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.

The Case of Unawatti Creek

Unawatti Creek flows into the North Fork of the Broad River, not too far from Canon, in Franklin County, Georgia.  Locally, it is pronounced “YunaWATTy.”  I like that pronunciation, and it gives a better clue to the origin of the name than the spelling does.

We need to remember that the “correct” pronunciation of any place name is the one used by the people who have lived there most of their lives.  I am reminded of hearing TV newsreaders butcher the pronunciation of local names, showing how little research they must have done and displaying their ignorance of the the area they cover.  Down in Gwinnett County [GwiNETT, not GWINett]. Georgia, is the town of Dacula–its name has no connection to any Cherokee root–; it is almost painful to hear its name pronounced to rhyme with Dracula, when the correct form is “daCUEla.”

Unawatti was, until recently, almost always spelled Unawattie.  Now, I notice that MapQuest and Google Maps have it as Unawatts.   I hope someone will correct them.  Maybe I will.

The creek was named for a Cherokee man who lived on its banks long ago.  His name translated into English was Old Bear; in Cherokee, it would have been something like “Yanaweti” or “Yonaweti,” from “yonah”, bear, and “uweti,” old.  The actual pronunciation would have been something like “Yawnawetty,” with the “yawn” part not quite so drawled as in our Southern speech.  Cherokee tends to join two or more words into one.

Using old maps and documents, the various English spelling attempts at Old Bear’s name have been recorded.  No, I did not do that research, but I have verified it, because it gives us some idea of how old Cherokee place names have changed over time.

An early spelling was “Yanuhweti”; we can be reasonably certain of that because it is closest to Yanuweti.  Soon afterward, the “-weti” became “-wattee” and the creek became Yonawattee or even Yonawatte.   A later attempt at spelling was “Yeounawattee,”  or “Yeounuwattee.” Other variations were “Yone Water” and “Yonawattoe.”   Eventually, the Yonah part came to be pronounced “Yuna” and spelled “Una-.”

We could trace the sound evolutions something like this:

Yawna [bear] –> Yonah –> Yeounu –> Una

Uweti, shortened in Cherokee to weti [old] –> watte –> wattie –> watti.

We can see how names and sounds change as they move more and mores steps away from the original language into English.  In this case, the Cherokee name was not quite as difficult for English tongues as most other words, and the current name might even be understandable enough for Old Bear to have recognized it if someone had spoken it to him.

By the way, the Western Cherokee still call North Carolina “Tsalaguwetiyi,” “the Old Cherokee Place.”

Cherokee Place Names, Part 3

Cherokee Place Names, Part 3

The meanings of some of the old Cherokee place names were long since lost to the Cherokee themselves when the white people came. Perhaps a few bear traces of the languages of the people who preceded the Cherokee, for the Cherokee arrived in the Southeast about 3000 to 3500 years ago [at about the same time Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt], based on glottochronological views. [There is some evidenced their arrival may have been much more recent.] Others names were taken by the Cherokee from neighboring tribes such as the Creeks and Catawbas. In our area are quite a few place names that are very likely to be Cherokee or Cherokee-influenced, but which I have not been able to pin down with certainty, seeing that I like to do much more than just guess or speculate. For examples, consider these names: Waleska, Cartecay, Noontootla, Talona, and even Chenocetah. Perhaps someone who reads this article will have more historical information on these names than I do and will be good enough to pass it on to me.

