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

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Cherokee Place Names, Part 9

Cherokee Place Names, Part 9

Bartram’s list of 43 Cherokee towns begins with those “on the Tanase east of the Jore Mountains.” Those mountains are now called the Nantahala Mountains.  The Tanase is the Little Tennessee River. The four towns listed were all in what is now Macon County, North Carolina.

William Bartram (1739-1823)

Tanasi, from which came the name of the river and the state of Tennessee, seems to have had no meaning in Cherokee. I tend to agree with those who believe it was originally a Yuchi town name. The Yuchi occupied a good chunk of eastern Tennessee before they were overrun by the Cherokee and apparently forced to migrate and live along the Savannah River. From there they were forced westward by the whites and eventually had to merge with the Creeks.

Let’s take a look at those four towns.

But, first, even though I have said that more than 200 Cherokee town names are recorded, we should not imagine that any such number existed at any one time. In over 400 years of contact with the whites, many towns were abandoned for one reason or another, including European diseases and encroachment by settlers. Some of the “settlements” were no more than four or five families, and very few of them would have had more than 200 families.

We have no way to know if Bartram’s list included all the towns that were inhabited at the time of his travels. However, it is likely that the most important towns made the list.

The four towns, in the order listed: Echoee, Nucasse, Whatoga, and Cowee. The sequence seems to have been from the south of [the present] Franklin, and proceeding northward.

Echoee was his attempt at putting Itseyi into English letters. Itseyi is “new place.” [See Ellijay, in Part 1, for more detail.] The town was also known as Gadug-itseyi, which translates as “New Town,” the same name as the ill-fated Newtown in Connecticut, which, sadly, is very much in the news as I am writing now on 15 December 2012.  It was located near the junction of Cartoogechaye Creek and the Little Tennessee River, which explains the origin of the creek’s name. Locally, it is pronounced “Car-tooga-jay,” with the second and last syllables accented.  By the way, the April 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine says that Cartoogechaye means “cornfields”; their source is way off on that one.

As one heads north on U.S. Highway 441, in Franklin, North Carolina, there appears a large and ancient mound on the left, a few hundred feet from the Little Tennessee River, some three miles north of the Cartoogechaye. Here, before the white men came, was the important Cherokee town called Nikwasi, Bartram’s Nucasse; it is sometimes written Nucassee. Now, only the mound remains.

Nikwasi has no meaning in Cherokee, and the mound was there long before they came; it was built about 1000 ACE.  Perhaps, during the early 17th Century, the town belonged to one of the Creek bands. Before that, it was likely a Yuchi town of some importance.  Nikwasi did not mean “center of gravity” as stated in some modern promotional writings.

In fact, until about 1700, the Creek Indians held almost all of northern Georgia and Alabama and some of the lands in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The Cherokee pushed them relentlessly to the south and west, taking their towns and keeping the names as best they could be rendered in the Cherokee language. By 1770 or so, the Creeks had lost the final battles and lands and towns to the Cherokee. The Creeks, in their turn had often preserved the names of towns and places given by still earlier inhabitants.

About four miles north of Nikwasi, by river, Watauga Creek enters the river. Somewhere on this creek was the Cherokee town of Watogi, Bartram’s Whatoga. A less important settlement in northeastern Tennessee gave its name to the community of Watauga, the Watauga River, and Watauga Lake. Who knows what long-forgotten tribe may have built the original town and named it in their own language, only to have the name distorted through a few more hands [and tongues] before it came to be Watogi? I wonder just how ancient such place names may be.  [There is said to be a Creek Indian word “wetoga,” from which the name may have come, but I cannot determine the accuracy of that.  I understand that the Creek word may have meant “broken waters.”]

And, a few miles further north, not far from Wests Mill, Cowee Creek empties into the Little Tennessee River, and the town of Kawiyi [short form Kawi’] lay near that place. In the region to the east of the river, many places bear the name Cowee. My own mother was born “up on Cowee.” The meaning of Kawiyi is uncertain, but some say it is a contraction of Ani-Kawiyi, “place of the deer clan.” Until it was burned by the whites in 1783, it was a large and important town, with about a hundred houses. It was soon rebuilt and kept until 1819, when the area was opened to white settlers. A Shawnee who had been held captive in the town for a time was reported to have declared Cowee to be the “best town of the Cherokee.”

Let’s look at a few other sites before we close Part 9.

Not far from Hayesville, North Carolina, is Shooting Creek and the Shooting Creek community. Near where the creek emptied into the Hiwassee River was the old settlement of Dani’sta-la-nv’yi, which translates roughly as “place where there were always shooting noises.” Unfortunately, the site of the town is now covered by Lake Chatuge.

The Cherokee word was too much of a mouthful for English speakers, so it became Shooting Place and that became Shooting Creek. A modern Cherokee word from the same root is Distayohi [“he shoots off firecrackers,” for Santa Claus, so Christmas is Danistayohihv, “when they always shoot off firecrackers”]. Those of us who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina remember the custom used to be to make loud shooting noises at Christmas and New Year, with whatever one had by way of firearms or firecrackers or even dynamite.

