Cherokee Place Names, Part 5

Cherokee Place Names, Part 5

Last summer, my wife and I drove back from Dillard, Georgia, where we had spent a couple of pleasant days. We came via Clayton and Highway 76, a delightful drive through these beautiful mountains of ours. On this route, the place names bring back the spirits of the old Cherokee people. Let’s look at a few of the places that lie along or near the way from Dillard back to Blue Ridge.

After reading some of my previous articles, a good friend of mine–whose intelligence I respect–asked me how in the world can one Cherokee word [itsa´ti] be the source of place names so different as Sautee and New Echota?

Well, different people hear foreign sounds often quite differently, and their attempted pronunciations sometimes do not even seem to be the same words. And, there were at least three (and probably four) different major Cherokee dialects with some varying pronunciations. Even the speakers of the same dialect had their own peculiarities of saying names. Time also alters English attempts at speaking and spelling old Cherokee place names.

Consider my own town’s name. “E-la-i-tse-yi” became Ellijay here (and also at Franklin, NC); it became Ellejoy up in Tennessee [and Georgia’s Ellijay was sometimes Ellijoy on old maps], and, down in Hall County, it is now Elachee. [The ts– in Cherokee is most often pronounced like a ch– or a j-; sometimes, it has the sound of z-, and there are other times when it just has the plain old ts– sound as in “fatso.”] And, don’t forget that we often mangle the pronunciation of everyday English words. When enough people mispronounce a word long enough, it eventually becomes the correct pronunciation. In a real sense, ignorance is what causes every language to change and evolve. That is why the Roman Latin of Caesar gradually changed into Italian (and Spanish, and Portuguese, and French, and Romanian, and a dozen other dialects, depending upon where the Latin was being used).

Right now, English is in a massive state of change. Most people, including a lot of English teachers and professors, haven’t noticed how much it’s changing yet. A hundred years from now, the way we speak and write now will seem really old-fashioned and probably very difficult to understand. Think for a minute of how the actors sounded in the oldest “talkie” movie you ever saw; it wasn’t just the overacting-it was their speech itself. Or, think of how your oldest grandparents used to speak. Do you speak the same way?

A little more about the Cherokee language needs to be repeated here, because not everyone has read (or remembered) the previous articles.

To English speakers, Cherokee is a very difficult language. Its grammar is so very different from English as to seem impossibly complex. It represents a totally different way of thinking. It has sounds that don’t exist in English, and it completely lacks the sounds we represent by the letters, b, p, v, and f. [These are called “labial” sounds, because the lips are used to make them. Try it: Notice that both your lips touch when you make the sounds of b and p, and you can feel that your lower lip touches your upper teeth when you make the sounds of v and f.] All the dialects of Cherokee now remaining don’t have an “r” sound, either; the “l” sound is used instead. (One extinct dialect did have the r sound; that explains why Tallulah and Terrora both came from the same Cherokee word.)

Lacking those sounds that we use in English without even having to think, old Cherokee speakers made “Polly” into “Qualla” and “Betty” into “Quedi.” The word for a housecat, an animal previously unknown to Indians, became “wesa,” adapted from the now old-fashioned English word “puss.” When Spanish explorers brought the first cows they ever saw, the Cherokee took the Spanish word “vaca” and pronounced it “waga”; that remains today the word for cow. “Asquani” became the Cherokee word for “Spanish”; it is still the word used for a Hispanic person. “Mary” became “Meli,” “Caroline” became “Kalalina,” and so on.

Cherokee vowel sounds are a lot like Spanish vowels; sometimes they are a bit more nasal or a little shorter or longer. There is one extra vowel sound that is very rare in English: it is the nasalized [“through the nose”] version of the u sound in but. Seeing that Cherokee words have no v sound, we use the letter <v> to represent that nasal u sound when writing Cherokee words in English letters. For example, “v-v” is one Cherokee word for “yes”; it is pronounced almost exactly the way we here in the mountains say “UH-huh” when we mean “yes,” too! Do you notice that “through the nose” sound it has?

