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Meanings of river and stream names in Western North Carolina

Meanings of river and stream names in Western North Carolina


Many, many distinct ethnic groups from various parts of the Americas have settled in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.  The Cherokees were just the last of many peoples.  Perhaps some will always be forgotten.  In order to translate the geographical place names in the region, one must first understand how English speakers wrote down indigenous sounds and then know the basics of several indigenous languages.

The interesting thing about Western North Carolina’s place names is that almost all the Cherokee words are concentrated into the names of creeks and even smaller streams.  There are few rivers in the region with Cherokee names.

Most of the translations of Native American place names in the Appalachians that one reads in references are absolutely wrong, because the persons, who originally speculated on the meanings tried to force some Cherokee meaning into an English word.  One can get into big trouble doing that!

Probably, the most comprehensive listing of Southern Highland Native American place names is Chenocetah’s Weblog.  It is more accurate than most source, but still has quite a few Creek words, labeled as Cherokee . . . except that they have no meaning in Cherokee.  The author wanted to give himself an authentic Cherokee name, so he chose Chenocetah Mountain.  Some years later he tried to find out what his adopted Cherokee name meant . . . and the Cherokees told them that it could not be translated.  Good reason!    Chenositaw is what the Muskogee Creeks called the Lower Cherokees.  The word means “Descendants of Eight Villages People.”


Modern name of

river or stream

Original Ethnicity Original Word

in indigenous letters

Meaning of

original word or words

Oconaluftee River Itstate-Creek Okvna-lufte Oconee People – cut off


Catawba River Itza Maya Katawpa Place of the Crown
Swannanoa River Muskogee-Creek Suwani-owa Shawnee River
Tuckasegee River Muskogee-Creek Tokahsi-gi Descendants of Freckled People
Little Tennessee River Itsate-Creek Taena-si Descendants of Tainos
Tallulah River Itza Maya and

Itsate Creek

Tula-la Small Town
Cheoah River Itza Maya Chiaha Chia (Salvia) River
Hiwassee River Apalache-Creek Hilwasi Highlanders
Nottely River Apalache-Creek Note-le People on Other Side
Nantahala River Apalache-Creek Nantaha-le River rapids-People
Santeetlah River Apalache-Creek Sante-le Colonists-People
Chattooga River Muskogee-Creek Chatv-gi Red People
Toxaway River Itsate-Creek Tvksewe Kitchen Shed
Saluda River Itsate-Creek Suale-te Xuale People
Ocoee River Itsate-Creek Okv-e Principal town of

Uchee Water Clan

Tellico River Southern Arawak Tali-koa Town People
Cullasaja River Hybrid Itsate-Cherokee Kullasi-gi Descendant of Kulla


Watauga River Hybrid Middle Arawak-Cherokee Wata-gi Fire People
Conasauga River Hybrid Apalache-Creek-Arawak Kvnasv-gua Farmer People-


Conestee River Hybrid Apalache-Creek


Kvnaste Farmer People
Nolichucky River probably Chiska (Southern Arawak) Unknown Unknown
Cataloochee* Creek Itsate Creek Kvtvlv-si Descendants of Catalou
Soco Creek Zoque-Mixtec Soque Civilized People
Alarka Creek Cherokee ? ?
Ellijay Creek Itsate-Creek Elasi & Elate Foothill People
Etowah Creek Muskogee Creek E-talwa Principal Town
Pinelog Creek Cherokee Ani-Natsi Natchez People
Judacula Creek Itsate-Creek Suta-kulla Sky over Province

of Kulla

Junaluska Creek Cherokee Tsunu’lahun’ski one who tries but fails
Cullowhee Creek Hybrid Creek-Cherokee Kulla-yi Place of Kulla People
Cowee Creek Itsate-Creek Kowi Mountain Lion

