Creek Geographical Town Names
Why do many Creek geographical and town names seem to have no meaning in Muskogee . . . while Choctaw place names are Choctaw words?
Last week, a lady in Birmingham, Alabama with both Creek and Choctaw ancestry, wrote me with an interesting question. Evidently, she has been diving deeply into her heritage lately. She is trying to translate the American Indian place names in Alabama and not having a great deal of success with “Creek” words. Well, for one reason, very little of present day Alabama was Muskogee-Creek until after 1763, but the complete answer is much more complicated than that. You will find this newsletter fascinating.
Back in 2004 when I first started doing research for building the models at the Creek capitol in Okmulgee, I hit the same brick wall. We couldn’t figure out the correct Creek name for what archaeologists call “the Lamar Village at Ocmulgee National Monument.” Various colonial archives named a town on an island in the Ocmulgee River either Ichesi, Achese, Uchesi, Auchesee, Ochese or Ochuse. Ochuse was also an early name for Mobile Bay. Which was correct? What did the word mean? What time period should we portray in the model?
Simultaneously, the Muskogee-Creek Nation’s officials were being amused by a formal document that they had received from a group of archaeologists in Georgia, demanding that they cancel my contract, because I was not qualified to do the work. I don’t know how these strangers even found out about the project, because at the time, I did not do any public writing and maintained a low profile. A National Council member joked with me, “This is the first time in the history of the Creek People that Georgia archaeologists had ever communicated with us. We have decided that we want you to build several more models and also write for us a book from the Creek perspective. ” The rest is history.
Tribal employees discussed our questions with some elders, who were especially knowledgeable of Creek history. We found that when the tribal town at Ocmulgee National Monument migrated to the Chattahoochee River in SW Georgia, and then to Florida, it’s name was shown on some old maps as being Ochese – on others, Auchesee. After the tribal town moved to the Indian Territory, it was shown on the Oklahoma maps as Ochese or Ochesee. We decided on a label of Ochese. We also decided to portray the town as looked around 1350 AD, when the elders believe it was an important religious shrine, featuring the Great Spiral Mound. In the 1500s, the town was less populous, while the other pyramidal mound had become an oval Lamar Culture mound.
It is now known that Ochese was NOT what the original town was called. Mvskoke speakers called the town, Vcese (Auchesee.) Itsate speakers called the town, Icese (Ichesee.) In either language the word means, “Children of Corn.” Ochesee and Auchesee are actually English versions of the Muskogee word. Icese is a hybrid Maya-Muskogean word.
The dilemma with the town model illustrates the complexity of the surviving Creek languages, Mvskokee, Koasati and Miccosukee. Itsate, Apalachicola, Tamatli, Wahale, Mayami and South Carolina Muskogean are extinct Muskogean languages, but their origins were probably equally as complex.
A historical Process Identical to English
The historical process that created Muskogee, Itsate, Koasati and Apalachicola was identical to that of English. How many of you can understand 10th century English? Forget 5th century Angliska. Those of you who speak Mvskoke fluently could probably understand very little of what was spoken at Ocmulgee in the 10th century.
The first Muskogeans entering the Southeast probably spoke a language similar to Alabama. However, there were already many distinct ethnic groups living in the Southeast. The Siouans apparently were the predominant ethnic group of southern Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The Yuchi were all over the Southeast. The Shawnee predominated in the interior of the Upper South. It is quite likely that in the Gulf Coastal Plain were peoples speaking languages similar to Caddo or Natchez.
The Middle Woodland Period (200 BC – 750 AD) was apparently a peaceful time in which there was much regional trade and travel. Ideas and words spread across the landscape. Ethnic groups met at great festivals in such places as Kolomoki Mounds, Pinson Mounds, and Leake Mounds and in the Hopewell ceremonial sites farther north. Intermarriage of ethnic groups undoubtedly occurred as a result of these festivals. During this period in the Gulf Coastal Plain there is architectural evidence of influence from Teotihuacan in central Mexico. There was also the appearance of new styles of ceramics in the Weeden Island Culture, which exhibit strong Caribbean and northern South American traits. Possibly foreign words accompanied these cultural ideas.
