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 Place Names, Part 11

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.”

Rattlesnake

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

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.