Near the far northeastern corner of Rabun County lies the town of Satolah. It gets its name from the Cherokee “su-da’-li,” which means “six.” [I hyphenate between syllables in Cherokee words, so that they may be a little easier to read. Also, we need to say that the Cherokee sound of d is somewhere between the English t sound and d sound.] Down near Canton, Georgia, in Cherokee County, is a prominent Sixes Road, probably a translation of the same word; there is also a Satula Community in Cherokee County. That the two of these places are in the same vicinity would seem to indicate that they are both derived from “su-da’-li.” There is also a Satula Avenue in Athens, Georgia; Satula Mountain and Satula Falls are near Highlands, North Carolina.  [ I have heard the latter two pronounced as “Stooly.”]  But, without some very careful research–which I have not yet done on any of these names except Satolah–one must be very careful about such speculations. I know a person of Polish ancestry whose last name is Satula, and the word means “saddle” in Finnish. And, “Satilla” occurs in Wayne County; I recall driving across a Satilla Creek down there; that place name is highly unlikely to be of Cherokee origin.  On old maps, in fact, it is recorded as “St. Illa.”

Now, why would anyone choose the word “six” for a place name? Well, on the rolls of the Cherokee Nation in 1835 were men named “Six Killer” (and Sixkiller is still a name easily found among the Oklahoma Cherokee), “Three Killer,” and “Four Killer.” These names were most likely taken because of some repeated successes in battles against the Catawbas or the Creeks. So, Satolah is very probably a shortened form of “Su-ta’-li-di-hi,” Six Killer. I think the same may be said for Sixes Road, too. On a more mysterious level, medicine men sometimes referred to the sun, in ceremonies and rituals, as Sutalidihi; no one has any idea why. The source may have been some long-forgotten legend.  [See Nantahala, in Part 10.]

Near the head of Four Killer Creek, in Fulton County, Georgia, once lived a prominent Cherokee who name was Nvgidihi, or Nanketeehee, as it is more commonly written.  The name of the creek is a translation of his name.  I have read that the creek’s name is now often written Foe Killer Creek.

Moving from Satolah toward Clayton, we find Warwoman Creek and Warwoman Dell. There have been some wild legends about Cherokee Amazons, and, no doubt there were occasional instances of women who acted as warriors. However, that is not the meaning behind Warwoman Dell and Creek.

In the times before contact with white people so disrupted Cherokee ways, it was the women of the tribe who decided most questions of war and peace, and they alone determined the fate of captives. It was also these same mature women who sat in council to choose the War Chief [the “Red Chief,” for red was the color of war, just as white was the color of peace]. The leader of the women’s council was called the “War Woman” by some of the early white writers. The Cherokee actually called her “Tsi-ge-yu,” which is often translated as “The Pretty Woman.” The real translation is “I love her,” so the tribe’s most important woman was most often called “The Beloved Woman” in English. The Beloved Woman also decided the punishment that should be given to major offenders within the tribe; she could and did make life or death decisions. About the time of the American Revolution and continuing into the 19th Century, Nancy Ward was the most prominent Beloved Woman. I believe that some descendants of hers still live in the Georgia and Tennessee mountains.  She was the last Beloved Woman of the Cherokee until Maggie Wachacha was given that special title in the 1980s.  In April 2013, the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians [who still live in the heart of the ancient Cherokee lands] designated Jerry Wolfe as the Beloved Man, the first time that title had been used in over 200 years.  Wolfe, who is in his late 80s, is a traditionalist, an expert in Cherokee history and culture, who speaks fluent Cherokee. He is also a veteran of WWII service in the U.S. Navy who was on a ship both at Normandy on D-Day and during the Japanese surrender in the Pacific.

One tributary of Warwoman Creek is Tuckaluge Creek, named for one of the several Cherokee villages called “Ti-qua-li-tsi.” One stood somewhere on Tuckaluge Creek, but the most important one of these towns lay about where Bryson City, NC, now stands. The meaning of the name is long forgotten, and I cannot analyze it. In Blount County, TN, the same word occurs as Tuckalechee.

We’ll continue from here in our next section.

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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.