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How Tulsa, Oklahoma got its name . . . you will be surprised!

How Tulsa, Oklahoma got its name . . . you will be surprised!


Our story begins in central Mexico then travels to the Chiapas Highlands of southern Mexico then goes north to attapulgite mines in southwest Georgia then to northwest Georgia on the Etowah River then to northeast Alabama then to a stream near the future campus of Auburn University . . . where a group of turtles were sitting.

View of the Teotihuacan Valley from the top of 11,000 feet tall Cerro Gordo.

View of the Teotihuacan Valley from the top of 11,000 feet tall Cerro Gordo.

Once upon a time, in a land called Tutunacu, there was a great city built over a cave temple.  In its time, this metropolis that we now call Teotihuacan, was one of the largest cities in the world. Perhaps only Rome, Italy was larger.  This city was actually called Tula by its elite.  Tula is now the Totonac Indian word for a large town.  It is also the Itza Maya and Itsate Creek word for a large town!  That is a hint about  our story’s plot.  Tula was located in northern offshoot of the Valley of Mexico in the central region of the country by that same name . . . a surrealistic landscape surrounded by smouldering and extinct volcanoes.

Between around 100 AD and 200 AD, the leaders of Tula dispatched large armies down to southern Mexico to establish vassal states. They placed one of their princes as Hene Mako (Great Sun) over the Itzas, who lived in the mountains of Chiapas. The Itza were not true Mayas, but related to peoples in eastern Peru.   Tula’s cultural influence over  the Itza People ended around 538 AD, when a massive asteroid or comet struck the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, while simultaneously large volcanoes were erupting in Central America and Iceland.  The result was a mini-Ice Age in the region, which caused the once flourishing communities of southern Mexico to atrophy for a period of about 50 years.  However, prior to that time, the Itza’s absorbed many Totonac words into their language, which included chiki (house), tama (trade), tamahi (merchant) and tula (town).  These words are also spoken by the Hitchiti Creek and Miccosukee Indians to this day.


The Totonac nobility had established their capital at a beautiful location on the edge of the Chiapas Highlands that is now called Palenque in Spanish.  Over time, Palenque increasingly became influenced by the people, which we now call Maya.  After the Little Ice Age, Palenque became as Maya as the Maya cities to the east.  Their priests, architects and artists began creating large, colorful murals like those in Tula and some of the larger Maya cities.  There was a problem though.  Palenque averaged 60 inches (154 cm) of rainfall a year . . . exactly the same as the area around Amicalola Falls in the State of Georgia.  This humidity caused lime-based murals and stucco to quickly disintegrate.

Both the Totonacs and the Mayas knew of a substance, now called attapulgite, which made lime plaster murals as hard and durable as granite.  However, there was virtually none of this substance in Mexico and very little in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Perhaps Totonac tamahiti (merchants) had already discovered a vast land to the north of the Great Sea, which the Mayas called Am Ixchel (Place of the Goddess Ixchel). This is not clear.  However, tamahiti from Palenque soon found out that Am Ixchel contained seemingly inexhaustible deposits of attapulgite.  Soon the tamahiti of Palenque were hauling this valuable mineral in large Chontal Maya boats to the head of navigation of Usumacenta River then porters carried the substance on their backs up the Chiapas Escarpment.

Incalculable quantities of mica were also used by the Mayas to coat their temples to make them glisten like gold, reinforce their plastered walls, decorate highlights on murals and even as cosmetics.  There is a large deposit of mica at the foot of the Popocatepetl Volcano near the Valley of Mexico, but virtually none in southern Mexico or the Maya Lands.  The nearest large “convenient” deposit of mica was at the headwaters of the same river on which the Chontal Maya tamahiti obtained attapulgite.   *It was extremely difficult to haul bulk commodities on human backs, out of the mountains of Central Mexico, while boat travel down the Chattahoochee and southward to Cuba and Yucatan was merely a matter of paddling or sailing large boats

There were also large deposits of gold and greenstone there.  In the Nacoochee Valley, at the center of these deposits, “someone” carved an Itza style five-sided temple pyramid from Kenimer Hill, between around 600 AD and 800 AD.  The town that developed around this mound was named Itsate (Itza People) as late as 1721.


Alfronso Morales points at Chichen Itza art that is similar to Proto-Creek designs at Etowah Mounds.

