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Lake Jocassee, South Carolina . . . what does this word really mean?

Lake Jocassee, South Carolina . . . what does this word really mean?


Dear Mr. Thornton, some of my ancestors were Cherokees living in the Jocassee Valley.   Their farmstead is now under Lake Jocassee, but I remember going there as a little child.   The explanation in Wikipedia does not seem quite right.  Do you know anything about this word?  Also, what is the meaning of Toxaway?   Thank you, Janeth Chambers, Greenville, SC

Hey Janeth!   Pardon my delay in responding to you again, but I wanted to do a thorough examination of the highlands of South Carolina on some high resolution maps I recently downloaded. I looked at the first map to mention the Cherokees in 1715, the first map to mention the Cherokee village names in 1721, the 1746 map of the Cherokee Nation and a very detailed map of South Carolina and North Carolina, drawn by engineers of the British Army in 1776.   Nowhere could I find the word Jocassee/Jocasee or a word similar to it.  None of the maps showed Cherokee villages being located where Lake Jocassee is now.

You’re right.  The “official history” of Lake Jocassee in Wikipedia does reek of being a fairy tale, made by white settlers on the frontier. People of One Fire has mentioned Lake Jocassee in two articles about the Juan Pardo and the Miccosukee People, but this one will be entitled so that people can find it with specific Google searches on the subject.

I could find no map or historic document, which listed Jocassee or any similar word as a Cherokee village.  All the references to Jocassee were by 20th century historians, anthropologists or marketing consultants.  I traced these statements back to early 20th century ethnologist,  John Swanton, who did not provide the name of a historic document, which listed Jocasee as a Cherokee village.  It was just on a list of 18th century Cherokee villages.  I should add that Swanton also included “the Cherokee village of Long Swamp Creek,” which we will now know didn’t exist at all.   Early settlers saw ancient mounds at that location and merely assumed that the Cherokees built them.


The 1721 Barnwell Map does not show a village named Jocasee. Note that there were no Cherokee villages east of the Keowee River Basin.


In 1776, the  Lower Cherokee village of Toxawaw was on the Keowee River. All these villages would be burned within a year.

The map above illustrates how minuscule the Lower Cherokee population was.  Each square dot represents one Cherokee house. Most suburban subdivisions or apartment complexes would contain far more people than all the Cherokees in South Carolina combined.  The trail does not extend north of Toxawaw into the region where Lake Joccassee was built.  

Thousands of South Carolinians claim to be “Cherokee descendants. ”   They may be descendants of a member of “some South Carolina Native American tribe,” but the chances of that their ancestor(s) being Cherokee are very slim.   Yet the South Carolina state website on its Native American history devotes about 80% of the web pages to the Cherokees . . . who were the last tribe to appear in the state.

Next, I then went to the “source” cited by the anonymous author of the Wikipedia article on Lake Jocassee.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The source for the Wikipedia article is an anonymous brochure, promoting real estate sales in the Lake Jocassee Area, sponsored by Lake Jocassee Real Estate Co. Apparently, the Purple Gatekeepers of Wikipedia merely saw that the article had a citation, without checking its reliability.  Now the Wikipedia article on Lake Jocassee is a source for a legion of other Native American history articles on the web.

Prior to discussion of the Lake Jocassee fairy tale, the real estate website has a paragraph listing several Native American towns with Creek tribal names. It labels them ancient Cherokee words and then gives totally bogus meanings for these words. This paragraph is used as a “reliable reference” for several Wikipedia articles on South Carolina history!

For those of you from locations outside South Carolina . . . Lake Jocassee is a beautiful man-made lake that was created in 1973 by the Duke Power Company by damming the Toxaway, Thompson, Horsepasture and Whitewater Rivers.  It is located in the extreme northwestern part of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

First we will provide the readers, what Wikipedia and the real estate marketing brochure says.

