My current client was born in Jamaica, New York, in the 1930s, when 138 languages were spoken there, according to the comptroller. Since I knew that the Irish and Dutch had settled much of New York, including Long Island, I went searching for how Jamaica, New York got its name. One thing I knew ahead of time is that it could not have been named for a Caribbean nation.
By the 1930s, Jamaica had been a borough of New York City, a Queens neighborhood, the county seat, and the first incorporated village on Long Island.
But before Long Island was occupied by the British and the Dutch and given a new name, it was inhabited–as you might imagine–by Native Americans who lived and hunted in among its swamps and streams. What today is Jamaica Avenue covers an ancient path the natives had used since at least the 1500s.
On Long Island, there were thirteen different tribes belonging to the Delaware people, including the Canarsie and Rockaway tribes, who lived in the area now called Jamaica. Several stories surround the current name, but the one I find most authentic arises from documents the local park service has archived. They say that local tribes referred to the area Yameco, after the abundant beaver in its swamps and streams. When the Dutch settled the area we now call New York in 1656, naming it New Amsterdam, they gave all the places Dutch names. In Jamaica, it is said that the Dutch adopted the name they heard the local Native Americans call it, giving it a Dutch spelling and using a “j” for what they heard as a “y” sound. And that’s how Jamaica, NY got its name.