In November of 2015, then state senator Ted Kennedy Jr., then in his first elected term, announced he was looking to start the process to rename a rock outcropping and buoy in Long Island Sound just off the Branford shoreline, referred to on nautical maps as “Negro Heads.”
The proposal became the hot topic at the time, with many in support and many questioning the use of a state senators time. And Kennedy did not suggest a new name, instead, he initiated a townwide process to have students propose names and the reason for them.
It took some time, but in early 2017 is appeared Kennedy had his new name: Sowheag Rocks, named in honor of Native American Chief Sowheag. Sowheag was a chieftain in the 17th century.
A press conference was held, and all were happy. The winning student and two runners-up were given state citations and a small scholarship. All was right in the world.
Well, maybe not.
It turns out renaming a geographical landmark is not so easy. This is government, after all.
After it was pointed out on social media that the original name still was in place on some maps, state representative Sean Scanlon began looking into the matter.
Scanlons research showed that the application would be made to the United States Board on Geographic Names once the state approved it, but that the application was delayed in 2017 as the new name was opposed by the Native American Community.
In a response to the proposed new name, the Connecticut Native American Heritage Advisory Council showed support for changing the previous name, but not for the name “Sowheag Rocks.”
“We also whole-heartedly support renaming the rocks to honor or remind people of the indigenous peoples in the area (then and now). We do not, however, support the name “Sowheag Rocks,” simply because it isn’t geographically consistent with Branford. Sowheag was a Wangunk man. The Wangunks’ traditional homelands are in the area of what we now call Middletown and that part of the Connecticut River.
“The Branford area is the traditional homelands of the Totoket Quinnipiacs. NAHAC supports giving the rocks a name that is consistent with the local indigenous peoples.”
With a new consensus among the Native American groups, Edith Pestana, of the Environmental Justice Program, was able to get support for a formal application, which was then approved by the CT Geographic Names Authority, and then filed in late 2019 with the US Board of Geographic Names late last year.
The filing included the new name for the rocks, Totoket Bar. Earlier this year, the name change was formally approved. As a new geographic name, it appears immediately in updates of the Geographic Names Information System or GNIS, and the Federal Geographic Names Information System database.
While the name has been changed, it may not show up on older software or navigation devices.
So, as we stand now, the navigational buoy and rocks are known as Totoket Bar. For the three winners in the naming contest, they were, at the very least, part of a process to remove a racist name from a landmark. Interestingly, it was the second place finisher in that essay contest, then-freshman Samantha Esposito, who proposed “Totoket Settlers Rock.”
Despite the lengthy process, Scanlon was pleased it took place.
"I credit Ted Kennedy and all involved on changing what was clearly a racist name and starting the process," he said. "It needed to be changed, and I commend all the students who took part in the process."