The Jocassee Fairy Tale

“The recorded history of the Jocassee Gorges area dates back to 1539 when Hernando de Soto explored the area. South of what is now Lake Jocassee Dam was once Keowee Village or Keowee Town, the capital of the Lower Cherokee Indians. Keowee Village was located just across the Keowee River (Oconee side) near the confluence of Crowe Creek and Keowee River. In 1690 James Moore led a British expedition through the area in search of gold.”

“The Vale of Jocassee was home to the Cherokee Indian Nation. It now lies some 300 feet beneath the surface of Lake Jocassee, near the Toxaway River and Whitewater River confluence, approximately one-half mile north of Jocassee Dam. Jocassee and its meaning are derived from the legend of a Cherokee maiden. Chief Attakulla and his Oconee tribe, known as the “Brown Vipers,” lived on the west side of the Whitewater River.”

“The Eastatoees, a rival tribe, lived on the east and were called the “Green Birds.” It is likely that the Green Birds received their name from the Carolina parakeet (Conoropsis carolinensis), a species that became extinct in 1904. This was the only endemic parrot of North America.”

“The Eastatoee area was the last site the species was recorded in South Carolina. Legend has it that a young warrior named Nagoochee lived among the Green Birds but was not afraid to enter Brown Viper hunting grounds. One day while hunting in Brown Viper territory (probably the area known as Musterground today), Nagoochee fell and broke his leg. Nagoochee was convinced he would perish in the wilderness, when he heard the singing of Jocassee, Chief Attakulla’s daughter, Jocassee, took Nagoochee back to her father’s lodge and nursed him back to health. They fell in love and Nagoochee stayed with the Oconee tribe.”

“Later during a fight between the tribes, Jocassee’s brother, Cheochee, killed Nagoochee. When Cheochee returned from battle with Nagoochee’s head dangling from his belt, Jocassee didn’t say a word. She slipped into a canoe and onto the water. As Jocassee still gazed at the head of her lover, she stepped into the water. Legend claims that she did not sink but walked across the water to meet the ghost of Nagoochee. The name Jocassee means “Place of the Lost One.”

What professional archaeologists said

The Cherokees are not “ancient residents of South Carolina.”  Multiple archaeological studies proved that the aboriginal Uchees and Creeks were driven off the headwaters of the Savannah River in the late 17th century up to around 1700 AD . . . probably by slave raiders.

Very little archaeological work was done in the Lake Jocassee Basin before it was damned.  That is a tragedy that was probably intentional to avoid political opposition to the project. Federally funded dam projects require comprehensive archaeological analysis.  Long time residents of the region describe the bottom lands of the four rivers forming the reservoir being “chock full” of ancient Native American artifacts and mounds.

Two of the great archaeologists of the 20th century, Arthur Kelly and Joseph Caldwell, studied the Lake Hartwell and Lake Keowee Basins, south of Lake Jocassee, during the late 1950s and 1960s. Archaeologists found that Lower Cherokee villages in the region had been much larger proto-Creek towns with cultural traits similar to that of the region around Macon, GA.  These towns were all burned around 1700 AD.  They were replaced by much smaller villages with Cherokee cultural traits a few years later.  

One of the worst Southeastern Native American history articles in Wikipedia is about the site of Chauga . . . eventually after 1700, one of the minuscule Lower Cherokee hamlets.  Clunky, contemporary anthropological syntax was used to give the appearance of authority, but the author ignored what Arthur Kelly said in his archaeological report.  Chauga means “Black Locust” in Muskogee Creek.  It has no meaning in Cherokee.  The site had eight mounds, not three mounds as stated in Wikipedia.  The site was not settled by Cherokees in 1450 AD.

Comments on the Jocassee fairy tale

Amateur historians in South Carolina have grossly inflated the population and territory of the Lower Cherokees. At their maximum population, the Lower Cherokees only occupied a tiny sliver of the extreme northwestern tip of South Carolina.  The thousands of South Carolinians elsewhere in the state, who claim Cherokee ancestry, undoubtedly are descended from one of the other dozens of tribes who once occupied the state’s boundaries.  Most of these other aboriginal tribes occupied much larger territories.

