Cherokee Place Names, Part 11
A few miles southwest of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a little known stream called Agana Branch. It is named for the groundhog (woodchuck, Marmota monax). I have no idea how it came to be so named. The modern word in Cherokee is “oga’na.” Agana was the first element in the name of the great 18th-Century Chief Oconastota, and the second part meant something like “ground up” or “mashed up”; that is why his name was sometimes translated as “Groundhog Sausage.”
Obviously, there is no connection at all with Agana, the capital of Guam.
In Monroe County, Tennessee, is Coker Creek and the community of the same name. Once it was called Coco Creek; the name seems to have been changed a hundred years or so ago. Perhaps it sounded too much like “cocoa” or, worse yet, like the original Cherokee word “gugu” (pronounced roughly like “koo-kuh,” accent on the second syllable), reminding one vaguely of cuckoos. The plant for which it is named is Asclepias tuberosa, commonly known as butterfly weed or pleurisy root. In Cherokee medicine, the large tuberous root was used to make a tea for treating colds and other lung ailments; the bruised root was used to make poultices for treating minor wounds and bruises. The plant contains enough cardiac glycosides that it also helped with swellings of the legs arising from heart problems. There exist local stories of a Cherokee chief or a Cherokee “princess” named Coqua, whose name the white people distorted into Coker; however, as with many colorful legends about Indian place names, there is no historical evidence of such a person or persons. “Gugu” is the modern Cherokee word for “bottle.”
Not far from Coker Creek is the community of Waucheesi. A nearby mountain and the creek have the same name. The original meaning is lost, but the name was that of an old Cherokee man who lived near the route of the Unicoi Turnpike, a road built in the period 1813-1816 to connect the Tugaloo and SavannahRivers to the Cherokee capital of Echota on the Little Tennessee River. His name was Wachesa (Watsi’sa), and he lived in the vicinity of the present Murphy, North Carolina. The Unicoi Turnpike was usually referred to as the Wachesa Trail. One rendition of Wachesa was Waucheesi.
Also in Monroe County is the Notchy Creek community. The community and the nearby creek take their name from the Cherokee word for the Natchez Indians [Ani-Natsi]. Remnants of that tribe had lived in the area. “Notchy” is a fairly close pronunciation of Cherokee “Natsi.”
There was a very old Cherokee settlement, No’natlugv’yi [“spruce tree place”], about where Jonesborough, Tennessee, now stands. A few miles to the south is the Nolichucky River. The river’s name comes from a distortion of the settlement name. The community of Chucky and the stream Little Chuck(e)y Creek, in the same general area, take their names from a shortening of Nolichucky. In 2016, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a sizable Cherokee town on the Nolichucky in southern Washington County, Tennessee. It is believed to date from about 1500, and it contained some European glass trade beads, so it still existed after some contact directly or indirectly with white people. There is no way to know what may have been the settlement’s name.
Coytee Spring seems now to be under Tellico Lake. Near it was an ancient Cherokee town about which little is known, save a few references in English with varied spellings. It seems to have been destroyed in 1776. The town’s name is preserved in the area as Coyatee and even as Kai-a-tee. The Cherokee pronunciation and meaning are forever lost. Each such loss—and there are many—leaves us poorer.
Ooltewah, Tennessee, stands about where the Cherokee settlement of Ultiwo’i was. The meaning is unknown and does not appear to have been originally a Cherokee word.
South Mouse Creek runs through the heart of Cleveland, Tennessee. On this creek was the old Cherokee town of Tsistetsi’yi, which translates as “mouse place,” from which the creek took its name. The area had probably been occupied by Yuchi people for a long time before the Cherokee pushed them away.
Toxaway Creek has its headwaters near the Brasstown community in Oconee County, South Carolina. Somewhere on it was the old Cherokee town of Duquasa’i, pronounced approximately “Duksa’i,” which became Toxaway to English speakers. The meaning of the word is lost. The creek joins the Chauga River and the upper reaches of Hartwell Reservoir.
Tamassee, South Carolina, gets its name from the Cherokee town of Tama’si, in OconeeCounty. There was another Tamasi in Macon County, North Carolina. The word has no meaning in Cherokee. Tamassee is pronounced <ta-MAHSS-ee>.
To the east, in Pickens County, South Carolina, is the Oolenoy River, a tributary of the South Saluda. Its name derives from “u’lana’wa,” the Cherokee name of the spiny soft-shell turtle (Apalone spinifera). How it came to be applied to the river is uncertain, but it is no coincidence that this very same turtle lives in that stream. I suspect that some place along the river served as a good source of the principal ingredient of turtle soups. And, I am sorry to report that Oolenoy was not a Cherokee word for “land of grain and clear water” as I have read elsewhere.