Dr. Alfonso Morales, Chief Archaeologist at Chichen Itza, thinks that small bands of Itza tamahiti began establishing small colonies in the mining belts across the Gulf of Mexico very early, but ultimately a large flow of Mesoamerican commoner refugees sparked the sudden appearance of many towns in the Southeast.

Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the late director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia de México and ultimately, the Institutio Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México, theorized that most of the refugees were men, because Muskogean architecture is very Mesoamerican in character, while most pottery made in proto-Creek towns was very different than that found in Mexico.  The only exception is the shell-tempered redware found at Ocmulgee National Monument and at such places as the Track Rock Terrace Complex in the Georgia Mountains.

There was an enormous diaspora of Itza refugees in 800 AD, when the El Chichon strato-volcano erupted . . . incinerating Palenque.  The Itzas established colonies along the Gulf Coast at least as far north as Tamaulipas (Place of the Merchant People), plus they occupied and started a building boom at the modest Maya town of Chichen . . . renaming it Chichen Itza

There was another diaspora from Chichen Itza around 1000 AD.  Its cause is hotly debated among anthropologists.  Originally, the turmoil at Chichen Itza was interpreted as an uprising of commoners and slaves, similar to that portrayed in the movie, “Apocalyto.”  Then another faction of archaeologists theorized that 1000 AD was when Toltecs conquered the city and started building Toltec style architecture such as the Temple of the Warriors. Another faction says that nothing traumatic happened around 1000 AD, but a large portion of the Itza Commoners just decided to go somewhere else.  Whatever the cause, they did leave around 990 to 1000 AD.  Then suddenly, new towns with a new style of architecture began appearing in the Southeast.

One of those new towns is now called Etowah Mounds on the Etowah River in Northwest Georgia.  Its original name was Tula!  However, as the population grew, the name changed to Etula.  the Itza prefix “E” was added to mean it was the principal town or capital.  Creek grammar still uses the Itza  “E” or “I” prefix for the same meaning.

Around 1375 AD,  Etula was suddenly abandoned, while its principal mound was undergoing an expansion to make it as tall as the largest mound at Cahokia on the Mississippi River. Around 1400 AD, the site of Etula was re-occupied by a people, making a different style of pottery, who also created a different town plan with different style architecture. 

It is not clear what happened, but northwestern Alabama and the region around Cahokia were depopulated about the same time.   This strongly suggests a plague . . . bubonic plague to be specific.  The Black Death first struck Iceland in 1402 and Norway in 1439.  The Scandianavian population of western Greenland disappeared around 1350. Greenland’s eastern settlement was gone by 1375.


Etula (Etowah Mounds) around 1375 AD

The Tulasi or Talasee

There was a diaspora from the Etowah River Valley between 1375 AD and 1400 AD.  The refugees and their descendants called themselves Tulasi in Itsate Creek and Kusa Creek, which became Tvlasi in Muskogee Creek and Talasee in English.  In all three Creek languages, the word meant, “Descendants of Tula.”   In other words, they claimed descent from “Etowah Mounds” and ultimately the great city that the Aztecs called Teotihuacan.

Around 1790,  the Tulasi living in Northwest Georgia woke up one morning and found out that in 1785, the State of Georgia and the United States had secretly given all their lands north of the Etowah River to the Cherokees.  Tulasi villages were forced to move south of the Etowah River into what is now Cobb and Douglas Counties. One of their towns was Kanasv (Kanasaw) which gave its name to Kennesaw Mountain.  Kennesaw is NOT an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost.

The Creek Nation declared war on Georgia.  Every branch of the Creeks, except the Upper Creeks, backed off from prosecuting the war.  However, after the Chickamauga Cherokees and their Upper Creek allies were defeated in late 1793,  the United States punished the Upper Creeks by giving more of their land to the Cherokees.   Tulasi villages living between the Etowah River and Kennesaw Mountain were forced to move again.  Most went to what is now northeastern Alabama.  Then the US Government gave more land to the Cherokees in Alabama, when the Alabama Territory was created.  The US Government had promised Georgia that all Cherokees would be moved to Alabama in this expanded territory, but that never happened.  The Tulasi villages had to move southward this time.

turtles-sittingOne band of Tulasi resettled around 1797 in what is now Lee County, Alabama.  The found a delightful site for a village on a stream where several turtles were sitting on a rock.  They called the new village Tulasi Lucv Vpokatv . . . which means, “Descendants of Tula, where three or more turtles are sitting.”   The words are pronounced like Tulasee Lochaw Awpokataw.   That village is now Loachapoka, Alabama, just south of the campus of Auburn University.

