There are eight Cherokee counties in the United States. Seven of them have historical connections with the Cherokee people.
As found in hundreds or thousands of business names, personal names, automobile models, and much more, the name “Cherokee” is greatly overused, more or less indiscriminately. If it were possible for them to collect royalties on such usage, the three recognized Cherokee tribes would together be one of the wealthiest entities on the planet. The Cherokee are probably the best-known worldwide of all American Indian tribes.
I am going to refrain–wisely, I think–from commenting on the enormous number of Americans who insist that they have Cherokee ancestors. And, I will have nothing to say here about the 212 groups, at last count, who declare that they are unrecognized Cherokee tribes and remnants.
In modern Cherokee, the word is Tsalagi. In the now extinct Lower Cherokee dialect, it was Tsaragi, and it was from this dialect that the name was anglicized to “Cherokee.”
Although Tsalagi is not a Cherokee word, it is now the self-designation of the members of the tribes. Its origin is uncertain, but I am inclined to agree with those who believe it may have come from Choctaw, probably from a term meaning either “people who live in the mountains” or “people who live in cave country.”
Here are those eight counties, alphabetically by state name, with a brief explanation of how each one acquired its name.
Cherokee County, Alabama, was formed from Cherokee lands soon after the Treaty of New Echota was signed, more than two years before the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee County, Georgia. Originally, most of northwest Georgia, which then belonged to the Cherokee, was simply designated late in 1831 as that state’s Cherokee County. Within a year, it was carved into nine new counties, and, toward the end of 1932, the Cherokee lands were distributed by lottery to white people. Some of the Cherokee were already being forcibly removed by Georgia in 1831, years before the falsely promulgated Treaty of New Echota. The remnant after the other nine counties were created—and a part of it used to form Milton County in 1857—is the present Cherokee County. To be historically blunt, the State of Georgia was the most brutal of all states toward the Cherokee.
Cherokee County, Iowa, lies in the northwestern part of the state. It was one of many formed from “Indian Treaty Lands” in 1851. The name seems to have been chosen because the Cherokee had no connection at all with the area. More details about the historic and prehistoric Indians of Iowa can be found in the Wikipedia article Indians of Iowa.
Cherokee County, Kansas, is the extreme southeastern county of Kansas, bordering Craig County, Oklahoma. Craig County was formed from a part of the Cherokee Nation when the Indian Territory became a state in 1907. Some Cherokee people lived in that part of Kansas beginning in the 1830’s.
Cherokee County, North Carolina, is the westernmost county of the state. It is near the heart of Tsalaguwetiyi, the old Cherokee lands. There are tracts of the Eastern Cherokee Reservation [the Qualla Boundary] in the county, and it has a significant modern Cherokee population. I would rate it as the most deserving of all the counties bearing the name.
Cherokee County, Oklahoma, is at the heart of the Western Cherokee country, formed from a part of the Cherokee Indian Nation, Indian Territory, shortly before Oklahoma became a state. The county seat, Tahlequah, is the capital of the Western Cherokee Nation today. A little more than one-third of the population of the county are American Indians.
Cherokee County, South Carolina. There were some Cherokee [and Catawba and other Indians] using the lands in this area when the white people moved in and pushed them away beginning in the middle of the 18th Century.
Cherokee County, Texas, adjoins the northeastern line of Houston County. It has a complex and sad history of Cherokee settlers and their unfulfilled hopes. You can find more details of that history here.
For more than forty years, whenever I have had occasion to be in the area, I have lingered for a time at the Old Stone Church Cemetery in Clemson, South Carolina. For a few years in the 1970’s, I lived not many miles away. I last visited the cemetery in 2011.
It is strange how a cemetery can evolve over the years, even without considering the new graves that are filled.
In the 1970’s, there was no “Cherokee Indian” named Osenappa buried at the Old Stone Church. Or, at least, I saw no sign of such a thing back then. Now, one finds these words, taken from the Historical Marker at the Church and duly recorded in the Historical Marker Database:
“One of the oldest graves is that of Osenappa, a Cherokee, who died in 1794. In addition to the marker, a cairn (piled stones) identifies the grave. He is the only Native American buried here. His role in this South Carolina frontier remains undiscovered.”
And, there is a crudely inscribed stone marker, this one, at the end of a cairn:
As you can see, the marker does not appear to be ancient. Of course, it may have been merely a home-made replacement for an earlier, vanished stone, made by some person of good will. I do not know who made it or how it got there.
But, it was a replacement for an earlier marker. The catch is that Osenappa was not a Cherokee Indian. The Cherokee language does not have any <p> sound at all; it is not a Cherokee name. My mildly educated guess is that the word is from one of the Muskogean languages, most likely Choctaw, but I would not rule out the Siouan Catawba language as a possibility, either.
Worse yet, the Osenappa lying beneath the ground in the Old Stone Church Cemetery is not an Indian at all.
In January 1935, Mary Cherry Doyle wrote a brief history of the Old Stone Church and Cemetery, apparently for the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Among her descriptions of the graves and their occupants, we find this mention:
A small stone marks the grave of a child. Osenappa Reese, who was said to have been named in honor of an Indian chief, Osenappa, who was kind to the settlers in this vicinity.
It is not yet clear to me how little Osenappa was related to Reverend Thomas Reese, pastor of the church from 1792 until his death in 1796. He is said to have been the first, or among the first buried in the cemetery. Some sources say the child died in 1794. There are other Reese descendants buried in the graveyard.
Was the child named for some Indian converted by Thomas Reese? Was there an Indian called Osenappa who befriended the white settlers of the Pendleton District?
Or, was there an Alabama connection? A few miles to the south of West Point, on the Georgia-Alabama line, Osanippa Creek empties into the Chattahoochee River [or, rather, into the upper reaches of Lake Harding, formed by a dam on the Chattahoochee]. A coincidence of names? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In older documents from the 19th Century, several of them, the creek’s name appears as Osenappa. Is it the same name? Is there a direct connection? The creek’s name seems to have come from a Muskogean word meaning “moss up high,” perhaps indicating its banks were moss-covered, or it may simply have referred to a tree with a high moss cover.
I do not have answers to these questions, not yet. If and when I can find them, I will post them here. If you have information I have not yet found, I will be pleased to hear about it.