The Cherokee came from more northerly areas, gradually pushing smaller tribes and the many Muskogean speakers to the south and west, as we have mentioned elsewhere. The Muskogean tribes came to be known as the Creeks. When the Cherokee took their towns and lands, many of the place names were kept and pronounced in Cherokee language forms.
It is quite possible that the Creek tribes were descendants of the Mound Builders. The Cherokee used the mounds, but they reported that the mounds were already present when they arrived.
Those who know much more about Muskogean dialects and languages than I do tell me some of the things which follow here. There are some who claim that many others of the Cherokee place names which do have meanings in the Cherokee language are also of Muskogean origin. In general, I do not agree, but I am willing to listen and to learn.
I think Coweta, Coosa, Chattooga, Etowah, Euharlee and Eufaula, and Suwanee are likely of Creek origin, their names taken over and converted to Cherokee sounds. Perhaps many of the place names we have given in this blog that have no Cherokee meaning were just Cherokee adaptations of the original Muskogean names. Just as white people have taken over old Cherokee places and have adapted their names to English sounds, similarly did the Cherokee before them. Others believe that Cowee and Keowee may be different versions of an original Creek name.
Chattahoochee is originally a Creek word, Chatu-huchi, which is said to mean “painted rocks.” Tugaloo is said to come from a Creek word meaning “freckled people.” I am told that Chauga is a Creek word for a kind of tree, and that Nottely is from their word for “people on the other side.” As I have mentioned elsewhere, Tallulah may indeed come from a Creek word “talua” or “taliwa” meaning “town”; the same root occurs in Talasee and Tallahassee. Both of the last two contain the element “ahassee,” which meant “old” in some of the Creek dialects. The river Oconee, perhaps even Oconee County [SC], may take its name from one of the Creek tribes, the Okonee.
During the great turmoil that arose in the early years after the coming of white people, many small tribes became fragmented and absorbed into the Cherokee and Creek and Catawba and other tribes. Tracing the names of places first occupied by some of these smaller tribes is likely to remain nearly impossible. I will keep an open mind and learn what I can from the available information.
The following comments have been received from Richard Thornton, who is the author of several books on the indigenous peoples of the southeastern U.S., with especial emphasis on the Muskogean and related tribes. I quote his message to me:
“Talula is the Hitchiti word for town. Hitchiti was the dialect spoken by most Creeks in Georgia.
Tugaloo (dug-u-lu or le) is the Cherokee pronunciation of the Hitchiti words for “Spotted People.”
Nottely is the Hitchiti words for ‘People on the other side (of the mountain).’
Hiwassee means “Copperhead People” in Hitchiti and Kowasati.
Chauga (Chauka) means black locust in Hitchiti.
Chota means frog in Hitchit and Muskogee.”
Cherokee Place Names, Part 3
The meanings of some of the old Cherokee place names were long since lost to the Cherokee themselves when the white people came. Perhaps a few bear traces of the languages of the people who preceded the Cherokee, for the Cherokee arrived in the Southeast about 3000 to 3500 years ago [at about the same time Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt]. Others names were taken by the Cherokee from neighboring tribes such as the Creeks and Catawbas. In our area are quite a few place names that are very likely to be Cherokee or Cherokee-influenced, but which I have not been able to pin down with certainty, seeing that I like to do much more than just guess or speculate. For examples, consider these names: Waleska, Cartecay, Noontootla, Talona, and even Chenocetah. Perhaps someone who reads this article will have more historical information on these names than I do and will be good enough to pass it on to me.
