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How Etowah, North Carolina Got its Name

This research project will explain why several POOF members had Creek or Shawnee ancestors, who fled the North Carolina Mountains in the 1780s, when official North Carolina history says the Cherokees have occupied all of western North Carolina for at least 1000 years.

Richard, I am in the Asheville/Hendersonville, NC area. I am coming into a town named Etowah. There are endless cornfields on massive river bottoms around here. My guess is that there was a mound in said bottomland, and probably a landowner in the past that was not interested in publicizing its existence. Perhaps long plowed under. I have crossed three river bridges over waterway similar to the Etowah River at Cartersville, GA in width, none which had signage identifying the river. There are no historical markers anywhere. Only history that I could find here says that Etowah is a Cherokee word for a type of tree. Could you check this out? G. M. of Atlanta – sent by IPhone.

News Update: The French eyewitness accounts of Copal (Track Rock Gap Terrace Complex in Georgia) say that the mountainside town was the capital of all the Southern Appalachians. Only the elite and their retainers lived on the terraces. A town for the commoners, containing over 2000 houses was about one league (2.6 miles) away. The traders said that no stone was used in the construction of the commoners’ town.

The town visited by this POOF member is on the French Broad River in Henderson County, NC. The French Broad River begins on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Rosman, NC then zigzags its way in a general northerly direction till it joins the Holston River in Tennessee to form the Tennessee River. The web site for the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority states the following:

Etowah came from the Cherokee word Itawa, possibly meaning city.

There is a former History of Henderson County less than a decade old that had the same words, except used the words “Creek Indian” instead of Cherokee. The older statement is much closer to being correct.

Both the reference that said Etowah was the Cherokee name of a type of tree and web site which said, “Itawa is the Cherokee word for a city,” are incorrect. The website from the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority also stated that Cherokees occupied their county until 1785 and then were forced to relocate west of the Pigeon River. This statement is also incorrect.

According to the Creek/Muskogee Dictionary, written by Professors Jack B. Martin and Margaret Maudin of the University of Oklahoma, Etowah is the Anglicization of the Muskogee-Creek word, Etalwa, which today means “tribal town,” but originally meant a major town that was the capital of a province. Etowah, Itawa and Etalwa have no meaning in the modern Cherokee language. The Muskogee-Creek word, Etalwa, is derived from the Itza Maya and Itsate Creek word, E-tula, which means, “principal town.”

Colonial Period maps

British government officials remained generally ignorant of western North Carolina until the first Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-1761). France claimed the region until losing the French & Indian War in 1763. In the 1690s French marines and civil engineers explored and mapped the region. That is why the French Broad River is named the French Broad River. The only information about western North Carolina, prior to 1725 comes from French maps.

The first use of the word, Charaqui, on a French map was in 1717. In the last decade of his life, the famous French cartographer, Guillaume Delisle, showed a large cluster of “Charaqui” villages in the northeast corner of Tennessee and southwestern tip of Virginia, plus eight “Charaqui” villages in the northwestern tip of South Carolina. Western North Carolina was left blank.

On earlier maps by Delisle specific Cusate-Creek,Talasee-Creek Indian, Tuskegee-Creek and Shawnee villages were shown along the Tennessee and Little Tennessee Rivers. Extreme western North Carolina was shown to be the territory of the Apalache-Creeks, while the region around Asheville was occupied by the Shawnee. English colonial records did describe a large Shawnee town at the confluence of the French Broad and Swanannoa Rivers, but maps of colonial North Carolina stopped at the edge of the mountains until 1755.

Swanannoa is derived from the Muskogee-Creek words Suwanee Owa, which mean “Shawnee River.” Contemporary North Carolina texts state that “it is an ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost, but may be related, for unknown reasons, to the Shawnee Indians.” No mention is made of the large Shawnee town on the Swanannoa River in present day Asheville.

In 1725 cartographer John Herbert accompanied Colonel George Chicken on a diplomatic mission to the Southern Appalachians. Afterward he produced the first English language map of the interior of the North Carolina Mountains. However, its information was limited to a relatively narrow corridor across western North Carolina that paralleled the Little Tennessee River Basin. The region north, south and west of the Little Tennessee River was labeled the “Enemy Mountains.” French maps continued to show almost all of the Georgia Mountains and the western tip of North Carolina occupied by the Upper Creek Indians until 1763. French maps showed the French Broad River Basin to be occupied by their close allies, the Shawnee Indians. British maps left these areas blank.

A map of the Cherokee Nation produced in 1738 by George Hunter showed that its territory had expanded southwestward into the entire Hiwassee River Basin. However, all of the territory west and south of the Hiwassee River was still Upper Creek Territory. The region around present day Asheville and Hendersonville was left blank. The French Broad River is not even shown on the map.