Swift Creek Culture (Muskogean) towns were abandoned below the Fall Line between 600 AD and 750 AD. This corresponds exactly to the period of turmoil in central Mexico and the rapid expansion of Late Classic Maya cities. During this period the Mayas acquired vast numbers of slaves to build their cities and haul their goods. The initially illiterate Chontal Maya traders from Tabasco used hundreds of thousands of slaves to carry their goods and paddle their boats between cities in Mesoamerica.
It may not be coincidental that Swift Creek Culture survived longest in regions not accessible by the Chontal Maya sea-going boats. In the South Carolina Low County there are many place names with Chontal Maya suffixes. “Haw” means water or river in Putun (Chontal) Maya, while “po or pa” means “place of.” South Carolina colonists wrote down the “pa or po” suffix as either “bo,” “ba” “bou” or “baw.” The Muskogean “p” is halfway between an English “p” and “b.” Those endings appear in several ethnic, river and place names in South Carolina. I have noticed that some South Carolina anthropologists have decided that “bo” or “bou” means “river.” The original town name that the Anglicized tribal name Catawba derived from was the Creek-Maya word Kvtvpa.
At some time in the past, probably during the Late Woodland Period, maybe earlier, descendants of the people responsible for the Olmec Civilization, apparently colonized Georgia and South Carolina. Known as the Soque in South Carolina and Zoque in Mexico, the two words are pronounced the same – jzho–ke-. The Soque were the most power ethnic group in South Carolina, until plagues and slave raids sponsored by Virginia, almost wiped them out. Their province apparently included most of northwestern South Carolina and some of NE Georgia. The letter K was seldom used when South Carolina was first settled, but their name eventually became Sokee, before they disappeared from history. The site of the capital of the Sokee is under Lake Jocasee. The location’s physical appearance exactly matches Juan Pardo’s description of the city of Joara.
There was rift in the Sokee when their nation was racked with disease, inter-tribal wars and slave raids. The elite, who were of Mesoamerican lineage, headed to southwestern Georgia. They called themselves the Mikko-Sokee. That is something that the Miccosukee of Florida don’t even know! Have you noticed how much the Miccosukee resemble the indigenous people of Tabasco, southern Vera Cruz and Oaxaca in Mexico? Now you know why. Some Sokee stayed put in the western section of their province in northeastern Georgia. They were eventually absorbed by Cherokee territory, but kept their ethnic identity. Their main village was on the border between the Cherokee and Creek Nations, where Clarkesville, GA is now located. There was also a fort and trading post in their village that served the Mountain Creeks and the Sokee.
The Sokee linguistic legacies are Lake Jocasee in South Carolina, the Soque River in Habersham County, GA and Soco Gap on the NC Cherokee Reservation. These are all “Creek” words that cannot be translated by Muskogee dictionaries. The core of the Snowbird Cherokees is composed of some Sokee, who became allied with the Cherokees, but didn’t really want to be closely associated with the “mainstream” Cherokees. The Cherokees on the main Cherokee reservation call them “moon faces.” Many of the Sokee joined with the Kusapa (Cusabo) and later migrated to Alabama, where they joined the Creek Confederacy. Prior the Trail of Tears there were Creek towns named Jokee and Jokasee in Alabama.
By 900 AD most of the Maya cities had been abandoned. Around 900 AD or somewhat earlier, there were sudden changes along the Chattahoochee and Ocmulgee Rivers. Newcomers established trading posts or villages with Maya Commoner architectural traits, but with cultural symbols that been endemic around Lake Okeechobee, Florida for several hundred years. The symbols eventually spread all over the Southeast and by 1050 AD had reached southern Illinois, where the town now called Cahokia exploded into a megapolis. These cultural symbols are now called “Mississippian” but they all originated in a cluster of sophisticated towns near Lake Okeechobee.
Apparently, the late 9th century and 10th century is when some Itza commoners fled multiple volcanic eruptions and drought in Chiapas, then settled in present-day northern Georgia, eastern Alabama and western North Carolina. They probably became the elite who led Muskogean majorities. During the Late Classic and Terminal Classic Periods, the Itza spoke a language that mixed Totonac, Putun Maya and their original Central American tongue. They worshiped a “Snake God” who was their version of Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl. In their worship of this Snake God, men and women joined together to imitate the coiling and the rattling sound of a horned rattlesnake. That’s the origin of the Stomp Dance.