 A word similar to Cherokee first appeared on a South Carolina map in 1715.  A word similar to Cherokee first appeared on a European map in 1717.  All of the original Lower Cherokee village names and tribal chief names are Itsate Creek words that have no meaning in the Cherokee language.  In other words, a Florida Seminole can translate the Lower Cherokee language, while Cherokee scholars claim that it is extinct and therefore cannot be translated.

The handful of Lower Cherokee villages were at their population peak around 1725. It was around 1200 men, women and children. Each of their “great towns” had about the same population of a cul-de-sac in a suburban subdivision today.  By 1776, their total population was about 200 people, but after the American Revolution, the Lower Cherokees ceased to exist as a distinct division of the Cherokees.  They were pretty much exterminated in 1777 by Patriot militias and vigilante bands.

The De Soto Chronicles did not mention any Cherokee words or Cherokee villages anywhere.  His conquistadors probably did not cross the tributaries of the Savannah River in northwestern South Carolina and they passed through the Carolinas in 1540, not 1539. 

Charles Hudson, the often quoted graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and lifetime professor at the University of Georgia is incessantly quoted as saying that Xuale and Guaxuli were important Cherokee towns.  The Xuale were a culturally advanced branch of the Shawnee, whose home territory was northern West Virginia.  They were arch-enemies of the Cherokees. The Wasawli  (Guaxuli) originally lived on Wassaw Sound, south of Savannah, Georgia.  They were probably of South American origin, but this is not known for certain.

Juan Pardo probably did enter the Jocassee Valley.  The description of the environment of the town of Joara exactly matches the geography of the Lake Jocassee Valley and bears no resemblance to the location in the Upper Piedmont terrain of Burke County, NC that North Carolina archaeologists call Joara.  It is impossible for anyone to point out in the Wikipedia article on Joara that the real Joara was a large city at the base of a mountain canyon where four mountain rivers came together.  The North Carolina village site has no canyon and no rivers, plus is only, at most, 15 acres in size.  Its, barely visible, three feet high mound is smaller than thousands of anonymous, mostly forgotten mounds in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

None of the characters in the Jocassee fairy tale are recorded in history, except Attakulla.  Attakulla-kula was a great Cherokee leader of the 18th century in Tennessee, who actually was originally a Nipissing child, born near Lake Superior.  He was captured in a Cherokee slave raid.  There are several speculative interpretations of his name as being Cherokee, but when you look at the actual Cherokee words cited, they seem dubious.

Toxaway is the Anglicization of the Creek word, taktchawa, which is the Itsate-Creek word for an open sided cooking shed.  The Cherokee version of the word was printed on maps as Toxawa,  but there is no “x” sound in Cherokee.

Tamasee is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek word Tamasi, which means “Descendants of Tama.”   The capital of Tama was at the headwaters of the Altamaha River.  They originally spoke a language very close to Maya.

Oconee is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nization of the Okvni-Creek tribe, whose heartland was on the Middle Oconee River. It is an Itsate Creek word and means “Born in water.”   The Okvni’s established colonies on the headwaters of the Savannah River and in the Great Smoky Mountains to facilitate trade.  The name of Oconaluftee River in the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation means “Oconee People – Cut Off (massacred).  The word has no meaning in Cherokee.

Keowee is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nization of the Kiawe-Creek tribe, whose capital town was on the Oconee River in present day Watkinsville, GA.  They established colonies on Kiawah Island, SC and at the headwaters of the Savannah River to facilitate trade.  The Kialegee Creeks in Oklahoma are their direct descendants.

Naguchee is the early 19th century Cherokee pronunciation of the Nacoochee Valley in Northeast Georgia.  Maps produced in Georgia during the late 1700s and early 1800s, though, labeled this famous valley by its original Creek name, Nocosee . . . meaning bear.

Eastatoa is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nization of Usta-toa, which means “Uchee Village” in Savano (Southern Shawnee).