We have already seen that the state of Tennessee and the Tennessee River took their names from the several Cherokee settlements called Tanasi. One of these was in Jackson County, North Carolina; it left its name in the form of Tanasee Creek and Gap, and in the more modern Tanasee Lake.
In the Great Smokies, we find Wasulu Ridge. Wa’sulu’ was the name of a particular kind of moth, but it is now wa’sohla, the generic word for any moth, in some modern dialects.
Just west of Franklin, North Carolina, near the Appalachian Trail, are Wayah Creek and Wayah Bald. The Cherokee word “wa’ya” or “wa-ha-ya” means “wolf.” There is general agreement that the animal’s name began as an imitation of its howl. I will write more of wolves in a later section.
To the southwest of Franklin is Standing Indian Mountain and the Wildlife Management Area. The Cherokee called the mountain Yv’wi-tsulenv’yi, “where the man used to stand.”
A little to the southeast of Brevard, North Carolina, is the community of Connestee, with Connestee Falls. Here was the legendary “lost village” of Ka’nastv’yi, the ancestral name of Connestee. Kana’sta was a shorter form of the village name. There is some evidence that the Connestee people may have been a tribe which preceded the Cherokee, or they may have been ancestral to the later Cherokee.
In the far northern part of Whitfield County, Georgia, was one of the ancient meeting grounds for the Cherokee. This one was called Elawo’diyi, “red earth place.” It translates well into Red Clay, the community which now occupies the same place.
The great Chief John Ross was born at Gv’di’gaduhv’yi, in the northeastern part of what is now Gadsden, Alabama. The name of that Cherokee town translates to “Turkey Town Place,” from which Turkeytown takes its name.
The Tennessee River enters Alabama at very near the state’s northeastern corner, and it swings across the northern part of the state, making a southwesterly detour near Florence, and then proceeds to exit the state at precisely its northwestern corner. Before the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority were built, there were shoals in the vicinity of Florence, and these shoals were rich in freshwater mussels. In fact, there are more than 50 species of mussels in the Alabama portion of the Tennessee. To the Cherokee, this section of the river was Daguno’hi, “mussel place,” from “dagu’na,” mussel, plus the locative -hi. English speakers translated Dagunohi as “Mussel Shoals” and then misspelled it to name the city of Muscle Shoals. It appears exactly that way on old maps of the Alabama area, including the 1794 map I recently examined, so the “Muscle” spelling is not a recent development. On a 1750 map, we find the shoals clearly shown in the correct place, but without any name.
[Incidentally, for reasons unclear, the place where Nashville, Tennessee now stands was known to the old Cherokee as Dagunawelohi, “mussel liver place,” according to Mooney.] Dagvna survives in modern Cherokee, meaning oyster, clam, pearl, or pimple.
It is not especially relevant to our discussion here, but the English words muscle and mussel both derive ultimately from the same Latin word, musculus, which meant both mouse and mussel; it is a diminutive of the word mus, mouse. In ages forgotten, someone decided that both muscles [which ripple under the skin] and the shellfish [grey and not large] somehow resembled small mice.
Just across the Georgia line, to the south of Chattanooga, is Catoosa County. Its name is from the Cherokee word “ga-du-si,” accent on the second syllable. The plural form is the same as the singular, so the meaning can be interpreted as “a hill,” “on or at a hill,” “the hills,” or “in the hills.” It is not likely that it means “between two hills,” as is sometimes reported, but that is still a reasonable translation. The old Cherokee word for “mountain” was “o’tali” [sometimes written “a’tali”] except in the Lower Dialect, the one with the “r” sound; among those speakers, it was “o’tari.” Some Eastern Cherokee speakers use the word “gadu’shi” for “mountain,” but another word has evolved for more widespread use there. Otari has been made into Ottaray, with many associations in upstate South Carolina and even into Kentucky; however, the root means only “mountain,” not “beautiful mountains,” as I see written in a few places. Gadusi remains Oklahoma Cherokee for “hill,” and the Oklahoma word for mountain is “odalv’i.”
High in the Smokies, on the Haywood County line, is Inadu Knob; to the northeast in Cocke County is Inadu Mountain, of which the knob is really the summit. Inadu Creek is nearby, and to its west is Snake Den Mountain. The area seems to have a long history of being a very snaky place, seeing that “inadu” [modern form: “inada”] is the Cherokee word for “snake.”
In the early 19th Century, there was a Cherokee chief whose name was translated as Going Snake. His Cherokee name was Inadunai, which, translated somewhat more accurately, would have been “a snake goes along with him” or “he travels in company with a snake.” The famous Goingsnake District in Adair County, Oklahoma, takes its name from him. For the interesting story of the Goingsnake Massacre and Zeke Proctor, click this link.
By the way, if you are interested in mountains, take a look at http://www.mountainpeaks.net