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Appalachian Mountains: the fascinating search for a word’s true meaning

The word, Apalache, first appeared in the Spanish archives during the Pánfilo de Narváez Expedition (1527-1536). When asked about gold, Florida Indians pointed to the north and said that the Apalache had much gold in their land. There are no gold deposits in Florida, but the first major gold rush in the United States was in North Georgia.

Beginning in 1562, Spanish maps and after 1565, all European maps began labeling the Southern Highlands as Apalachen, Apalatsy, Apalatcy or Apalache. During much of the 18th century, the Georgia Mountains were called the Apalachian Mountains, while those in North Carolina were called the Cherokee Mountains. Eventually, all of the eastern range of mountains in the Southeast was called the Appalachian Mountains.


This beautifully rendered French map from 1600 shows the concentration of Apalache villages and towns at the source of the Oconee-Altamaha River System, plus tells readers that the Appalachian Mountains contain deposits of gold and silver. Under the waterfall, the inscription tells readers that “In this lake the Indians gather grains of silver.” Actually, it was gold colored mica, which was exported long distances because the Mayas had no source for mica, which was used in vast amounts for architecture and cosmetics. In late 1565, a handful of survivors from Fort Caroline were allowed to establish a colony in Apalache, with the provision that they marry Apalache women. When the Eleanor Dare party arrived in 1591, they were also required to marry Apalache husbands and wives. This colony, called Melilot, became the anchor for attracting Protestant and Jewish refugees to the Georgia Mountains.

Want to know how the Appalachian Mountains got their name? Go to almost any reference other than the People of One Fire and you will read something similar to this paragraph in Wikipedia:

“Appalachian Mountains: Name is derived from a Native American village near present-day Tallahassee, Florida, transcribed in Spanish as  Apalachen [a.paˈla.tʃɛn]. It is a Creek Indian word that means “People on the Other Side.” The name was eventually used as for the tribe and region spreading well inland to the north. Now spelled “Appalachian”, it is the fourth oldest surviving European place-name in the US. After the de Soto expedition in 1540, Spanish cartographers began to apply the name of the tribe to the mountains themselves.”

The translation provided is completely bogus, as were almost all of those done by early 20th century Smithsonian ethnologist, John Swanton. Did he even own a Creek dictionary? There are some facts in this article, but the information that is left out radically changes the overall meaning. As stated in the accompanying TV interview of historian Jim Loewen on this webpage, much of what students read in official American History textbooks is just that . . . part of the facts manicured in order to give an entirely different spin on history.

Don’t faint, I translated the word wrong, too!

For nine years, I have proudly announced that unlike certain 20th century Dixie professors, I used a Miccosukee-Hitchiti dictionary to translate Apalache . . . and it meant, “Light or torch – children of.” Well, it does, but Appalachian turned out to be derived from a Europeanized word, not the word that indigenous people spoke. It was the discovery of those documents in England that had been lost for 280 years that turned my understanding of the past, upside down.

In his speech to the leaders of the Colony of Georgia, Principal Chief Chikili used the words Apalache and Palache interchangeably. He also called himself a Palache . . . not a Creek, not a Muskogee, not a Koweta.  Since Chikili was known to be from the Georgia Piedmont, that confirmed what we were almost certain of, the true Apalache were in North Georgia, not Florida.

In another recorded speech, Chikili specifically stated that Apalache and Palache meant the same thing.  Oh #*$%!  My translation of Apalache couldn’t possibly be correct, if the A could be dropped off and still have the same meaning. Where in the world did that word come from?

Using a Sherlock Holmes approach

A list was made of known facts:

1. Apalache and Palache had the same meaning in the 1730s.

2. The words were really Apalasi and Palasi . . . at least we thought.

3. The Apalache called their mountain homeland, Palan.  There is a province in northern Peru called Palan

4. The Apalache elite dressed identically to the Panoan peoples of eastern Peru, including their strange conical straw hats.

5. Swift Creek stamped pottery from Georgia was identical to Conibo stamped pottery from Peru.

6. Napier Stamped pottery from Georgia was identical to Shipibo stamped pottery from Peru.

7. The high kings of the Apalache called themselves Paracusa, which is also the name of one of the earliest civilizations in Peru. The Paracusa were extremely tall and had flattened foreheads.  They made the fieldstone effigies of animals in the Nazca Valley of Peru before mysteriously leaving the region.  Numerous royal graves have been found in proto-Creek towns that contained extremely tall men with flattened foreheads.  (6′-6″ to 7′ tall)

8. The Creek word for the Sacred Black Drink made from yaupon holly was the same word in Panoan. The Panoans and several other Amazonian tribes have the same Yaupon tea ceremonies.

9. The Creek and South Carolina Low Country word for a village chief, orata, was the same among the Panoans.

10. The Migration Legend of the Apalache People said that they arrived to the South Atlantic Coast from the sea and that their first capital was where Downtown Savannah is now. Chicola or Chicora was the name of the first capital and the province around it. The town of Chicora was NOT in South Carolina.