The Trail of Tears

In 1827,  all Creeks in Georgia, who wished to stay in the Creek Confederacy were forced to move to Alabama.  In 1832, at the Treaty of Cusseta, all Creeks in Alabama, either had to accept allotments in an area around Lee and Russell Counties, or move to the Indian Territory.  By then Tulasi had been shortened to Tulse and Apokataw had been shortened to Pokataw in the colloquial Muskogee language in Alabama, which resulted from many branches of Creeks being forced to live near each other.   Most of the residents of Tulse Lucv Pokataw elected to take allotments together, so they could maintain their community.   Other Creeks were not so fortunate.  Many were swindled out of their allotments, which ultimately resulted in the short-lived Creek War of 1836.  

Even though the residents of farms around what is now Loachapoka had not been hostiles, they were forced by federal soldiers and Alabama militia to abandon their farmsteads without any compensation and march to the Indian Territory.  When the survivors arrived on the banks of the Arkansas River, they noticed a terrace that was above the elevation where the river often flooded.   The elders met under a post oak and elected the leaders of the new town that was to be built on that terrace.  For many decades, the area around the post oak was a ceremonial ground and ball field.  In the twentieth century, the land ultimately became Council Oak Park.  The old Council Oak still stands today.

The name of the new Creek town was quickly shortened to Tulse as more and more non-Creeks moved into the community.  Ultimately, Tulse became Tulsa . . . now one of Oklahoma’s largest and most progressive cities. 



A Dirty Little Secret about the Trail of Tears Memorial

In 2008,  the Oklahoma Centennial Commission brought me in to collaborate with the very talented Oklahoma Creek sculptor, Dan Brooks, on the construction of the Trail of Tears Memorial in Council Oak Park.  It was very fitting that a Muskogee Creek would work with a Hitchiti Creek to honor our ancestors.  Ultimately, Dan was also hired to supervise the monument’s construction.  There is something that Dan does not know.

While on the fellowship in totm-tulsa-2Mexico, the Institutio Nacional de Antropologia e Historia and Relaciones Exteriores  (State Dept.) allowed me to collect 100 kg (220 pounds) of non-significant artifacts to use as teaching aids for my classes at Georgia Tech.  Each artifact was individually approved by Dr. Piňa-Chan and then shipped under diplomatic seal to the Mexican Consul in Atlanta . . . who happened to be an architecture graduate of Georgia Tech!   From those artifacts, I selected potsherds from Teotihuacan, Palenque and Chichen Itza.  To them I added a pebble from the banks of the Etowah River, next to the mounds, and a pebble from Loachapoka Creek in Lee County, AL.  I shipped the artifacts to a Keeper of the Wind Clan in Oklahoma.

During the time, when the concrete was being poured for the base of Dan’s sculpture,  a Creek “tourist” distracted Dan, while the Keeper said a prayer of consecration and placed the artifacts from Mexico, Georgia and Alabama into the wet concrete.  From our ancient history, the flames of a new renaissance will spring forth.

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.


  1. cherithcreek2@aOL.COM'

    Thank you. This is a great declaration re the migrations through Georgia and to SW Ala. that augments much of the published history that we have. I am sharing this with appropriate historian/authors.

    • As part of the planning for the Oklahoma Trail of Tears Memorial, I had to do a lot of research, which traced the Creek settlers at Tulsa backwards in time. It was fascinating . . . like going through a time machine. See my mother’s family lived on a Revolutionary veteran’s reserve. They could not be forced to either Alabama or Oklahoma . . . but also did not “advertise” their Creek identity. We did celebrate the Green Corn Festival though.


    My late Father in law, Hawkshaw, pronounced it Tul-see, He would joke that that the “atakata” white folks say it means turtle. He said it mean “ruins” . That must have been a fragment of some almost forgotten family memory. Makes one wonder.

    • Very interesting . . . “ruins” must be a cultural memory of either Etula or the original Tula. Thanks!


    My favorite aunt lives in Tulsa. Very interesting. But what’s the difference in the two sculpture pics? Are they the same sculpture?

    • Yes. The first image is the architectural rendering that I presented for approval by the Oklahoma Centennial Commission and the City Council of Tulsa. The second is a close up photograph of the outer and inner ring. The bronze plates on the inside of the inner ring tell the history of the Creek People and the band of Creeks, who settled Tulsa.


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