If the Social Security Administration tallied up variant spellings, Annalee would be one of the fastest rising names of our era. Is this just an extreme respelling? Or is she a completely separate choice with an intriguing history?
Thanks to Caitlin for suggesting Onnolee as our Baby Name of the Day.
In 2011, oodles of girls answered to some version of Annalee. Besides the obvious – and most popular – smoosh spelling, there’s also:
- Analee, Anali, Annalie, Annaly, Annali, and Annalea were all given to two dozen girls or more.
- In the real rarities category, we find Analie, Analea, Anely, Annelie, Annalei, and Aneli.
- With the letter O, ten girls were named Onalee.
So it would be easy to dismiss Onnolee as just another venture in creative respellings, save for this: she’s been around for ages.
Legend has it that Onnolee was an Indian princess, living in New York, in the Finger Lakes region. Onnolee was a member of the Munsee nation, and by most accounts, the last living member of her people after a neighboring tribe attacked. Onnolee was spared, taken as a prize by the chief of the rival tribe. Instead of meekly accepting her fate, Onnolee stabbed her captor, and ran. At Hemlock Lake, she jumped to her own death. It’s said to have happened in the 1300s.
Nineteenth century poet W.H.C. Hosmer wrote about Onnolee, as well as many other Native American stories from history and legend. Local ghost stories insisted that Onnolee continued to haunt the lake. If you lived in the Finger Lakes region, Onnolee was almost certainly perceived as a romantic, poetic name.
While Onnolee never cracked the US Top 1000, census records show steady use, especially in New York state in the early twentieth century. Farther back in history, Onnolee seems to have been used even farther afield. Could I be missing an earlier popular telling of the story?
Let’s stick around New York for a minute, because here’s where it gets really interesting. The fictional land where Puff the Magic Dragon and little Jackie Paper frolicked in the autumn mist was called Honalee. Get this – the Peter, Paul, and Mary folk song was from a verse written by Lenny Lipton. Lipton and Peter Yarrow were acquaintances at Cornell University when Lipton wrote the poem and Yarrow adapted it for music. Cornell is located in Ithaca, New York, smack in the middle of the Finger Lakes region.
So Onnolee (and Honalee) were definitely in the air in New York, and had been for ages. But is Onnolee a legitimate Native American name from the 1400s? Maybe, but only if an awful lot of whisper-down-the-alley took place. On- seems like a plausible first syllable, but the rest seems Anglicized. The same process that transformed Lechaweki to Lehigh and Minisink to Munsee could have smoothed a less approachable name.
Overall, Onnolee is a romantic choice for a daughter – old-fashioned, with ties to legend, poetry, and the history of New York state. Making a case for her as a legitimate Native American name is a stretch. But if you find her on your family tree or if your family’s history traces back to the region, she’s the kind of gem to consider reviving.
onnoleigh sweetman says
My name is Onnoleigh and I am named after Onnolee of Canadice lake whom you’ve written about above. My mom decided to americanize the spelling. Our house overlooked Canadice lake in the finger lakes. So grateful to my mom for a such a wonderful and unique name. As a child I swore Puff was singing about me and now I can prove it! lol
What a cool story, Onnoleigh! Thank you for sharing.
My daughter is named Onalee (b. 2016) after my grandmother Katharine Onalee (b. 1932) who was named after her grandmother Jessie Onalee. We are all from western NY near Conesus lake. My grandmother was aware of the poem written by Mr. Hosmer about the Indian maiden Onnolee and I recently just learned that he was actually from my very small hometown (approx 2000 people)… what are the odds??!
My mothers name is Onalee ( on – a – lee). Some in her family pronounced her name like on lee. It’s a unique name. I have known 2 others by that name. They are all deceased now. It’s an older name for sure.
This is a beautiful name, if I’m pronouncing it correctly. Is it On-o-lee? Thanks!
I believe so – but it’s so rare that I’m not 100% certain, either! Just going off the pronunciation from the song, more than anything …
Donnolee Oare says
My name is Donnolee. I was named after my grandmother, Onnolee (b1910). My parents added the D because I have two older sisters with names beginning with D. My family is from the Mohawk Valley area of upstate New York.
My aunts name was Onolee.She was born on Oct 24th 1915 and died Oct 24th 1983.I never got to meet her but her name always stuck out to me.She died in brockport new york.
Martin NYC says
My family came across this post and just shared it with me and I’m so glad they did. As the grandson of an Onnolee, (b 1906) and now the father of an Onnolee (b 2009) whom we named after her – it’s a very special to us and the mystery around the origins adds to the charm. This is the most info on the name that we’ve found in one place, including the replies. So thanks to everyone for that. My grandmother grew up in Ohio, but the story we know is that she was named for a teenage Cherokee girl, Onnolee, who lived with their family as an au pair, and came from Pennsylvania. Can’t help but wonder if Julie’s grandmother came from that area as the dates happen to align. Coincidentally, I grew up in the Finger Lakes region, but now live in NYC.
Can’t help to wonder if we aren’t related. since my paternal family came from Springwater NY which is where Hemlock Lake starts more or less and there is more than one Onnolle in our [now deceased] ancestors…and my Great Grandmother was a half breed [her words not mine]
My grandmother, born 1888, was named Onnolee. My daughter, born 2008, is named Onnolee. We live 2 miles from Conesus Lake – the most western of the Finger Lakes. 🙂 I can name at least 2 other Onnolee’s from this area, both born in the 1800’s.
Thanks, Julie – exciting to get a report from the Finger Lakes region! And what a great name to pass down to your daughter. 🙂
As the only Onnolee under the age of sixty that I’ve ever known, this is very exciting.
I love interesting names attached to folklore and legend, and Onnolee is very pretty.
Laura Rose says
First thing I thought of was Puff the Magic Dragon, which is now stuck in my head.
I think I like Annelie (et. al.) better.
Wow what an amazing story and piece of Americana! I did immediately think of Puff the Magic Dragon, although I always assumed the place’s name was supposed to be based on the word “honour”. (Which Onnolee does sound like).
I did a quick Google, and saw there is a Native American model with this name.
Having lived near Hanalei, HI several years ago, many thought that Puff’s hometown Honalee is actually meant to be the town of Hanalei. Those who think this may believe the Peter Paul & Mary song is a metaphor for……ahem, something else!
I like the sound of Hanalei better myself, but Onnolee is pretty!
For many years my family owned a summer house in the 1000 Islands region of Upstate New York. The house was named Onnalee for the daughter of one of the previous owners. The house was built in the 1800s. It is a beautiful, romantic name and I would be proud to have a granddaughter by that name one day.
I’m going to agree with everyone above me. Onnolee has a romantic (however tragic) feel about it and I love the connections to Puff the Magic Dragon 🙂
Illustrating the way this name might have evolved, I always imagined Puff the Magic Dragon lived in land called Hannaley.
My favorite variant is the Swedish Anneli, but I have a “thing” for O names, so I find Onnolee simply charming.
Oooo, wonderful! This is a new one for me. I agree, it does have a rather romantic sound.
C in DC says
Great story. This is the area where Skaneateles is said “skinny atlas”, so Onnalee as an adaptation from something else seems practical.
I could see Onnalee as the sister of Evangeline.
S Smith says
My daughter’s name is Onalee Lula, named after both of my grandmothers. If we ever have another girl she will be named Emaline Vera after my husband’s grandmothers…