I speculated that Apalache and Palache were Panoan words that meant the same. However, I could find neither word in any of the Panoan dictionaries – Shipibo, Conibo, Kashibo, Satibo and Chiska . . . you recognize that last word? The North American Chiskas were not Yuchi’s.

Apalache elite in present day Jackson County, GA

Apalache elite in present day Jackson County, GA. Colorization of 1658 engraving, based on eyewitness sketches made by Richard Briggstock in 1653.

Strike Three . . . you’re out! Nothing was similar to Apalache, Palache or Apalasi.

Then I stumbled upon a colonial map that spelled Palachicola as Parachecola. Of course, Muskogees and Cherokees couldn’t pronounce a European R. Panoans, Apalaches and Yuchi’s could. Europeans wrote down the Muskogee speakers attempt to pronounce an R as an L. That is why Chicora and Chicola were the same towns. Captain René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline, had mentioned that fact.

Eureka, I have found it! There is was. Para was the Panoan word for the ocean or sea. A was the Panoan prefix for “from”. “Si” or “che” is the Muskogean suffix for “offspring of.” Apara means “From the Sea” in Panoan. Aparasi means “Offspring from the sea” in the hybrid Apalache language. Around Savannah, there are several river names that in various languages mean either “Sea People” or “Offspring of the Sea.” It all made perfect sense.

But how did that word become Apalachen? The earliest Spanish map labeled North Georgia, Apalachen. A closer look at the Shipibo-Spanish dictionary gave the answer. The plural of Aparasi, would be Aparasen, which would be pronounced by Muskogeans as Ä : pȁ : lä : shēn.

Case closed. Apalachen merely meant “The Apalachees.”

There was to be one fine marble capstone on this discovery. Captain René de Laudonnière said that the Indians on the coast of present day Georgia and South Carolina, plus the Calusas of South Florida, worshiped a deity named Toya. He added that when praying to Toya, they would shout, “Hey Toya!”

No matter how much I searched the internet, I could find no deity named Toya. Then I happened to glance at a list of “ancient pre-Inca gods of Peru.” Atoya was the first deity worshiped in Peru.  A Universal Creator deity, represented by the symbol of the sun, he or she (depending on the tribe) became known as the Ancient Mountain god. The Panoans would have worshiped Atoya two thousand years agp. They obvioulsy brought their female sun goddess/creator deity, Atoya, with them to North America.

That would explain why the Apalache and later, the Creeks monotheistically worshiped an invisible Creator goddess, whose traits were almost identical to those of YHWH of the ancient Hebrews,  except she was a female.  They logically concluded that only a woman could love her human children, despite their failings. 

Having the God of the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah wear dresses, was more than the early Protestant missionaries to the Creeks could stomach . . . especially if you throw the pleasure that Creek women took in going around topless!   The missionaries pressured newly converted Creeks to think of God as a white man with a beard, who didn’t like women exposing their breasts in public.  Within a generation or so, these traditions were forgotten.

Would you believe that the Bronze Age peoples on the coast of Spain  made concentric circle petroglyphs like those in North Georgia, and also worshiped a sun goddess named Atoya? Things are getting more and more complex.  Some archaeologists believe that those Bronze Age folks on the coast of Spain were the source of the Atlantis Legend.  They disappeared after a massive tsunami around 1200 BC.

At this point, I was tempted to yell “Hey Toya,” but will stick to Hallilujah!

Well, we’uns ignorant mountain folks have done turned them thar history books upside down again  . . . and t’weren’t even a-trying!

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Well Done!

    • Thank you sir. You can see why, with such radical changes occurring in our understanding of the past, I am hesitant to write a book, because it would probably be obsolete before it was published!


    Thank you for publishing this. For some reason from the impressions and feelings I was getting from doing my own research and the ease with which Cusabo people accepted Christianity, this makes sense. I was trying to puzzle out for the last few months the fact that there was only Hetoya/Toya mentioned in the Cusabo vocabulary as a deity. Usually in lists of deities there is a pantheon, and that is at least usually recorded. It struck me as odd that there was not more mention of there being various deities. People have asked me about Cusabo religion and I have just been telling them that we worshiped this deity named Toya and that we had temples and a ball game and some of the other limited stuff that I could tell them. The reactions of the people I have informed have been of surprise that there was a monotheistic religion practiced by Native Americans. From my grandmother I got the impression that for Cusabo people, Christianity was not that much of a stretch to understand. With your research this makes total sense. The Spaniards were however unable to convert the Cusabo peoples to Roman Catholicism and abandoned Santa Elena twenty years after founding it due to being defeated by the Edisto.

    Also, there crop up with regularity variations on “Orista” as recorded by the Spaniards, French and English in Cusabo vocabulary. Allowing for the development of the phonetics of those languages, this explains the variations on “Orista”.

