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.