The most valuable source of authentic old Cherokee legends is the work of Mooney in his Myths of the Cherokee. These legends are widely available on the Internet, and I have no intention of repeating more than occasional excerpts when they are relevant to local place names.
Here is one that is of interest to us in examining place names of Cherokee origin:
“A long time ago the people of the old town of Kanu’ga`lâ’yï (“Brier place,” or Briertown), on Nantahala river, in the present Macon county, North Carolina, were much annoyed by a great insect called U’la`gû’, as large as a house, which used to come from some secret hiding place, and darting swiftly through the air, would snap up children from their play and carry them away. It was unlike any other insect ever known, and the people tried many times to track it to its home, but it was too swift to be followed.
They killed a squirrel and tied a white string to it, so that its course could be followed with the eye, as bee hunters follow the flight of a bee to its tree. The U’la`gû’ came and carried off the squirrel with the string hanging to it, but darted away so swiftly through the air that it was out of sight in a moment. They killed a turkey and put a longer white string to it, and the U’la`gû’ came and took the turkey, but was gone again before they could see in what direction it flew. They took a deer ham and tied a white string to it, and again the U’la`gû’ swooped down and bore it off so swiftly that it could not be followed. At last they killed a yearling deer and tied a very long white string to it. The U’la`gû’ came again and seized the deer, but this time the load was so heavy that it had to fly slowly and so low down that the string could be plainly seen.
The hunters got together for the pursuit. They followed it along a ridge to the east until they came near where Franklin now is, when, on looking across the valley to the other side, they saw the nest of the U’la`gû’ in a large cave in the rocks. On this they raised a great shout and made their way rapidly down the mountain and across to the cave. The nest had the entrance below with tiers of cells built up one above another to the roof of the cave. The great U’la`gû’ was there, with thousands of smaller ones, that we now call yellow-jackets. The hunters built fires around the hole, so that the smoke filled the cave and smothered the great insect and multitudes of the smaller ones, but others which were outside the cave were not killed, and these escaped and increased until now the yellow-jackets, which before were unknown, are all over the world. The people called the cave Tsgâgûñ’yï, “Where the yellow-jacket was,” and the place from which they first saw the nest they called A`tahi’ta, “Where they shouted,” and these are their names today.”
Tsgâgûñ’yï, which I would now write as Tsgogvyi, did not actually mean “where the yellow-jacket was”; it comes from the word “tsgoya,” which is a generic term for any sort of bug, insect, or worm. In this case, the insect was the giant yellow jacket.
Nor did “U’la`gû’” actually mean “yellow jacket”; it meant something rather like “the leader” or “the chief” or “the main one,” seeing that the giant yellow jacket was the original member of its kind, from which all the others derived. These days, it might be better spelled “U’ la guh’.” accented on the first and last syllables. From that word came the name of Oologah, Oklahoma; Will Rogers was born near the present town, on 4 November 1879.
“A`tahi’ta” is now known as Wayah Gap ["Wolf Gap"].
Cherokee Place Names, Part 7
During 400 years of white contact, the names of more than 200 Cherokee settlements were recorded. Most of them were clustered along rivers and other streams.
A teacher who had read some of my articles told her students that the Cherokee word for a creek is “Gusa,” and she cited me as the authority.
But, the word for a creek is “u-we-yv’ i,” and a Creek Indian is “Agusa,” shortened to Gusa and rendered Coosa in modern place names. A Creek is not a creek!
Still, a connection does exist. British traders in the 17th Century did a fair amount of repeat business with a small tribe of Muskogean-speakers whose town was on a creek of the upper Ocmulgee River. The tribe was the Ochesee, so the creek became known as Ochesee Creek. We are not sure of the location of the creek, but my guess is that it may have been somewhere in or near what is now Newton County, Georgia. In time, the Ochesee came to be called “the Creek” Indians.
