How to use Cherokee Place Names

We suggest that you click on the Index button above.  That will open up a useful starting place with partial lists of the many place names in the blog.  There are links to specific sections containing a given group of names so that you can quickly locate information about each one. Note that there is also a “Search” function on the upper left of this and other pages.  You can use it to search this site for any word you wish.  [Unfortunately, for the mobile version, one must scroll all the way to the bottom of a section to find the search function.  The search function on the mobile version can be most quickly located by going to the Index section or the About section.  They are much shorter than the Home section, and you will be able to scroll very quickly to the bottom of each of them to find the search button.  Any search button you find anywhere on the site will search the entire site.]

You may also find the About section worth browsing.  It contains links to a number of interesting external sites, including spoken Cherokee samples  and Amazing Grace sung in Cherokee. Your comments are always welcome. We send a special greeting to the Rabun County [GA] Historical Society.  They seem to have one of the best organized county historical websites in the old Cherokee country.

To make the content of this blog more widely available, the materials in it have been reorganized, extended, and provided with more illustrations and maps to create a Kindle version, which can be read on any tablet or computer with an installed Kindle reader.  The e-book has a table of contents with hyperlinks to the chapters and a list of illustrations, also with links.  There are a few internal links for cross-references, and there are external links for additional reading and research. There is an extensive index, but the items in the index do not have links because many items occur in more than one place.  Searching from the index can be done with the normal Kindle or other reader’s  search function.   The illustrations are in full color when a color-enabled e-reader is used. The book, now in its second expanded and enlarged edition [as of 23 February 2013], can be found at this link on Amazon.  It is speech-enabled, and I am impressed with how much that technology has advanced.  The voices are no longer robot-like and they generally pronounce English words and  sentences quite well.   However, the pronunciation of Cherokee words is less than perfect, as would be expected.   [Note that the Eastern Cherokee Treaty Signers pages are not included in the book.] [The price has been set at $2.99.] Thank you for your interest in Cherokee Place Names.

Cherokee counties . . .

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 1832, 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. Here are maps of the Cherokee lands in Georgia in 1822 and in 1834. 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 [ᎠᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ], the old Cherokee lands.  There are tracts of the Eastern Cherokee trust lands  [the Qualla Boundary and non-contiguous parcels] 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. [The main part of the Eastern Cherokee trust lands is located in Swain and Jackson counties, with outlying parcels in Cherokee, Graham, and Haywood counties.  The Qualla Boundary is sometimes called a “reservation,” but that is not a correct designation.]

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.

Cherokee Place Names, Part 1

Cherokee Place Names in the Southeastern U.S.

We here in the mountains of North Georgia live in what used to be Cherokee Indian territory.  At the time of the Removal, just 168 years ago, the Cherokee Nation’s territory was shaped roughly like a pig’s eye, with one corner near Guntersville, Alabama, and the other at Bryson City, North Carolina.  Ellijay [the one in Georgia; there are others, too] was near the eye’s center, and the lands ran from just north of Marietta and Lawrenceville and Gainesville all the way to the Tennessee River in the middle of eastern Tennessee.

When the white men first came, the Cherokee lands extended as far north as what are now Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charleston, West Virginia, and they included most of Kentucky and Tennessee, all of western North Carolina, over half of South Carolina, all the way to Orangeburg, and big chunks of what later became Virginia and West Virginia.  All of North Georgia was included; in fact, Interstate Highway 20 is fairly close to the ancient southern boundary of the Cherokee lands, all the way across the state.A big slice of northern Alabama was also in the Cherokee territory, and it was often fought over with the Creek Indians.  [It really did not occur to Indians that they “owned” their lands; they just occupied and used them and kept unwanted intruders from moving in.]

This map which follows shows the original extent of the Cherokee lands [largest outline], the lands still held by them in 1791 [the next outline], and the lands that were left by the time of the removal [red outline.]

So, we are not at all surprised [and most of us already know] that a lot of our place names came from the Cherokee language. We tend to take these names for granted, but, to European visitors, they are often unpronounceable and very puzzling.  Most Americans have little or no idea what the place names originally meant.  And, there have arisen all sorts of false “translations” and colorful and romantic “Indian legends” about some of the names.  The great majority of those stories are just not true, sadly.