    Religion is usually a pretty good way of tracking cultural flow. There are so many seemingly random disappearances of cultures and languages in the Americas that it is nice to finally see some connections being made. It also makes sense with stories my grandmother told of the Native peoples of the South not being extremely distinct but moving easily within each other’s societies and cultures. The Cherokee were never presented by her as being from the South ever. The linguistic, religious and cultural practices such as cooking and building seem pretty continuous between Mvskogee and Cusabo villages too. Plugging in the Apalache Kingdom/Chiefdom, which made up both Mvskogee and Cusabo lands, the cultural and religious similarities make sense in that context. It would also make sense as to why the Cusabo got along with the Guale as the two peoples would have been trading partners and under the same King/High Chief in the last few hundred years. It is a fascinating juxtaposition to another large Southern Chiefdom, the Powhatan. It makes sense that multi-ethnic/linguistic chiefdoms were formed across the South, especially as the religious similarities are so great in the Deep South. I have seen a map showing the Savannah River being a major trade route from the Atlantic Coast in to the Appalachian Mountains on the South Carolina-Georgia border, as well as another trade route intersecting this one. The second trade route ran from right above the Okefenokee Swamp to right north of present day Charleston, South Carolina. When I saw the picture of the trade routes, I was interested because the Cusabo area lies at the meeting of those trade routes on the Northern side and the Guale is on the Southern side of this intersection. At the time, I did not understand why the trade route going from the Atlantic Coast to the South Carolina Appalachian Mountain area would make sense. With your information of the Cushetta towns and Etowa town site (Etowa Mounds) this coast to mountain trade route makes complete sense and helps piece together the way goods and information moved around the U.S. southeast.

    Like former Cherokee Chief Linda Mankiller says, perhaps it is the job of our generation to gather the coals from the fire and bring the people together again. It amazes me at this point how the strands of tradition that my grandmother told me over the time I knew her, meet with those of other peoples of the Southeast. It is such a relief to me to find other people who have tried to piece together our pre-European Contact cultural connections and to show the rich tapestry of Native American life in what is now the South East U.S. We truly have a heritage and culture equal to any of European origin.

    Another link to the Mayans I have noticed in the Carolinas is the tradition of the barbecue pit in its construction, usage and that with which it was covered. I was in Mexico in the Yucatan to study Spanish. When in a cultural session we were told about the way the Maya cooked in the pits, I was excited because it matched exactly the way that my grandmother told me the proper way to build a pit for cooking. I shared this with the person who was doing the class and they were amazed. It was a surprise for both of us. I was so excited to find out that information with the pit cooking because it was the first time that I had encountered other Native people who were using the same processes used in the Carolinas (and I would assume Georgia). Like in the Carolinas, the Mayas cooked sweet potatos, meat and corn in the pits. It was another cultural “aha” moment that helped confirm the stories my grandmother had told me.

    People have said to me comments like, “You’re assimilated, you don’t have anything culturally distinct. It’s all gone.” More often than not, I desire to reply, “We do, now if you would just give us the space to do it in, we would gladly do it!”. It’s not so much a “Get off our land” as much as, “This land can be for many people, respect us who were here first and try out how we live and give us the space to show you our lives.” The thing that I have encountered in trying to establish relations with people of solely European origin (Like many Native people from the South I am mixed background.) while explaining Native cultural practices, is that frequently they start to feel like foreigners (their reactions tell me this). I think as connections are renewed among Native peoples of the South, we will be able to tell our story in a coherent way to non-Native people and bring them into our cultures in ways they can understand.

    Please keep up the good work in your research. Between all of us, I believe we have the history and culture of the peoples of the South still. My family was able to keep the food culture, material culture, and the social structure on a reduced pattern. Hopefully other families were able to keep other parts of our cultures and we can get a clear picture of things eventually. I think the encouragement comes when we realize it has been 500 years of colonization and we still understand our Native ways and continue to dig into our origins in the Americas. I think that is a victory.

    I want to check further into the Panoan cultures to see if there are any more similarities. This is really interesting, thank you for publishing this.

    • Forgot to mention that the Guale were not Muskogeans, but were influenced by them in the names of their political offices. The reason that anthropologists started calling the Guale Muskogeans is because they did not know any of the Muskogean languages. Almost all the village names on the Georgia Coast and South Carolina Low Country can be translated with either Panoan, Tupi-Guarani or Arawak dictionaries.

  3. Hey Anonymous

    All sorts of connections. Osabaw Island is the Anglicization of Assebo – which is a Panoan word that means “Place of the Yaupon Holly.” The clothing of a Conibo chief looks just like that of a Miccosukee chief.

    Currently, there is a lot of misunderstanding about the term Muskogee. The majority of Creeks in South Carolina and Georgia were not Muskogees. The predominant ethnic group was the Itsate – called Hitchiti today. Itsate is also what the Itza Maya called themselves. I have several more articles about the South American connection in POOF.

    Thanks for you many intelligent comments.


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