Catawba is the Anglicization of the Itsate Creek/Itza Maya word, Katawpa, which means “Place of the Crown.”  The homeland for the Katawpa was the region between Atlanta and Gainesville, GA. Look at 18th century maps, if you don’t believe me.  They established a colony in northern South Carolina, in which the Muskogeans were the elite and the Siouans were the commoners.  After this province lost about 99% of its population, a Siouan dialect was spoken by the survivors. 

Now for the real meaning of Jocasee

When the Colony of Carolina was first founded in 1670, one of the most advanced and powerful provinces in Carolina was ruled by a people, who the British called the Soque, Joque, Sokee or Joque.  The letter K was seldom used in 17th century English.  What little information about survives shows that they had many Mesoamerican traits, like forehead deformation, large planned towns, pyramidal mounds and the worship of multiple deities. 

The correct pronunciation of the word is Jzhō : kē . . . which happens to be the exact pronunciation of the Zoque People in Mexico.   The Zoque claim to be the descendants of the Olmec Civilization and still live in the heart of the ancient Olmec territory.  The actual Olmecs, arrived in that region less than 1000 years ago and had nothing to do with the civilization that bears their name.

True “Creeks” were monotheistic.  So, even as will later be explained, remnants of the Sokee did eventually join the Creek Confederacy,they would not have originally spoken a Muskogean language, but rather the Zoque language of Mexico.  The Sokee probably began speaking a dialect of Itsate –Creek in order to facilitate trade with other provinces.  

Muskogean languages add an “si” or “se” suffix to proper nouns to express “children of,” “descendants of,” “colony of” or an ethnic group.  As stated earlier, the Tamasee in northeastern South Carolina were originally a colony of Tama.  Therefore . . .

Jocassee is the Anglicization of the Itstate-Creek ethnic name Sokasi, which means “Descendants or colony of the Sokee.”

Carolina’s early settlers didn’t know much about the interior of the land that they claimed.  The Sokee were believed to rule over a broad swath of what is now Northwestern and Western South Carolina in 1670.  The Sokeee River in Northeast Georgia and Soco Gap on the eastern edge of the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation are geographical vestiges of a Sokee presence in those states.

It should be remembered that most of Georgia was considered part of South Carolina until 1732.  However, until the end of the War of Jenkins Ear (War of Austrian Succession) in 1748, Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee-Flint River drainage basin, while France was the primary trading partner of Creeks and Chickasaws in Northwest Georgia and much of what is now Alabama. .

By the time that Carolinians began to know the geography of the interior, the Sokee had lost much territory, political power and population.  The 1670s and 1680s were the years when the Native American slave raids were at their most diabolical stage.  Virginia issued firearms to one tribe, the Rickohockens with condition that they Rickohockens bring back thousands of Native American slaves to work on Virginia plantations.  Carolina colonists also acquired large numbers of Native American slaves, but became increasingly inclined to trade Native slaves at the dock for African slaves, arriving from across the Atlantic.  Four Native slaves purchased one African slaves.  The Native slaves were then intentionally worked to death on Caribbean sugar plantations. They were cheaper to replace than to feed.

Old World plagues introduced by the European colonists and their African slaves devastated the Native population.   It was this time that smallpox, measles, malaria and yellow fever were introduced to the interior of Carolina from Southeast Atlantic Coast. Due to the slave raids and plagues, the indigenous population of the Carolinas probably dropped by about 90-95%.

The remnants of the Sokee fled south to join the Cusabo alliance, to what is now Habersham County, GA in the territory of the Apalache or proto-Creeks and to the south to join with remnants of the province of Chiaha, which had formerly been in extreme western North Carolina.  Some Sokee settled into what would later become the territory of the Cherokees.

The arrival of the egalitarian proto-Cherokees in the Southern Highlands evidently caused a schism in Sokee Culture.  The elite and commoner Sokees parted ways.   The elite were among those who joined fates with the Chiaha in Southwest Georgia.   However, they continued to maintain their own identity and now live in southern Florida, where they are known as the Miccosukee . . . leaders of the Sokee.

