There is an old myth that refuses to die that the “Coos” in Coos Bay means either ‘lake’ or ‘place of pines’. I’ve written before as to the likely origin of the place name Coos – probably traces back to the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as the Coosan word for ‘south’ (kuukwis). Where the story that Coos could mean lake comes from I have no clue. In both Coos languages, lake is stl’iis or tst’liis. If you can make ‘Coos’ out of those words, you have a far greater imagination than I do!
As to ‘place of pines’…well I may have found where that story comes from. Now, first I should say that in Coos county we only have one species of true pine, the shore pine. I never found the word for it in Milluk but in Hanis it is tsipkw. (Most tree names are the same in Hanis and Milluk, so I would venture to guess that is also true of shore pine). Now, in the 19th century ‘pine’ was often used to refer to most conifers. So if we look at other trees, we have halq and skwatlis for douglas-fir, chishamihl for spruce, tlahaimihl for red cedar, la’lomhl for Port Orford Cedar, ch’emehl for western hemlock… None of these look anything like ‘Coos’ either.
But as it turns out, there is a Coos county that is derived from a word for ‘white pine’. I found it in WIlliam Bright’s “Native American Placenames of the United States”. It just happens to be a Coos county in New Hampshire. This county is pronounced differently – it is two syllables (Co – ahss) and is often spelled Coös, and it comes from the Western Abenaki (Algonquian) word goa meaning ‘white pine’. I can only guess that decades ago someone ran across the New Hampshire place name and misapplied it to our western Coos county.
So, the next time someone brings up the “Coos means place of pines” story you can tell them sure – in New Hampshire, in the Abenaki language.