Along the way, we need to correct some false translations, too. The colorful “translations” often given by localities of their names’ origins are sometimes grossly incorrect. Some samples:
TOCCOA: We have both the Toccoa River and the city of Toccoa in our area. And, there is Toccoa Falls. While none of us will deny that these places are beautiful, the Cherokee word from which the name is taken decidedly does not mean “beautiful.” [The word for "beautiful" is "uwoduhi."] Among the most lasting enemies of the Cherokee were the Catawba Indians. When the white men came, the Catawba lived in the region about what is now Rock Hill, South Carolina. The Cherokee word for Catawba was “A-ta-qua,” often shortened to “Ta-qua.” Sometimes, Catawba war parties invaded the Cherokee territory, maybe even sometimes trying to set up a Catawba village in the area. The Cherokee did not take kindly to such incursions, and they probably wiped the invaders out completely. Some of the places where memories of finding Catawbas remained were called “Catawba place,” which came out as “Ta-qua-hi” in Cherokee. [The -hi ending has the same meaning as the -yi we have seen before; we can translate it as "place where."] So, Toccoa really means “Catawba place.”
To get some idea of how inimical the Cherokee and Catawba were toward one another, at the turn of the last century, there was at least one older man on the North Carolina Cherokee reservation who bore the name of “Ta-qua-di-hi.” which means “Catawba Killer.”
A few miles north of Toccoa, on the Tugalo River, is Yonah Lake. The river forms a part of the border between Georgia and South Carolina. Yonah, as will be mentioned elsewhere, is from the Cherokee word for “bear.”
Toqua Creek, in Monroe County, Tennessee, appears on some older maps as Toco Creek. Its name has no connection with Toccoa. In Cherokee mythology, there was a giant fish monster called the Dakwa [or Taquo]. One Cherokee settlement near the confluence of Toqua Creek and the Little Tennessee River was called Dakwai [Dakwa place], and the creek takes its name from that town. The site of the town is now submerged in Tellico Lake. Dakwa is used as the name of a small lake near Turniptown Road, in Gilmer County, Georgia, but that does not seem to be for historical reasons. The modern Cherokee word “dakwa” means “whale.”
NACOOCHEE: It is usually said to mean “Evening Star.” That mistake came about because someone who knew a little Cherokee thought it was the same word as “na-qui-si,” which does mean “star.” Actually, the name comes from the old Cherokee town of “Na-gu-tsi,” which was located in Nacoochee Valley, at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. The name of the town has no meaning in Cherokee and was taken by them [probably along with the village itself] from earlier Indians living in the area, hapless people who were pushed further south by the Cherokee. Those Indians may have been the Yuchi, also called the Uchee. We notice that the last two syllables in Nacoochee would agree with that, but there is no way to verify this speculation.
By the way, Chattahoochee is not from Cherokee; it is from a Creek Indian word that meant something like “marked-rocks stream.”
The “Legend of Sautee and Nacoochee” no doubt makes an interesting story for tourists, but it is totally an invention of white people. SAUTEE comes from the Cherokee “I-tsa-ti”; it was the name of several important Cherokee towns, including a special “peace town” on the Soque River not far from Nacoochee Valley, and also of the large Nacoochee mound. “Echota” and “Sautee” are the same name, just rendered differently in English ears. I pronounce Echota as Eh-CHOE-tah; other people often say Eh-CHOE-tuh. Sautee is pronounced locally as SAW-TEE, with about equal emphasis on both syllables.
TALLULAH: It is said to mean “the terrible.” The name may have come from a word meaning “incomplete” or “unfinished”; we will likely never know for sure, but it definitely does not mean “terrible” nor “there lies your child” [as one writer stated long ago]. The Cherokee tended to avoid the Gorge and the great and beautiful falls that were destroyed by the dam built early in the last century; they called the falls “U-gv-yi,” but no one remembers what that meant. In the 1890′s and until the dam wiped out the falls, Tallulah Falls was a very popular and somewhat posh resort area, with several first-class hotels and access by train from Atlanta. I have heard that Senator Bankhead, a Democrat from Alabama, was so impressed by the place that he named his daughter for it; Tallulah Bankhead [1902-1968] became a famous film actress. A little more on Tallulah will come later.