Before long, of course, these Creek Indians had to move further west toward the Chattahoochee. Spread across from there into Alabama and northward were at least six dozen other small tribes, all loosely allied for mutual preservation since before the white men came. The entire collection became generically the “Creek” Indians, the Creek Confederacy. They spoke at least 8 or 10 different languages, so they were not exactly monolithic.
Most Indians in the southeastern U.S. built their settlements along or near streams. The towns were named from legendary or mythical events said to have occurred at this or that place on the stream, or they came from some natural feature of the location.
Rivers and creeks had only generic names: e-gwo-ni, river; a-we-yv-i, creek; it never occurred to anyone to give a stream its own personal name. Instead, streams may have had a dozen place names along their lengths, like strings of many-colored beads. And, it was from some of the more prominent beads that white people gave the streams the names we see on our maps today. Of course, sometimes any important river was addressed ceremonially as “Asgaya Gvnahita,” meaning “Long Man.”
I have reason to think that the Oconee River, in Georgia, takes its name from e-gwo-ni (river), but I cannot be certain of that; there was once a Creek band called the Okonee who may have lived on the river. There is better evidence that Aquone, North Carolina, on Rowland Branch near the Nantahala River, is another version of the river word.
Further to the east, the Oconaluftee River flows through the Eastern Cherokee Reservation; a town on it was called Egwonulati, from e-gwo-ni plus nu-la-ti ["beside"]. In speech, the name became Egwonul’ti, the eclipsed “a” becoming a nearly aspirated sound that made the name sound to those not fluent in Cherokee as “Uhquonulfti,” which came out as Oconaluftee [pronounced "oh-KOH-na-LUFF-tee"]. A fairly good modern translation of the old town name would be “Riverside.” The present town of Tsisquohi [Birdtown] is on about the same site.
Not far north of the Oconaluftee Indian Village is Mount Stand Watie, named in honor of the famous Cherokee Confederate general. Watie, who was born in the town of Oothcaloga–where Calhoun, Georgia, now is–was the only American Indian to rise to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederacy, and he was also the last Confederate general to surrender at the end of the Civil War. His name derives ultimately from Uweti, “Old (Person),” his father’s name. Watie’s Cherokee name was Degatoga , which can be translated roughly as “they two stand close together,” the shortened translation of which was Stand. Watie was also the principal chief of the Western Cherokee at the same time—1862-1866, to be precise. [One possible translation of Degatoga is "blood brothers," those who stand shoulder-to-shoulder in battle and life.]
There was also one American Indian brigadier general on the Union side, Ely Parker, a Seneca. After the war, President Grant appointed Parker to the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs; he was the first non-white to hold that position.
Oconee County, South Carolina, on the other hand, is named for Ukwuni, a Cherokee town on Seneca Creek. No one remembers the meaning of U-kwu’ni. A well-made 1775 map shows the town was called Aconnee by the cartographer; it lay on a tributary of the Sennekaw River.
Seneca, South Carolina, takes its name from the once-important Cherokee town of Isuniga, or Sennekaw, which was near the junction of Coneross Creek and what used to be the Keowee River before it became Lake Keowee. The meaning of I-su-ni-ga has been forgotten, but it has nothing at all to do with the Seneca Indians of New York. I suspect that it was taken from the Catawba language and its original meaning may have been the Catawba name for a tributary of the Savannah River.
Seeing that so many of the original Indian place names can no longer be translated, we can be fairly certain that creative local chambers of commerce will devise some clever meanings, no doubt coupled with tales of warriors and forbidden loves and that sort of thing.
Now, we would assume that Coneross Creek must surely get its name from some historic site in Scotland or Ireland, but not so. Coneross is an English perversion of the name of a place on the creek, Ka-wo-na-u-lo-sv [yi], but from the now extinct Cherokee dialect which had a “r” sound instead of the “l” of the surviving dialects. It was pronounced roughly “ka-wo-nu-ro-sv,” and it came from the word for “duck,” kawona, and “where it fell,” urosvyi. The story is that a duck had a nest in a cave high above the water, so that when she left the cave, she seemed to fall into the water. There is some indication that a small settlement, Kawonurosv, may have been nearby, but I have not found it among any historical lists of Cherokee towns. Coneross is pronounced “Conna-ross” these days.
