Cherokee Place Names, Part 2

Cherokee Place Names, Part 2

Sometimes, there are all sorts of interesting historical connections among place names. and most of us have forgotten or never knew about those connections. Let’s consider Ellijay, Turniptown, and Whitepath, all in Gilmer County [GA], as one example.

Whitepath was a member of the tribal council which met regularly in the big townhouse at the Cherokee town of Ellijay. He himself lived in a smaller settlement that the white people called Turniptown, on what is now Turniptown Creek. At the council meetings, he spoke out strongly against the Christianity and white man’s ways that the Cherokee were embracing more and more. He was especially concerned with the Cherokee constitution that had been written based on suggestions to the Cherokee from Thomas Jefferson, and he wanted to go back to the old tribal laws and ways of living. By 1828, he had gathered a group of followers and might have started a serious rebellion, but the old ways were too far gone and his supporters faded out. Whitepath was removed from the council for a while, but, later, he gave in and was given back his council seat. He died on the Trail of Tears in 1838.

Now, let’s take a look at the Cherokee words that were translated as Whitepath and as Turniptown.

Whitepath’s Cherokee name was “Nv-no tsu-ne-ga.” The “Nv-no” means “trails” or “paths.” (Don’t forget that we are using the letter “V” for the Cherokee sound “uh” as in English “Uh-huh.”)The “tsu-ne-ga” is the plural form of the word “u-ne-ga,” which means “white.” But, there is more meaning to the name than just “white paths.” To the old Cherokee, the color white was a symbol of peacefulness and happiness and more. After the very important Green Corn Dance–more on that later–the people talked about eating white food and walking on white paths back to their white houses. By all of that, they meant great contentment and happiness and good things. In fact, if a Cherokee man said “I am a white man,” he did not mean that he had suddenly become a white guy! Instead, he meant that he is surrounded by happiness. So, one pretty good translation of Whitepath’s Cherokee name would be “Happy Trails.”

Well, let’s see. So long as we are talking about “white,” the word for “White Man” is “Yo-ne-ga.” From that word, possibly, comes the place name Unaka, in North Carolina, and maybe even Unicoi, but we will take a closer look at those names later. (If he wanted to say “I am a white person,” a Cherokee would have said “Tsi-yo-ne-ga.”) Yonega is also the Cherokee word for the English language.

But, we had better get back to Turniptown and finish the path we started! I live within a mile of Turniptown Road, and only a little further than that from Big Turniptown Creek. Little Turniptown Creek joins the Big one over on the north side of Highway 515 and shortly the resulting bigger creek empties into the Ellijay River. The Indian name for the Turniptown village was “U-lv-yi,” from the word “U-li” and that “-yi” that means “place.” [You remember that I called the -yi a “locative.”] The word “U-li” was translated by whites as “turnip,” but it was not a turnip at all. It was instead the name of a kind of plant that grew in the bottom lands along the creeks. The plant itself is actually a kind of wild bean. What makes the plant so special is that it has underground tubers, sometimes lots of them, almost like a string of dark brown beads the size and shape of eggs, and these tubers are very fine eating. They were an important food item; apparently the Cherokee never really got around to cultivating them, but they would plant some near settlements to get them started growing wild if they were not already found there. The name for the tubers themselves was “nu-na.” Later on, when they began to grow potatoes, the word “nu-na” came to be used for what many of us up in these mountains call “Irish potatoes,” and people began to forget about the wild bean that those of us who grew up eating them called “pig potatoes” when we spoke of them in English.  Now, sometimes I have even heard them called “nunayusti,” [nuna iysusdi] which means “like potatoes.”

[Source of photo:

Just for the record, that wild bean that grows mostly in rich bottom land has the scientific name Apios americana. Scientists at Purdue University and elsewhere are busy developing varieties that can be cultivated and marketed. Personally, I like the tubers raw; when one peels away the outer brown layer, there is a solid white interior, just a little more mealy than regular potatoes. Boiled, the pig potatoes taste like a cross between boiled peanuts and potatoes; they make good chips, too, and they have about three times as much protein as potatoes. [The so-called “Irish potatoes” were actually a gift of the South American Indians to the world; the Irish people became so dependent upon them that the population of Ireland grew larger than it probably should have at the time. When there was a terrible potato blight in the 1840’s, the results were disastrous.]

Among the old Cherokee, one of the seven clans was the Anigatagewi, a name whose translation is lost, but which was [and is] commonly called the Wild Potato clan.  Their name was taken from their role as gatherers of the wild potato, an important food in ancient days.

So much for that. We rambled a bit, but with a little purpose. Before we end this segment, we can take a quick look at a few more place names that won’t get us so carried away.

DAHLONEGA: The Cherokee word was “da-la-ni-ge-i,” which means “yellow” or “yellow place.” Yellow, of course, is the color of gold, and gold was discovered in Georgia about 1815. The story goes that an Indian child found a nugget on the Chestatee River banks and brought it to his mother. She sold it to a white man, and the gold rush was on.

AMICALOLA: From the Cherokee words “a-ma u-qua-le-lv-yi.” (There is that locative -yi again.) The “a-ma” means “water.” The other part means something like “place where it makes a rolling sound [like thunder].” As we can see, the original pronunciation got botched up quite a bit in this one when it was taken over into English. Still, a “place where water makes a rolling thunder” is not a bad name for a major waterfall.  The name was spelled “Amicolola” until 1899, and it had been “Armacolola” until about 1865.  I have often seen it misspelled “Amacola.”  The pronunciation of Amicalola is “AMMI-ka-LOW-la.”

2 thoughts on “Cherokee Place Names, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Amicalola Falls « Blog Archive « Dawnmorningstar’s Weblog

  2. fascinating read … I own cabin and property on turniptown creek and would love to learn how to grow Irish potatoes. If you have any thoughts, I would appreciate it.

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