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Coney Island Gets Its Name

Coney Island How Coney Island got its name remains a mystery, though theorists have drawn explanations from almost every stage of its history.

A 1924 manuscript finds the answer in the pre-Columbian era, stating that the island was once inhabited by the Konoh, or Bear, tribe, a name that was eventually corrupted to become "Coney." Another theory traces the name to the arrival of Henry Hudson in New York Harbor in 1609. By this account, Hudson's right-hand man, John Coleman, was killed by Indians, leading to the name Coleman's Island in his honor.

The Dutch settled Manhattan in 1624 and inhabited Coney Island soon afterward. Since the Dutch word for rabbit was "konijn" and the island had a large population of wild rabbits, many have supposed this fact to have led to the name. One variation of this theory is less flattering to the Europeans: when the Dutch battled the Indian inhabitants there, they are supposed to have said that their enemies "ran like rabbits."

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the Dutch, or the English after them, used any word resembling "Coney" for several centuries. On early maps, the Indian name "Narrioch" is given for the Western portion of the island that later became specifically known as Coney Island. Over the years, the three or more islets that eventually converged to become a single island were more likely to appear on maps with names such as "Pine Island," "Pelican Island," and "Sedge Bank." Not until 1816 does a treatise on place names in New York ascribe "Conyn," a Dutch surname, to the island. The assumption is that the Conyns were a family of early settlers, although there is no evidence to support this idea, either.

There is considerable evidence, however, that the name Coney Island came into use in the first half of the 19th century, after a ferry service was instituted to carry passengers across Coney Island Creek, at the time a waterway separating the island from mainland Brooklyn. This is consistent with another theory, not often mentioned along with the others, but compelling nonetheless.

According to an article published in the "Sligo Champion," an Irish captain named Peter O'Connor sailed the schooner Arethusa between New York and Ireland in the late 1700s, and named Coney Island after an island that lay a mere mile from his home in Sligo. This Coney Island was, and is, about one mile long and about half a mile wide -- much like the American version.

Not only is the timing right for O'Connor to lay claim to the name, his nationality fits as well. In the early 19th century, Tammany Hall, New York's corrupt and predominantly Irish political machine, began to send its more ignoble operators out to Coney Island. It is reasonable to imagine these settlers reaching for a familiar name from their homeland for the location.

Of course, even if O'Connor did indeed supply the name, he could not have foreseen the irony in doing so. The Irish island, at its peak, had some 200 people living on it (and by 1960 had only 11), while the American one would go on to be crammed with millions.

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