In our mountains, one can’t help feeling the spirit of the old Cherokee Nation in the place names that would seem so exotic to an Englishman, names that are so natural a part of our world here that we give them little thought.  Perhaps these articles will give you a glimpse of the ghosts of those who lived here long before the white people ever came.  Try to imagine the land as it was only two or three hundred years ago, and then think of the thousands of years that came before that.  In all that time, all around where you now sit or park or work or live, Indian people were going about the everyday tasks of living: growing corn and beans, hunting, raising families, loving, telling stories, playing ballgames, sometimes fighting.  What stories these mountain places could tell!  We can barely touch the surface here, but let us try.

We will take a look at some of the place names around us that come from Cherokee, and we will tell the true story behind each one of them.  We have to keep in mind that Cherokee is a very, very difficult language for English-speaking people, so it is not at all surprising that the names pretty often got badly garbled in pronunciation.

Some quick comments on Cherokee: It has no F, B, V, or P sounds; if a place name has those sounds, it probably did not come from Cherokee.Modern Cherokee has no R sound, either, but one old Cherokee dialect did, so now and then we will find a place name with the R sound.  And, Cherokee has one sound that there is no letter in English to represent; because V is not otherwise used, we will use that letter for the sound.  About the only time the sound is used in English is when you sort of grunt “Uh-huh” to mean “yes.”  So, in giving Cherokee sounds, when I write “v,” you can think of the pronunciation as being like the first syllable of “Uh-huh.”  By the way, “V” in Cherokee means “Yes”; it is a sort of nasalized sound.

SALACOA: It comes from “Sa-li-quo-yi,” which means “bear grass place.”  Salacoa Creek rises in Pickens County and makes its way through two other counties before emptying into the Coosawattee River in Gordon County, Georgia.  On that creek, probably near its head, there used to be an old Cherokee village for which the creek took its name. Probably the Indians who settled the village were impressed by some large stand of bear grass that grew in the immediate area.  In Cherokee, the ending “-yi” on many words was what we call a locative; that is just a smart-alecky way of saying it means “place.”   The same word that is used for bear grass in Cherokee is also used for the green tree snake, maybe because it looks vaguely like a piece of the bear grass.  In Oklahoma Cherokee, the word has become “se-la-quo-ya,” and it refers only to the green snake.

On many old maps, Salacoa Creek appears prominently, even when few other landmarks in the Cherokee lands are shown.  The spellings are many, as is true with many other names on very old maps.  I have seen it written Sal-e-quo-he, Sallequohe, or even Sally Coe

TALKING ROCK: It’s a translation of the old Cherokee name “Nv-ya Gv-wo-ni-sgi,” which literally means “rock that talks habitually.”  Somewhere on Talking Rock Creek, there was an echo rock that attracted the attention of the Indians.I think it was probably downstream a little from the town of Talking Rock.  When I get a chance, I want to go down there and look around, to see if I can find the rock.  Maybe some of the white settlers understood only a little Cherokee; some of them thought Nv-ya Gv-wo-ni-sgi meant something like “council rock,” a place where the Indians got together to talk at council meetings, but this is not true.  The words mean “rock that talks” and not “rock where they talk.”

ELLIJAY: From “E-la i-tse-yi.  “The meaning is “green ground place” or “green earth place.”  But, that may be subject to more than one interpretation.  The “e-la” part is straightforward enough; it means”ground” or “soil” or “earth.”  “I-tse-yi” is pronounced in Cherokee about like the sounds you make if you just say the letters E-J-E; it often means “green” in the sense of unripe, and it also means “new.”  So, Ellijay may also mean “new ground place,” that is, as at least old-timers will know, a place that has been cleared of trees and made ready for use as a plowed field.  The same name was given to many different Cherokee villages, one of which happened to be about where Ellijay, Georgia, is now located.  There was another in South Carolina, at the head of the Keowee River; and, another was near what is now Franklin, North Carolina, on Ellijay Creek there.  Still another was known to be on what is now called Ellejoy Creek, which feeds into Little River, near Maryville, Tennessee.  Another version of the Cherokee words that became “Ellijay” is found down in Hall County: Elachee, as in The Elachee Nature Science Center.  From these examples, you will be able to see how names get changed around because people did not really know how to pronounce them correctly.

I have noticed that readers are often seeking the modern pronunciation of the town of Ellijay.  It is accented on the first and last syllables [EL-li-JAY, or more frequently locally, ELL-uh-JAY].

You will find this article dealing with the history of Ellijay during the period surrounding the Removal to be worth reading.