As detailed in the December 1, 2016 issue of the People of One Fire,  during the early part of the 20th century, all “Seminoles” in deep southern Florida considered themselves to be Mayas.  They still secretly worshiped a pantheon of Mesoamerican deities.  Their migration legend was somewhat different than those of other branches of the Creeks.  They knew that they were the descendants of a great civilization, but were forced to leave Mexico because of persecution by a great civilization, based in Central Mexico . . . probably Teotihuacan, the Totonacs or the Toltecs.  They fled along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in order to start new lives, free from human sacrifice, widespread slavery and oppression by omnipotent rulers.

If you would like to learn more about the Mikkosukee, go to:

The History of the Miccosukee

This explanation of Jocasee and the actual history of northwestern South Carolina are radically different than what one reads in all references.  It really doesn’t matter if all other articles on the Lower Cherokees tell an entirely different story and are authored by PhD’s in anthropology.  Like so many other myths that the People of One Fire has exposed over the past eleven years, all of these anthropological fairy tales started with an academician, or worse still, a frontier settler, making speculations without a clue about what the meaning was of the indigenous words, they were explaining.  What later generations did is cite each other as the reputable source for the pseudo-history, when in fact none of them had a clue either.

POOF will follow up this article on Jocassee with a general article on the Lower Cherokees of South Carolina.  We will provide early eyewitness accounts of their territory and present what is known and not-known about the indigenous history of the region.

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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.



    Another great article. Thank you for digging up the facts and finding the original source documents on this one. It is a beautiful place with ancient past whose story needs to be told. Ed

    • Thank you The Joccassee article will be followed up by one on the Lower Cherokees. Then the Joccassee article will make more sense.


    Richard Thanks for your articles. The Itza or Katawpa people appear to have migrated from Central America to North Georgia then again moved to North Central Carolina sometime in the past. The Apalacha Kingdom people with their Paracussis Nobles were in charge of Northern Georgia in the 1500-1600’s AD. Since you have connected the dots with the Pentagonal Earth mounds with the Itza peoples arriving in the 900-1000’s AD and the Katawpa/Issa spoke a Sioux language do you think some of the Maya had Lakota Nobles in the past? Some of the Itza / Maya artwork presents the Nobles as much taller that the average sized Itza / Maya. They could also be the Paracussis among the Itza / Maya as well.


    The last part about the Seminoles is very interesting, on a few maps from about 1750 , they had a ” muscogans” below the lower creeks in my area of Alabama ( in the area in which later maps would state ” these lands are little known “), then the word ” muscogee ” begins showing up in southwestern Georgia, then the word ” seminole” replaces it. I haven’t looked at early Texas or Louisiana maps yet to see if there could be a ” migration route ” , it one of our famous post contact tribal towns , Tensaw , is connected somehow with the Taensa.


    Isn’t there a ” Guale ” people in central america?

    • Possibly, but they wouldn’t call themselves Guale. Guale is the Castilian spelling of the Creek word, Wahale, which means “Southerners.”


        Richard, I find it interesting that “Guale” is pronounced “Wahali” or “Wally” but be it that it may, could the Guale be descendents of the Wari from Peru. Could they have left Peru and migrated to the area near the Savannah River?

        • Very possibly. As you probably know, R and L were used interchangeably in recording Southeastern Native American words, because the indigenous pronunciations were so different than European pronunciations.


    I’m sure that you get this comment all the time but would you PLEASE start a YouTube channel? Your discussions of ancient America is SO interesting and I think you could crush it on youtube and make some cash off of it too. This site is packed with awesome information too, thank you! I would love to help you in any way I can if it means getting this content onto a video format. I think it would do very very well AND I just want to be able to listen/watch your lectures!

    • Okay! I will. The main obstacle I have now is financial. I need to purchase the latest version of my virtual reality software, which will enable me to create animated films of the computer models of Native American towns. It is over a thousand dollars.


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