Coweeta Creek

Muskogee-Creek Kowetv Mountain Lion People
Tomatla Creek Northern Chontal Maya Tama-tli Trade – Place of
Tamatly Creek Northern Chontal Maya Tama-tli Trade – Place of
Tuskeegee Creek Muskogee-Creek Tvske-gi Pilated Woodpecker People
Tusquitee Creek Itsate-Creek Tvske-te Pilated Woodpecker


Stecoah and Citigo


Southern Arawak Sati-koa Colonists-People
Tallulah Creek Itza Maya &

 Itstate Creek

Tula-la Small Town
Savannah Creek Southern Shawnee Savano Southern Shawnee
Saunee Creek Cherokee Sauni Southern Shawnee
Chestua Creek Uchee Choes-toa

Rabbit Clan


*The 1684 Jean Baptiste Franquelin Map of North America show Catalou to be the capital town in northeastern Tennessee.  By 1725,  Cataloochee appeared as a Cherokee village in present day Haywood County, NC  Kvtvlv is the Muskogee Creek word meaning “Place of the Crown” or Capital.


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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.



    Mr. Richard, while doing family geanology I have found the spelling of the Nolichucky River in several artifacts as two words. It is in the Revolutionary War pension statements of several family members a long with other articles I have read over the years. In these it’s usually two words spelled Nola Chuckie or Chucky or referred by just Chucky. As the river comes out of NC it comes down the gorge. This is where they do white water rafting in the summers. Along about the state line are the remains of Lost Cove. An abandoned community from the past. Not far from there is the communities of Unaka Springs and Chestoa. The Applichian Trail crosses the Nolichucky River here at Chestoa as it leaves the gorge. I grew up not far from this river. I can tell you for a fact this river has plenty of secrets surrounding it, just starting with the name (that no one can translate) then a keep on going. I have a few speculations of my own. A few more miles down the river into Washington County is where the Cane Notch site is. A college student and his father found artifacts as they canoed the river. It is close to there at the confluence of a creek where the boulder with the circles caved on it is that is in their video is. No one has been able to tell me much about the Nolichucky in my lifetime and I’m 66. Like you say the truth is out there somewhere. Let’s hope some is found before it is completely gone and understood. Thank you for the hard work from the P.O.O.F. family of researchers and to you Mr, Richard for bringing it to those that want to know.

    • Hey Lou

      If you ever find out the meaning of Nolichucky, please let us know. The Native People living near there were originally South Americans, but I can’t find any language that matches it. Thank you for your kind remarks. Richard T.


    Richard, These word meanings express just what an fluid environment of peoples have lived in a small area of the South. I have lately been exploring the possibility if the Maya of Tikal had some connection with Cambodia in the 800’s-900’s AD. I have found there were many Kings of that city who used “Chen” in the spelling of their names and the founder of the 800 AD Cambodian Kingdom is stated to be linage of a city state called Chen-la which was divided into 2 parts: a maritime and land Kingdom. What we call South East Asian type Pyramids/ artwork might have originated with some of the Maya peoples. The world of the Sea/River fairing ancients peoples seem to have been much more connected than what we have been led to believe? Have you found any words in the South that are connected to the term “Chen” in Mayan? Thanks to your efforts we have a more accurate understanding of the South’s history.

    • Well Mark . . . after I found those engravings of Scandinavian Bronze Age ships on a quarried stone near the Tugaloo River last February . . . anything is possible. LOL


        Richard, Your article about the “little people” lore among of the Native peoples and the appearance of the Asians people in South Carolina and South America indicates that some of South East Asian Kingdoms (Chen-la) and the Maya were connected in some way. It’s a small World after all!! Also the term “Ani-ak-chak” of Alaska is a close match for the 700-800 AD Cambodian “Khmer Kingdom’s” name (“Ana-chak”). The Tikal pyramid 2 is a match for one at Angor and I have read that the Maya created some artwork of Elephants. Do you know which city was the major Pacific seaport of the Maya? Might be more clues there. (Maya Elephants?)


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