York, Lancaster, Berks, Bucks and Northampton breathe the spirit of homesick Englishmen, even if they were largely settled by Germans and the descendants of Germans.
But what the heck's a "Lehigh?"
True, it is a river, along with being a college, a county and, in the form of Lehigh Valley, a geographical expression. And every other business seems to try to fit the word, "Lehigh," into its name. But where did this word come from? Well, to know, we have to start at the beginning. And in the Lehigh Valley that means the Native Americans, the Lenni Lenape or the Delaware tribe.
It all began when Moravian missionaries tried to find out what the Lenape called the river that ran into the Delaware. And as the Native Americans had no written language all the missionaries could do is write down what they thought they heard the Lenape saying. The result, according to Wesley Dunn, Director of Education at the Museum of Indian Culture, was Lehanweking, This word was later corrupted a number of ways, most commonly as Lechauweki. No matter the spelling, Lehanweking / Lechauweki was later translated into English as "where there are forks."
Even here, as the professors say, sources differ. Did it mean where the Lehigh "forks" into the Delaware? Or did it mean where a series of trails or streams forked off of the Lehigh in different directions? There is a school of thought that believes "Lechauweki" actually means both.
But "Lechauweki" is still a far word from "Lehigh." And here is where the real fun starts.
According to most sources, it was the Pennsylvania Germans who took "Lechauweki" and shortened it to "Lecha." From here it was simply transformed into "Lehigh." Yet going back to the original sources, there is a lot more history to it than that. In the words of the late Casey Stangel, (a baseball manager before your time, boys and girls) "you could look it up."
On March 31, 1701, the Governor's Council of the colony of Pennsylvania-- Governor William Penn presiding--was meeting in Philadelphia. The minutes show that one of chief items on the agenda was keeping a rather ambitious fur trader of Swedish descent, John Hans Steelman, (the Swedish government had established a colony called New Sweden in the future Delaware/ Pennsylvania border region as early as the 1640s), from trading with the Lenape without a license. License fees were a source of revenue for his colony and Penn was particularly sensitive on this point. The minutes state Steelman wanted to establish his trading site "at Lechay or ye forks of Delaware."
It did not end there. On April 12, 1701, Penn, apparently at the end of his supply of friendly persuasion, express his frustration in a letter to Steelman. He wrote that he had "stopt thy goods intended for Lechay, till...thou come hither thyself and give further Satisfaction that thou hast yet dome to thy friend, W.P." The record suggests the fur trader never did.
These two documents are generally considered the first written examples of the word that became Lehigh. "Ye forks of Delaware," was the future site of Easton, which will not be established until 1752 by Penn's son Thomas.
Now the plot thickens. The year 1701 was about 40 years before the first Moravian missionaries arrived in Pennsylvania. Yet something like the root word of Lehigh was already being bandied about by the governing class of Pennsylvania. So was it actually Steelman or some other fur trader, maybe Holland Dutchman from New Netherland, now New York, who turned the Lechauweki of the Lenape into Lechay? At this distance of time, it is impossible to know.
So that puts us on the banks of the "Lechay" or "Lecha." But how to get from there to "Lehigh?"
Well, that brings in the English. For a long time, almost up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, they were referring to the river on their maps as the "western branch of ye Delaware."
But apparently by the in the 1760s that had begun to change. James Allen, third son of Allentown founder William Allen and owner of Trout Hall, writes phonetically of the "Lehi" river.
Perhaps our current word came about this way. There is an old English word, "leigh." Pronounced "lee," it is said to have Saxon roots and mean "meadow" or "clearing in the woods."
Many very ancient towns in England include Leigh, in their names. Maybe hearing "Lachay" or "Lecha," the English heard echoes of an ancient word that was familiar to them.
As the masters of Penn's Woods, they may have made it, "Lehigh." And maybe that's as far as we are ever to get in knowing what the heck a "Lehigh" is.