The Itza created a tribal or ethnic name by adding a “te” suffix. The Itsate-speaking Kvsv (pronounced Kaushaw, but now called Coosa) called themselves the Kvsv-te. Kvsv (written Kaa’xi in Itza Maya) means “forested mountains.” Early French explorers wrote the word they heard as Cousheta. English colonists wrote the French word down as Cusseta. Thus, the towns of Cusseta, GA and Cusseta, AL have names that are pure Itza Maya in origin, via a French spelling.
The cultural change in the Pre-European Southeast in the 10th and 11th centuries is comparable to the cultural impact of the Norman Invasion of England in 1066 AD. For about two centuries thereafter, the English nobility spoke Norman French, while the Commoners spoke dialects of Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norse and Britannic Celtic. Eventually, though, the many dialects became one language. The many cultural traditions became one. In the case of the Southeast, many Muskogean dialects became Itsate, a Muskogean language with many Itza Maya words. Itsate means “Itza Maya People” and is pronounced the same in Creek and Maya.
Creek place names sometimes contain Itsate or Choctaw words that seem meaningless to Muskogee speakers. For example, the Sawakehatchee Rivers in South Carolina and Georgia, and Saugahatchee Creek in Lee County, AL are all Anglicizations of the once powerful Sawate or Sawake people in NE Georgia and western South Carolina combined with the Creek word for a large stream. Sawate/Sawake meant “Raccoon People” in the Southeast, but in Oklahoma Muskogee, raccoon is wokto.
Around 1150 AD a wave of Arawak peoples began settling the South Atlantic Region. The best known are the Tamaucoa (TImucua in Spanish) whose name suggest a hybrid origin. Tama is Totonac for trader or merchant. “Coa” is Arawak for “people or ethnic group.” There were others though. The Toa of north central Puerto Rico definitely settled on the lower Ocmulgee River. De Soto visited them. The Muskogeans called the Toasi. They later moved to central Alabama and joined the Creek Confederacy. There Anglo-American traders called them Tawasee. They have left a linguistic legacy in the name of Tawassee Point in Lowndsboro, AL.
A second period of change occurred after 1250 AD. Chichimec barbarians flooded into Tamaulipas. It was inhabited by a hybrid population that had mixed Totonac, Chontal Maya and Huastec traditions. Unlike all the other indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Tamaule started their calendar on the Summer Solstice and grew a sweet corn that they ate on the cob. The surviving Tamale-Maya in Chiapas are descendants of Tamaule refugees from the late 1200s. They still maintain these unique traditions. No other indigenous people in Mexico eat corn on the cob or celebrate the Green Corn Festival.
Waves of refugees from Tamaulipas apparently entered the Southeast through the mouth of the Mobile-Alabama River System at Mobile Bay. The original name of the province in southwestern Alabama was Yama. Yamasee was the generic label applied to people who spoke the Yama Trade Jargon (Mobilian.) The refugees from Tamualipas introduced the Green Corn Festival, corn on the cob and the “Creek calendar,” which begins on the Summer Solstice. After these refugees gained enough power either through war or diplomacy, to establish dominance, proto-Creek mounds no longer faced the Winter Solstice sunset, but instead faced the Summer Solstice sunrise. Construction of five sided Itza Maya style mounds also ceased about that time.
Refugees from Tamaulipas used two suffixes to denote tribal or ethnic identity, “tli” and “le.” “Tli” is used in both Totonac and Nahautl. “Le” seems to be a suffix limited to Tamaulipas and northern Vera Cruz. The grammatical reason for using one or the other suffix has been lost with the extinction of the language.
Many place names in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana include all of the word, Tama – spelled Tamv in Itsate and pronounced “Ta( – ma(w.” The town names include Altamaha, Tamale, Tamassee, Tomassee, Tamatly, Tomatly, Tomatla and of course, the Tama Tribal Town in SW Georgia. Most of their residents would probably freak out if they knew that the founders of their town were descended from refugees fleeing violence and economic hardship in Mexico – and that their town has a Totonac name meaning “merchants or traders.” It is impossible to be a bigot, if you truly know North American history.
Perhaps the most interesting location of a Tamale town was near Murphy, NC a few miles north of Brasstown Bald Mountain, GA – where the Track Rock Gap terraces are. Apparently, it was a colony or regional trading center established by the main body of Tamatli-Creeks in southeast Georgia. Originally, the valley where the Tamale settled had at least 18 mounds, but most were destroyed by real estate developers from Atlanta and Florida, during the past decade. They didn’t want any hinderances when the Cherokees built a second casino in Andrews, NC. That has never happened.