There probably were only two Cherokee towns called “Estatowe” when Bartram passed through in the late spring of 1775. We have to use his spelling, because there are no better records of the Cherokee pronunciation, and I have no clear idea of the original meaning of the name. He places one of them a little below the place where the Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers form the Tugaloo. The other, which he mentions as “Estatowe great,” was on Eastatoe Creek in Pickens County, South Carolina, and the creek bears its name.  We should note that the name Eastatoe also occurs in Eastatoe Falls and Eastatoe  Gap, near Rosman, NC, not so very far from Eastatoe Creek and Little Eastatoe Creek.  There seems to be a trend to spell Eastatoe with only one final E.

The third Estatowe must not have been in existence in 1775. There are several reports of such a town at the base of Estatoah Falls, in Rabun County, Georgia.  Chief Junaluska was born somewhere within a few miles of the falls in 1775.   Bartram specifically described this place as he found it after reaching the Little Tennessee River’s headwaters and proceeding downstream.

This photo is the Little Tennessee River, near its headwaters, in Wolf Fork Valley, two or three miles upstream from the confluence with Mud Creek.

Near the headwaters of the Little Tennessee

Near the headwaters of the Little Tennessee

He says he was “pursuing my serpentine path, through and over the meadows and green fields and crossing the river” He traveled a few miles down the river and came to “a very beautiful creek, which flowed into the river just before me; but now behold, high upon the side of a distant mountain overlooking the vale, the fountain of this brisk flowing creek; the unparalleled water fall appears as a vast edifice with crystal front, or a field of ice lying on the bosom of the hill.” The distance along the nearly straight creek from its mouth at the river to the falls is less than one and one-half miles, and it should have presented a good line of sight. I doubt that he would have failed to see any Indian settlement here and the inhabitants of it would surely not have missed his passing through. The falls are indeed beautiful. As a very small child, I lived for a time at the base of them. I am saddened that the creek has been named Mud Creek, and that there are some who have begun to refer to Estatoah as “Mud Creek Falls.”

There are those who report that Eastatoe and Estatoah are derived from the Cherokee name for the Carolina Parakeet,  but I have not been able to confirm that story yet.  We may surmise that all three of the towns were likely pronounced “Eestatoee” from the fact that an early name for what became the town of Dillard, Georgia, was recorded as “Eastertoy” by the whites.  Bartram’s spelling of the name may have been simply his rendition of “Eestatoee.”

The photo which follows below more accurately represents the beauty of Wolf Fork Valley, just a few hundred yards from the preceding scene. There existed among the Old Cherokee a barely remembered legend of a strange race of white people who were already living near the head of the Little Tennessee River when the Cherokee first arrived, long before the white men came to America. If there is any truth in that legend, Wolf Fork Valley would have been an idyllic place in those long ago days. Now and then, we all daydream of time travel. We can only imagine the things we might learn in such voyages.

A few miles the confluence of Mud Creek and the Little Tennessee River, just across the line into North Carolina, Tessentee Creek joins the Little Tennessee from the east. Somewhere near this junction lay the small Cherokee village of Tesantee, from which the creek takes its name.  We do not know what the name may have meant long ago.  Later, in the 1880’s, there was a post office called Tesinta in the same area.

In White County, Georgia, is the Tesnatee Community, Tesnatee Creek, and Tesnatee Gap.  I cannot be completely certain, but I feel sure that the name is related to Tessentee. The local pronunciation is “Tess-nee,” and, I hear, people living there are not always happy that the name is sometimes misspelled “Tesantee.”

Addendum:  Because Cowee is such a special place, I am departing from my usual pattern in order to include two stories about it.  They are taken directly from Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee, which is readily available online elsewhere; I place them here because of their connection to the town in this section.  We should also point out that Tsali lived in Cowee town before the Cherokee were forced out of it in 1819.  There is more information about Tsali in the Trail of Tears section.

Cowee Town

Cowee’, properly Kawi’yĭ, abbreviated Kawi’, was the name of two Cherokee settlements, one of which existed in 1755 on a branch of Keowee river, in upper South Carolina, while the other and more important was on Little Tennessee river, at the mouth of Cowee creek, about 10 miles below the present Franklin, in North Carolina. It was destroyed by the Americans in 1776, when it contained about a hundred houses, but was rebuilt and continued to be occupied until the cession of 1819. The name can not be translated, but may possibly mean “the place of the Deer clan” (Ani’-Kawĭ’). It was one of the oldest and largest of the Cherokee towns, and when Wafford visited it as a boy he found the trail leading to it worn so deep in places that, although on horseback, he could touch the ground with his feet on each side.