According to the research of the famous Smithsonian Institute ethnologist, John W. Swanton, the area immediately southeast of Hendersonville, NC was occupied by the Yuchi Indians until the mid-1700s. The towns of Old Fort, Lenoir and Marion were originally fortified Yuchi villages. Swanton placed a Shawnee province southwest of Hendersonville along the Saluda River. Saluda is the Anglicization of the Itsate-Creek word, Suale-te, which means “Buzzard People,” an ancient name for those Shawnees whose religion was obsessed with processing of the deceased. A village on the edge of the mountains, named Suale, was visited by the de Soto Expedition in 1540.

Portion of John Mitchell's 1755 Map

Portion of John Mitchell’s 1755 Map

In 1755 Professor John Mitchell of the University of North Carolina produced what is generally considered to be the most accurate colonial map of North America. Even his map shows a vast Tierra Incognita in the vicinity of Asheville and Hendersonville. He shows the French Broad River (Agiqua River) beginning on the slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains. He also does not show either the Swanannoa or Pigeon Rivers. Apparently British subjects did not dare enter the lands of the North Carolina Shawnees.

By 1755 the territory of the Cherokees had shrank drastically due to major defeats by the Koweta Creeks in 1754 and the Kusa Creeks in 1755. Territory actually occupied by Cherokee villages was back to where they were in 1725. About 75% of the so-called “Great Cherokee Nation” covering a seven state area on contemporary maps was occupied by other tribes. In the period, between 1738 and 1755 the Cherokees lost at least 50% of their population in a series of smallpox plagues, and also lost a series of wars with several indigenous Southeastern tribes, who had never forgiven Cherokee intrusion on their traditional territories.

Territorial losses

During the First Anglo-Cherokee War, the Cherokees were eventually defeated catastrophically by combined forces of British Redcoats and Colonial militia. In 1763, as punishment for their betrayal of a 40 year long alliance with Great Britain, the Cherokees lost most of their territory in the Carolinas. The eastern boundary of the Cherokee Nation was set at the 84th meridian. That line runs through Murphy and Robbinsville, NC. It is 36 miles west of the current North Carolina Cherokee Reservation and 56 miles west of the Pigeon River, where the Henderson County History says was the boundary.

Because of their longtime loyalty to the French, the Shawnees were either killed or driven out of the North Carolina Mountains without the dignity of even a treaty. They were essentially erased from North Carolina’s history books. In 1763 white settlers began to filter into the now uninhabited Swanannoa River Valley as far as where Asheville was soon founded.

The date of 1785 when Henderson County was supposedly opened to settlement, according to local histories, is somewhat of an enigma. The Cherokees and Shawnees were long gone from the region at that time. There was a treaty with the Creek Indians in 1785, however. It was negotiated in an attempt to end the Third Cherokee War, which was raging across the Tennessee frontier. The Creeks were given most of what is now Alabama while they ceded much of northern Georgia except for a narrow corridor extending northward to the Nacoochee Valley (Clarksville, GA). The Cherokees were given the ceded Creek lands in northern Georgia for hunting territory. One of the causes of the Third Cherokee War was that settlers in eastern Tennessee had occupied prime Cherokee hunting lands. In 1794 the new Cherokee hunting lands in Georgia were designated the new home of the Cherokee Nation. This was done over the bitter protest of the State of Georgia.

Apparently, the Creek Indians living around present day Hendersonville and Etowah, North Carolina remained British allies in the French & Indian War and neutral in the American Revolution. It is quite plausible that by 1785 they were surrounded on all sides by an influx of Anglo-American settlers. When the Creek Confederacy was give a vast territory in Alabama in addition to its remaining lands in Georgia, the North Carolina Creeks probably decided that it was a good time to sell out and move. They moved southwestward and joined the confederacy.

By the time that the ancestors of most western North Carolina residents arrived in the mountains, the Native Americans were long gone. Remember that after 1763, the Cherokees only occupied the extreme tip of present day North Carolina in what are now the western halves of Graham and Cherokee Counties. Because the bloody encounters with the Cherokees during the American Revolution is all that these pioneers remembered, subsequent generations only remembered the Cherokees as living in the mountains.

This amnesia toward indigenous peoples that left the North Carolina Mountains 225 to 275 years ago is not of great significance “in the big picture of things” but it is creating a problem within the profession of archaeology. Being inadequately educated in Colonial Era history, North Carolina archaeologists are labeling pre-European Period towns and artifacts as being “Cherokee” where in fact the Cherokees never lived at that location, or only arrived in the 1700s. A recent comprehensive DNA study of the North Carolina Reservation by DNA Consultants, Inc. has found that in regard to genetics, Cherokees are primarily the descendants of Sephardic Jewish refugees and escaped Muslim galley slaves, who settled in the Southern Appalachians during the 1600s.


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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.



    Can someone tell me who to contact with information the native mound builders of this area might be interested in? Tennessee side of the smokies.

    • Ashley,

      Send me an email at with your information or questions. I also will get you in touch with some friends of mine, who have an organization that is preserving mounds in Tennessee.

      Richard Thornton


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