Finger Lakes waterfall
Finger Lakes waterfall by ruffin_ready via Flickr

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.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. 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

  2. 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??!

  3. 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.

    1. 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 …

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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]

  7. 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.

    1. Thanks, Julie – exciting to get a report from the Finger Lakes region! And what a great name to pass down to your daughter. 🙂