There is a story, told by Wafford as a fact, of a Shawano who had been a prisoner there, but had escaped to his people in the north, and after the peace between the two tribes wandered back into the neighborhood on a hunting trip. While standing on a bill overlooking the valley he saw several Cherokee on an opposite hill, and called out to them, “Do you still own Cowee?” They shouted in reply, “Yes; we own it yet.” Back came the answer from the Shawano, who wanted to encourage them not to sell any more of their lands, “Well, it’s the best town of the Cherokee. It’s a good country; hold on to it.”

The False Warriors of Chilhowee

Some warriors of Chilhowee town, on Little Tennessee, organized a war party, as they said, to go against the Shawano. They started off north along the great war trail, but when they came to Pigeon river they changed their course, and instead of going on toward the Shawano country they went up the river and came in at the back of Cowee, one of the Middle settlements of their own tribe. Here they concealed themselves near the path until a party of three or four unsuspecting townspeople came by, when they rushed out and killed them, took their scalps and a gun belonging to a man named Gûñskăli’skĭ, and then hurriedly made their way home by the same roundabout route to Chilhowee, where they showed the fresh scalps and the gun, and told how they had met the Shawano in the north and defeated them without losing a man.

According to custom, preparations were made at once for a great scalp dance to celebrate the victory over the Shawano. The dance was held in the townhouse and all the people of the settlement were there and looked on, while the women danced with the scalps and the gun, and the returned warriors boasted of their deeds. As it happened, among those looking on was a visitor from Cowee, a gunstocker, who took particular notice of the gun and knew it at once as one he had repaired at home for Gûñskăli’skĭ. He said nothing, but wondered much how it had come into possession of the Shawano.

The scalp dance ended, and according to custom a second dance was appointed to be held seven days later, to give the other warriors also a chance to boast of their own war deeds. The gunstocker, whose name was Gûlsadihĭ’, returned home to Cowee, and there heard for the first time how a Shawano war party had surprised some of the town people, killed several, and taken their scalps and a gun. He understood it all then, and told the chief that the mischief had been done, not by a hostile tribe, but by the false men of Chilhowee. It seemed too much to believe, and the chief said it could not be possible, until the gunstocker declared that he had recognized the gun as one he had himself repaired for the man who had been killed. At last they were convinced that his story was true, and all Cowee was eager for revenge.

It was decided to send ten of their bravest warriors, under the leadership of the gunstocker, to the next dance at Chilhowee, there to take their own method of reprisal. Volunteers offered at once for the service. They set out at the proper time and arrived at Chilhowee on the night the dance was to begin. As they crossed the stream below the town they met a woman coming for water and took their first revenge by killing her. Men, women, and children were gathered in the townhouse, but the Cowee men concealed themselves outside and waited.

In this dance it was customary for each warrior in turn to tell the story of some deed against the enemy, putting his words into a song which he first whispered to the drummer, who then sang with him, drumming all the while. Usually it is serious business, but occasionally, for a joke, a man will act the clown or sing of some extravagant performance that is so clearly impossible that all the people laugh. One man after another stepped into the ring and sang of what he had done against the enemies of his tribe. At last one of the late war party rose front his seat, and after a whisper to the drummer began to sing of how they had gone to Cowee and taken scalps and the gun, which he carried as he danced. The chief and the people, who knew nothing of the treacherous act, laughed, heartily at what they thought was a great joke.

But now the gunstocker, who had been waiting Outside with the Cowee men, stripped off his breechcloth and rushed naked into the townhouse. Bending down to the drummer–who was one of the traitors, but failed to recognize Gûlsadihĭ’–he gave him the words, and then straightening up he began to sing, “Hi! Ask who has done this!” while he danced around the circle, making insulting gestures toward every one there. The song was quick and the drummer beat very fast.

He made one round and bent down again to the drummer, then straightened up and sang, “Yu! I have killed a pregnant woman at the ford and thrown her body into the river!” Several men started with surprise, but the chief said, “He is only joking; go on with the dance,” and the drummer beat rapidly.

Another round and he bent down again to the drummer and then began to sing, “We thought our enemies were from the north, but we have followed them and they are here!” Now the drummer knew at last what it all meant and he drummed very slowly, and the people grew uneasy. Then, without waiting on the drummer, Gûlsadihĭ’ sang, “Cowee will have a ball play with you!”–and everyone knew this was a challenge to battle–and then fiercely: “But if you want to fight now my men are ready to die here!”

With that he waved his hand and left the townhouse. The dancers looked at each other uneasily and some of them rose to go. The chief, who could not understand it, urged them to go on with the dance, but it was of no avail. They left the townhouse, and as they went out they met the Cowee men standing with their guns ready and their hatchets in their belts. Neither party said anything, because they were still on friendly ground, but everyone knew that trouble was ahead.

The Cowee men returned home and organized a strong party of warriors from their own and all the neighboring Middle settlements to go and take vengeance on Chilhowee and on Kuwâ’hĭ, just below, which had also been concerned in the raid. They went down the Tennessee and crossed over the mountains, but when they came on the other side they found that their enemies had abandoned their homes and fled for refuge to the remoter settlements or to the hostile Shawano in the north.