Along the way, we need to correct some false translations, too. The colorful “translations” often given by localities of their names’ origins are sometimes grossly incorrect. Some samples:

TOCCOA: We have both the Toccoa River and the city of Toccoa in our area. And, there is Toccoa Falls. While none of us will deny that these places are beautiful, the Cherokee word from which the name is taken decidedly does not mean “beautiful.” [The word for “beautiful” is “uwoduhi.”] Among the most lasting enemies of the Cherokee were the Catawba Indians. When the white men came, the Catawba lived in the region about what is now Rock Hill, South Carolina. The Cherokee word for Catawba was “A-ta-qua,” often shortened to “Ta-qua.” Sometimes, Catawba war parties invaded the Cherokee territory, maybe even sometimes trying to set up a Catawba village in the area. The Cherokee did not take kindly to such incursions, and they probably wiped the invaders out completely. Some of the places where memories of finding Catawbas remained were called “Catawba place,” which came out as “Ta-qua-hi” in Cherokee. [The -hi ending has the same meaning as the -yi we have seen before; we can translate it as “place where.”] So, Toccoa really means “Catawba place.”

To get some idea of how inimical the Cherokee and Catawba were toward one another, at the turn of the last century, there was at least one older man on the North Carolina Cherokee reservation who bore the name of “Ta-qua-di-hi.” which means “Catawba Killer.”

A few miles north of Toccoa, on the Tugalo River, is Yonah Lake.  The river forms a part of the border between Georgia and South Carolina.  Yonah, as will be mentioned elsewhere, is from the Cherokee word for “bear.”

Toqua Creek, in Monroe County, Tennessee, appears on some older maps as Toco Creek.  Its name has no connection with Toccoa.  In Cherokee mythology, there was a giant fish monster called the Dakwa [or Taquo]. One Cherokee settlement near the confluence of Toqua Creek and the Little Tennessee River was called Dakwai [Dakwa place], and the creek takes its name from that town.  The site of the town is now submerged in Tellico Lake.  Dakwa is used as the name of a small lake near Turniptown Road, in Gilmer County, Georgia, but that does not seem to be for historical reasons.  The modern Cherokee word “dakwa” means “whale.”

NACOOCHEE: It is usually said to mean “Evening Star.” That mistake came about because someone who knew a little Cherokee thought it was the same word as “na-qui-si,” which does mean “star.” Actually, the name comes from the old Cherokee town of “Na-gu-tsi,” which was located in Nacoochee Valley, at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. The name of the town has no meaning in Cherokee and was taken by them [probably along with the village itself] from earlier Indians living in the area, hapless people who were pushed further south by the Cherokee. Those Indians may have been the Yuchi, also called the Uchee. We notice that the last two syllables in Nacoochee would agree with that, but there is no way to verify this speculation.

By the way, Chattahoochee is not from Cherokee; it is from a Creek Indian word that meant something like “marked-rocks stream.”

The “Legend of Sautee and Nacoochee” no doubt makes an interesting story for tourists, but it is totally an invention of white people. SAUTEE comes from the Cherokee “I-tsa-ti”; it was the name of several important Cherokee towns, including a special “peace town” on the Soque River not far from Nacoochee Valley, and also of the large Nacoochee mound. “Echota” and “Sautee” are the same name, just rendered differently in English ears.  I pronounce Echota as Eh-CHOE-tah; other people often say Eh-CHOE-tuh.  Sautee is pronounced locally as SAW-TEE, with about equal emphasis on both syllables.

TALLULAH: It is said to mean “the terrible.” The name may have come from a word meaning “incomplete” or “unfinished”; we will likely never know for sure, but it definitely does not mean “terrible” nor “there lies your child” [as one writer stated long ago]. The Cherokee tended to avoid the Gorge and the great and beautiful falls that were destroyed by the dam built early in the last century; they called the falls “U-gv-yi,” but no one remembers what that meant. In the 1890’s and until the dam wiped out the falls, Tallulah Falls was a very popular and somewhat posh resort area, with several first-class hotels and access by train from Atlanta. I have heard that Senator Bankhead, a Democrat from Alabama, was so impressed by the place that he named his daughter for it; Tallulah Bankhead [1902-1968] became a famous film actress. A little more on Tallulah will come later.

TERRORA is the same word as Tallulah, but in the old and now extinct Lower Dialect of Cherokee, which had the “r” sound instead of the “l” sound. [Modern Cherokee dialects do not have an “r” sound.]

