Peculiar Names: Cocalico

Lancaster County is full of communities with peculiar names. This series examines their curious etymology. Next up: Cocalico.


Today, Cocalico is the name of a creek, a village, two townships, and a school district here in Lancaster County, Pa. Interesting side note. Before 1838, East and West Cocalico were combined as one township, Cocalico, at the founding of Lancaster County in 1729. According to the East Cocalico Township website, the township took its name from the Cocalico Creek and an indigenous village that was present when the first European settlers arrived.

Almost everyone agrees that the word Cocalico is Native American in origin. What is up for debate is the word’s exact meaning.

Spoiler Alert! They all involve snakes, just with subtle variations.

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

Lenape Word – Koch-Hale-Kung

Several sources explain that Cocalico is the anglicization of the Lenape (or Delaware) word “Koch-Hale-Kung,” meaning “den of serpents.” Apparently, an abundance of these reptiles along the creek suggested the waterway’s name. Another version says it means “where the snakes collect in dens to pass the winter.” Not very romantic, but probably realistic.

Lenape Word – Gookcalicunk

Other resources suggest Cocalico comes from a different Lenape word “Gookcalicunk” (pronounced “Gook Cal-eek Unk), which means “snake sleep place” in English. These Native Americans considered modern East Cocalico, West Cocalico, Clay, Warwick, Elizabeth, and Penn townships in Lancaster County, Mill Creek Township in Lebanon County, and the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area as part of Gookcalicunk.

Nahuatl Word – Coacalco 

On January 11, 2023, I attended Paul Nevin’s Ancient Carvings on the Susquehanna presentation at the Zimmerman Center. It was during this fascinating lecture that Nevin dropped an intelligential bombshell. There is a Mesoamerican language, spoken by the Aztecs and dating back to the seventh century, called Nahuatl. They have a word, Coacalco, which means “at the house of the snake.” The name was first recorded in 1320. Coacalco looks a lot like Cocalico, right!?!

Slide from Paul Nevin’s January 11 petroglyphs presentation.

As the bird flies, Coacalco de Berriozábal, Mexico, is about 2,000 miles away from Cocalico, Pennsylvania. So at that distance it would seem that any similarity would be nothing more than a coincidence. But according to Nevin, the distance might have less to do with flying birds and more with the flight of an arrow, specifically four of them.

Nevin shared the “Legend of the Four Arrows.” In this Aztec myth, four warriors shot an arrow in a different direction from the top of a sacred mountain. These warriors then embarked on a multi-generational journey in the direction of their arrow, exploring the new lands as they went.

At Safe Harbor, there is a boulder in the river with two footprints carved in it facing towards the mouth of the Conestoga River. Nevin estimates the petroglyph to be between 800 and 1,200 years old. A line drawn from this spot points directly at the eventual headwaters of the Cocalico Creek and the “place where snakes spend the winter.”

Slide from Paul Nevin’s January 11 petroglyphs presentation.

Could there be some truth to this ancient legend? Did Mezoamericans travel to the Susquehanna and eventually the Cocalico Creek more than 1,000 years ago?

Keep in mind that Nevin did not present this information as fact. Just something to ponder. I know I have been thinking about it since Wednesday’s presentation.

French Word – Coquelicot

Coquelicots by Robert Vonnoh, 1890.

My research did uncover one mention that the name may have been derived from the French word “coquelicot,” meaning poppy. While the flower is native to parts of Pennsylvania, I am unsure if they were ever indigenous to this region of the Commonwealth. Perhaps a horticulturist will provide some insight in the comment section below.


Now you can own a beautiful reproduction map of East and West Cocalico Townships from 1864 through 1899.

Want to Learn More?

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Peculiar Names: Mount Joy

Lancaster County is full of communities with peculiar names. This series examines their curious etymology. Up next: Mount Joy. The town takes its name not from some nearby mountainous peak but from a 17th-century ship that saved the city of Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Click the link to read the full story.

Peculiar Names: Intercourse

1851 Map of Lancaster County.

Lancaster County has several towns with peculiar names. This series examines their curious etymology. Next up: Intercourse. Stop your giggling! It probably doesn’t mean the first thing that comes to mind. Here are four theories behind the name.

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