One settlement not so far away was called Kuwahiyi, from ku-wa-hi, a place with a good stand of mulberry trees. Its name meant “mulberry grove place.” Two towns bore this name: the first was a major one, now lying beneath the waters of Lake Keowee, and the other was somewhere between what are now Pickens and Easley, South Carolina. Poor English pronunciation of the first one led to the name of the Keowee River. Keowee is pronounced “KEE-uh-wee” by those who live near it.
Before the white people came, the Cherokee had two principal sources of sweetener. The obvious one was honey. The word for honeybee, in modern Cherokee, is wadulisi. By extension, it also means honey and even sorghum molasses.
The other sweetener was the sweet gum between the seeds in the large pods of honey locust, kalasetsi [Gleditsia triacanthos].
Nowadays, in the more modern form kalseji, the word is used for both sugar and candy; many speakers no longer know about the tree. A few miles to the east of Franklin, North Carolina, was the site of the old Cherokee village of Kalsetsiyi “honey locust place,” for which the Cullasaja community and the Cullasaja River, with its beautiful gorge, are named. The Cullasaja [pronounced "Culla say ja"] River joins the Little Tennessee at Franklin. There is a Sugar Fork Church in the Cullasaja community; I think it probably took its name from a translation of the Cherokee word. A good English equivalent of Kalsetsiyi ["Kulsage" in some old documents] is Sugar Town, and that name appears in places in many documents referring to Cullasaja. There used to be a Sugartown Creek close to Morganton, near the site of another Kalsetsiyi, but I believe it was swallowed by Blue Ridge Lake.
The honey locust is a close relative of mesquite [Prosopis spp.], which was long used by the Southwestern U.S. Indians in the same way the Cherokee used the honey locust. Mesquite flour is now available commercially. The sugar present in both mesquite and the honey locust is primarily fructose, which carries a lower glycemic load than sucrose.
There is a Cullasaja Branch that empties into Alarka Creek, near Alarka, North Carolina. There does not exist any record of a Kalsetsiyi in that location, so far as I can determine. The Alarka community and the creek name comes from the Cherokee word Yalo’gi, the meaning of which is not known.
Another lost word is Tuksitsi [a form of tsiksitsi], an old Cherokee village name. It lay near the forks of the Tuckasegee River, where there is now the Tuckasegee community. Locally, the pronunciation is “Tucka say gee.” There is some indication that the name is connected with the diamondback terrapin [Malaclemys terrapin], called daksi in modern Cherokee, but I don’t have any positive evidence on that point.
The Briartown community in northern Macon County, North Carolina, and Briertown Mountain, nearby in Swain County, got their name from the Cherokee town of Kanu’galo’yi, ["brier place"]. The Cherokee word kanuga was the name given to the ritual “scratcher” used by medicine people to prepare players for the ball play. In the form kanugala, it was the general name for all sorts of sorts of brier-laden berry bushes and vines. Probably somewhere near Pigeon Gap, in Haywood County, there was said to be a Cherokee town which was called Kanuga ["scratcher"]; it has left onomastic descendants in Lake Kanuga and Camp Kanuga, among others.
In Georgia’s Gilmer County is the community of Tickanetley, near Tickanetley Creek. A short distance to the northwest is Tickanetley Bald, near Rich Mountain. Somewhere on the creekside was the old Cherokee settlement of Tekanitli. No one is sure of the location, and I cannot be sure of the derivation of the name, but I can tell you that it is suspiciously like the Cherokee word di-ga-ne-tli, the plural form of the word for a bed. I think the town may have taken its name from the presence of good expanses ["beds"] of some kind of useful plant. This is just one of those mysteries that will likely never have a final solution.