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How Tennessee got its name

How Tennessee got its name


There are several different explanations for the word, Tennessee, out in the web.  All of them are wrong, because the authors always try to interpret Creek words without knowing the Creek languages. 

The factual explanation of the word made no sense until we fact checked a statement made by a 17th French ethnologist,  Charles de Rochefort.   He said that the Arawaks originated in the Southeast and migrated all the way to Peru before some of them turned around and ended up in the Southern Highlands and Appalachian Plateau.  Indeed, we did find many Arawak words in northeastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Here is a chronology of how an ethnic name became the name of a river and a state:

(1) There was an ethnic group living at several locations along the Tennessee and Little Tennessee Rivers, plus upstate South Carolina, which the Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks called the Taenasi, which means “Descendants of the Taino.”   Of course, the Taino were also the predominant ethnic group in the Greater Antilles Islands of the Caribbean Basin in 1492.

(2) Muskogee Creeks  and Chickasaws in Georgia pronounced the ethnic name as Tenasi.   Muskogee Creeks and Choctaws in Alabama called the same people, the Tensaw.  Georgia Muskogee Creeks were often the guides for South Carolina Indian traders heading into what is now the State of Tennessee.

(3) Until the late 18th century, most of the Tennessee River was called the Calimaco River, which is an Itza Maya word meaning “House or Palace of the King.”   In the 1600s, the Upper Tennessee River above the mouth of the Hiwassee River was called the Caskenampo River.  Caskenampo is a Koasate word meaning, “Many Warriors.”  In the early 1700s, the Upper Tennessee was called the Cusate River, which means “Kusa People.”  In the mid-1700s, the Upper Tennessee was called the Hogeloge (Uchee) River or Cherokee River.  After the Cherokees went to war with the British until the mid-1780s, the Upper Tennessee River was only called the Hogeloge River.

(4)  The original name (and Creek name)  for the Upper Little Tennessee River was the Talasee River.  The Lower Little Tennessee River was called the Taenasi River.   After the Cherokees rose to power during the Yamasee War, the Upper Tennessee, the Little Tennessee was renamed the Big Tellico River.   After the Cherokees went to war with the British in 1757,  its name became again the Tanasi or Tenasee River.

Tipton-SevierFarms(5)  Before the American Revolution Colonel John Tipton and Colonel John Sevier, lived across Toms Brook from each other in what is now Shenandoah County, Virginia and were the best of friends.  In 1780,  the two men began leading wagon trains of settlers from Shenandoah County to northeastern Tennessee.  Initially, it was because the Revolutionary War was not going well for the Patriots, but later because the war appeared to be won, and there was a vast tract of unoccupied land in Northeastern Tennessee.

The wagon trains passed through southwestern Virginia and what is now northeastern Tennessee, they observed several “ancient European villages” (as Tipton and Sevier called them) occupied by Jewish families, who spoke Spanish.  That fact has been completely erased from the history books.

(6)  At the close of the Revolution in 1783,  Tipton built a copy of his house in Shenandoah County.  That house is now the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site near Johnson City, TN.   In 1784,  Tennessee belonged to North Carolina, but the new settlers wanted their own state.  Sevier became a leader of the faction of settlers, who wanted to unilaterally secede from North Carolina and create the State or Republic of Franklin.  Tipton became the leader of the faction, who wanted the creation of the new state to be done in an orderly fashion by Congress. 

The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site near Johnson City, Tennessee

The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site near Johnson City, Tennessee

(7)  By 1787, the Franklinites were forcibly driving Uchee, Creek and Chickasaw villages out of the Cumberland Plateau and establishing new settlements.  The State of Franklin had signed a treaty with the Cherokee Nation to get title for their lands in eastern Tennessee and therefore created the myth that we have today in the history books that the Cherokees also lived in Middle Tennessee.  Under the Articles of Confederation, only Congress could have direct treaties with Indian tribes or remove Indian tribes from their lands.   The treatment of the Indians inflamed the conflict between the Franklinites and the followers of John Tipton into constant brawls and ultimately, skirmishes.

On February 28, 1788 Colonel and now Governor John Sevier led 100 Franklinite militiamen in an attack on John Tipton’s house.  The following morning, an approximately equal force of Tiptonites arrived to reinforce those defending the Tipton House.  The Franklinites were forced to retreat.  Already Upper Creek and Chickasaw war parties had been attacking Franklinite settlements in the Cumberland Plateau, while Chickamauga Cherokees, who refused to sign a treaty with the State of Franklin, attacked settlements in southeastern Tennessee.

The State of Franklin was quickly bankrupted.  John Sevier approached Spanish officials in Louisiana about being annexed to the Kingdom of Spain in return for being given a bail-out loan.  North Carolina and Congress found out about this intrigue, and quickly squashed the State of Franklin.  Congress created the Southwest Territory in 1790.

Leaders in the Southwest Territory didn’t like the Maya name of the main river in their soon-to-be state because it would be very embarrassing to  Southeastern anthropology professors in the 21st century.  Therefore, they changed the name of the Callimaco River to Tennessee and the Tanasee River to Little Tennessee.  Soon thereafter, they decided that the name of the new state would be Tennessee.

And now you know! 

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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.



    Just wondering about something. During the 18th Century land owners will allot cloth goods to the slaves. The ones who lived in the house were often given a worsted wool fabric called Callimanco, calimanco or kalamink. Since it is similar to the spelling Calimaco I wonder if there is a connecting link or just coincidence?

    • According to the etymology of the word calimanco on the internet, it was derived from the Spanish word calamaco, which means skullcap. Calimanco was a way of weaving inexpensive wool to make it quilted and glossy, so it wouldn’t absorb as much dirt.

      Callimaco appears as the name of the Tennessee River very early.


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