TERRORA is the same word as Tallulah, but in the old and now extinct Lower Dialect of Cherokee, which had the “r” sound instead of the “l” sound. [Modern Cherokee dialects do not have an "r" sound.]
Now, let’s look at a few more names before we run out of space for this section.
COOSAWATTEE: In Ellijay, the Ellijay and Cartecay Rivers flow together to form the Coosawattee River. Its name comes from a couple of Cherokee words: “Gu-sa u-we-ti-yi,” which we can break down into “Gu-sa,” the Cherokee name for the Creek Indians, and “u-we-ti-yi.” This last part comes from “u-we-ti,” [old or ancient] and the now familiar locative -yi. Putting it all together, we can see that Coosawattee means “old Creek Indian place.” The Cherokee had earlier taken that area from the Creeks. The name is pronounced COO-suh-WAH-TEE.
By the way, Oklahoma Cherokee still call North Carolina “Tsa-la-gu-we-ti-yi,’ which means “the old Cherokee place.”
In the movie Deliverance, the “Cahulawassee River” is likely a disguised reference to the Coosawattee River, which underwent development after the Army Engineers approved the building of a dam in 1959. Today, the result is Coosawattee River Resort near Ellijay and Carter’s Lake; the former dramatic rapids are no more.
We have to notice that the Cherokee “G” sound is almost the same as the English “K” sound; that will explain the meaning of COOSA ["Gu-sa"], as in the river and the town near Rome and in Coosa Bald, south of Blairsville. It simply means “Creek Indian” to the Cherokee. The name probably derives from a Muskogean word meaning “river cane.”
Over near New Echota, the Coosawattee and the Conasauga come together to form the Oostanaula River.
CONASAUGA: There were several settlements and villages in the old Cherokee lands which bore the name “Ga-na-so-gi.” No one remembers what it meant originally and there is no Cherokee translation; maybe it was just a Cherokee adaptation of an earlier Indian place name, the remnant of some long lost and forgotten tribe. However, there have been suggestions that the name may be related to the word “kanesga,” which means “grass” or “hay”; I know of no historical documentation for that. An area of northwestern Gilmer County, Georgia, was the site of one such village; the name appeared on maps as “Connesauga” until 1915. One English mangling of the name is “Kennesaw.”
OOSTANAULA: Several old Cherokee towns also bore the name “U-sta-na-lo-hi.” The translation is “a place where there is a natural barrier or dam of rocks across a stream.” The local pronunciation is “OO-stuh-NOLLY.” The plural form is “U-ni-sta-na-li,” from which we get the name EASTANOLLEE. Eastanollee is pronounced to rhyme with “Molly.”
Well, as long as we are on this river run, we can point out that the Coosa River is formed by the confluence of the Oostanaula and Etowah Rivers, over at Rome. So, let’s close out this segment with the Etowah.
ETOWAH: There was a Cherokee town called “I-ta-wa.” Once again, no one has any idea of what the original meaning was, and it probably wasn’t Cherokee. It may have come from a Catawba word for the long-leaf pine tree, but that is mostly speculation; Eutaw is a possible variation of the Catawba word, if the speculation holds up. Eutaw, Alabama, took its name from the Battle of Eutaw Springs, in what is now Orangeburg County, South Carolina. Down in Forsyth County, Georgia, southeast of Ball Ground, is Hightower, and that “Hightower” is probably the same Cherokee word. In Towns County [GA], near the North Carolina line, there is Hightower Bald and Hightower Gap; not very far away is Hightower Creek. Other Hightowers may come from an English family name. Etowah is pronounced ET-uh-WAH.
And, then there is Ball Ground, in whose vicinity there was probably a ground for playing Indian ball, as was also the case for Ball Play, in Polk County, Tennessee. An old Cherokee word for which these are the translations might be “u-na-la-sga-lv-di-yi” or nearly that, meaning literally “place where they play ball.” A similar modern word is used for a ball field or a gymnasium.