Now, let’s look at a few more names before we run out of space for this section.

COOSAWATTEE: In Ellijay, the Ellijay and Cartecay Rivers flow together to form the Coosawattee River. Its name comes from a couple of Cherokee words: “Gu-sa u-we-ti-yi,” which we can break down into “Gu-sa,” the Cherokee name for the Creek Indians, and “u-we-ti-yi.” This last part comes from “u-we-ti,” [old or ancient] and the now familiar locative -yi. Putting it all together, we can see that Coosawattee means “old Creek Indian place.” The Cherokee had earlier taken that area from the Creeks.  The name is pronounced  COO-suh-WAH-TEE.

By the way, Oklahoma Cherokee still call North Carolina “Tsa-la-gu-we-ti-yi,’ which means “the old Cherokee place.”

In the movie Deliverance, the “Cahulawassee River” is likely a disguised reference to the Coosawattee River, which underwent development after the Army Engineers approved the building of a dam in 1959.  Today, the result is Coosawattee River Resort near Ellijay and Carter’s Lake; the former dramatic rapids are no more.

We have to notice that the Cherokee “G” sound is almost the same as the English “K” sound; that will explain the meaning of COOSA [“Gu-sa”], as in the river and the town near Rome and in Coosa Bald, south of Blairsville. It simply means “Creek Indian” to the Cherokee.  The name probably derives from a Muskogean word meaning “river cane.”

Over near New Echota, the Coosawattee and the Conasauga come together to form the Oostanaula River.

CONASAUGA: There were several settlements and villages in the old Cherokee lands which bore the name “Ga-na-so-gi.” No one remembers what it meant originally and there is no Cherokee translation; maybe it was just a Cherokee adaptation of an earlier Indian place name, the remnant of some long lost and forgotten tribe.  However, there have been suggestions that the name may be related to the word “kanesga,” which means “grass” or “hay”; I know of no historical documentation for that. An area of northwestern Gilmer County, Georgia, was the site of one such village; the name appeared on maps as “Connesauga” until 1915.  One English mangling of the name is “Kennesaw.”

OOSTANAULA: Several old Cherokee towns also bore the name “U-sta-na-lo-hi.” The translation is “a place where there is a natural barrier or dam of rocks across a stream.” The local pronunciation is “OO-stuh-NOLLY.” The plural form is “U-ni-sta-na-li,” from which we get the name EASTANOLLEE.  Eastanollee is pronounced to rhyme with “Molly.”

Well, as long as we are on this river run, we can point out that the Coosa River is formed by the confluence of the Oostanaula and Etowah Rivers, over at Rome. So, let’s close out this segment with the Etowah.

ETOWAH: There was a Cherokee town called “I-ta-wa.” Once again, no one has any idea of what the original meaning was, and it probably wasn’t Cherokee.  It may have come from a Catawba word for the long-leaf pine tree, but that is mostly speculation; Eutaw is a possible variation of the Catawba word, if the speculation holds up.  Eutaw, Alabama, took its name from the Battle of Eutaw Springs, in what is now Orangeburg County, South Carolina.  Down in Forsyth County, Georgia, southeast of Ball Ground, is Hightower, and that “Hightower” is probably the same Cherokee word. In Towns County [GA], near the North Carolina line, there is Hightower Bald and Hightower Gap; not very far away is Hightower Creek.  Other Hightowers may come from an English family name.  Etowah is pronounced ET-uh-WAH.

And, then there is Ball Ground, in whose vicinity there was probably a ground for playing Indian ball, as was also the case for Ball Play, in Polk County, Tennessee, and Ball Play, in adjacent Monroe County, Tennessee.   An old Cherokee word for which these are the translations might be “u-na-la-sga-lv-di-yi” or nearly that, meaning literally “place where they play ball.”  A similar modern word is used for a ball field or a gymnasium.