Here is what is so fascinating. The name of the ethnic group on the earliest documents describing the Cherokees, is Tamau’h-le. That is almost exactly what the indigenous people of Tamaulipas, Mexico called themselves, and what the Tamaule-Maya refugee descendants in Chiapas still call themselves. North Carolina archaeologists, unless they read our newsletters, have no clue about the Tamaule being in their state. The North Carolina Tamaule eventually agreed to be absorbed by the Cherokee Alliance as alternative to being either burned at the stake or sold in a Charleston slave market. Strangely, by the late 1700s, the Tamale changed their name to its Totonac form of Tama-tli. Early Anglo-American settlers spelled the community’s name, Tomatla. That is the place name you will see on a sign along Highway 129.
Gary Daniels, of www.Lost Worlds.org, has been accumulating evidence that bands of immigrants continued to travel from northwestern Mexico to the Chattahoochee Valley after 1250 AD. His evidence includes artistic traditions, architecture and place names. The last to arrive was probably the Kashita. It is quite likely that the Kashita destroyed the terrace town at Track Rock Gap at some point in the 1500s. That event is discussed in the last paragraphs of “Migration Legend of the Kashita People.” After joining the Creek Confederacy, these late arrivals would have also contributed place names that can’t be translated with a Muskogee-Creek dictionary.
There is proof of immigration from northwestern Mexico in the de Soto Chronicles. De Soto’s Muskogean guides gave the name of a particularly primitive people in South Carolina as Chaloki. That happens to be the Totonac word for the Chichimec barbarians! It is a word that has been absorbed into modern Muskogee via Itsate (Hitchiti.) French mapmaker, DeLisle showed the Chaloki living in southeast Georgia in the early 1700s. John Mitchell’s 1755 map showed them living on the Flint River, near its confluence with the Chattahoochee River. Apparently, the Chaloki were absorbed into the Creek Confederacy, but they may have immigrated to Spanish Florida and become a member of the Seminole Alliance.
The final influence on the development of the Muskogee language came from European languages. The Creek word for cow, waka, is derived from the Spanish word for cow, vaca. Creek towns in southern Georgia and northern Florida, who refused to join the Creek Confederacy, were labeled, seminolas, a corruption of the Spanish word, cimarrón, which means, “a runaway cow or horse.” Muskogees originally couldn’t pronounce “r” sounds, while Itsate Creeks could.
The most common reason that Creek place and ethnic names are today difficult to translate is that the Creeks themselves are using the English versions of their place names. For example, Okmulgee, OK is the Anglicization of the ethnic name Oka-mole-ki, which in Georgia Muskogee meant “Water-swirling-people.” Oka is the Itsate (Hitchiti) word for water, while in Oklahoma Muskogee, it is oe or owa.
What exactly is a Muskogee?
It is quite possible that the Lower Chattahoochee Valley was once occupied by a people from the Andes Foothills and upper Amazon Basin civilization of South America. There are some cultural aspects of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, that are quite different than other branches of the Muskogean family. I strongly suspect that these South Americans became strongly influenced by Muskogean neighbors during the Woodland Period, and then were dominated by Putun Maya traders beginning around 900 AD and finally were dominated by the rulers of Moundville, AL during its heyday. By the Lamar Period, a few vestigial words and architectural traditions remained. That language evolved into Mvskoke (Muskogee.)
Many ethnic groups joined the Creek Confederacy. Most of you are probably not aware of this but Muskogee was originally spoken in a very small region along the Tallapoosa River in Alabama and west central Georgia. However, it was adopted as the official parliamentary language of the Creek Confederacy. Over time the non-Muskogee ethnic groups far outnumbered the original Muskogee-speaking towns, but an increasing percentage of members switched to speaking Mvskoke in their home towns.
The NAMES of towns often remained in the form of the original language of a Creek Confederacy member long after that branch stopped speaking their original language. Many of these place names were later Anglicized, which makes translation even more difficult.
So here I sit, with dictionaries for the Muskogee, Koasati, Alabama, Miccosukee, Biloxi, Northern Totonac, Papantla Totonac, Itza Maya, Cho’i-te Maya, Taino and Miztec-Zoque languages on a table at my side. That is what is required, when you unravel the history of the Creek People.
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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.
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