Muskogean Influence on Cherokee Place Names

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.”

2 thoughts on “Muskogean Influence on Cherokee Place Names

  1. One thing to bear in mind is that “Creek” refers to a dozen or so Muskogean dialects, incl. Alabama, Hitchiti, Koasati. Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw are all closely related. “Creek” place names may also come from one or two completely unrelated languages (Yuchi, and I believe Natchez) spoken by people who joined the Creek Nation.

    Some Muskogean speakers also settled among the Cherokee, which explains some of the place names you mention. For instance, I understand there was a “Taskigi” town among the Cherokees as well as among the Creeks. The name is Muskogean, with the root “taska” meaning “warrior.” Taskigi is the origin of the name of Tuskegee, Alabama, and Tuskegee University.

    Some of the claims for Creek/Muskogee origins of place names in Cherokee country should be treated skeptically, however. Just because place names look similar when transcribed by English speakers, that doesn’t mean they have a common origin. “Chattahoochee” and “Chattanooga,” for instance, seem very similar in English, but their origins are Muskogee and Cherokee, respectively — two very different languages. So I would be skeptical of giving, e.g., “Tallulah” a Muskogean origin just because it begins with “Tall-” like many Muskogean place names.

    Place names in the South are full of surprises. Some names that seem “Indian” (e.g. Tallahatta Springs in Alabama) were made up by whites, while others that seem “Anglo” turn out to have Indian origins (e.g., Capshaw, Alabama, a garbled Chickasaw place name).

  2. I come from Sipsey, Alabama. I’ve been told since I was a child that Sipsey is a Choctaw word meaning “tall poplar tree.”

    Also, the original name for Sipsey was Athahatchee. I’ve been told it means “white water.” Is this true?

    Do you know what Emathla means?

    Thank you for this information on this site!

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