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Origin of the word . . . Appalachian

Origin of the word . . . Appalachian

The origin of the word Appalachian is the hybridization of a South American root word with a suffix from northeastern Mexico.   However, what one reads in all dictionaries, encyclopedias and anthropological references is a compilation of speculations made by people, who had no clue what the word meant . . .  or even how to pronounce Muskogean words.  You will be surprised by the word’s real etymology.

1570-MellilotWhen I first started researching the words ApalacheeAppalachian and  Apalachicola,  it was immediately apparent that a few people in the early twentieth century had speculated on their meanings.  Thereafter,  several generations of academicians had cited the speculations as facts without even picking up a Creek dictionary to double check the interpretation.  Most notably,  Smithsonian Institute ethnologist had stated that Apalachicola meant “People on the other side” in Muskogee-Creek.  He speculated that meaning from the fact that the Apalachicola River in the Florida Panhandle separated the Apalachicola Indians from the Apalachee Indians.

Well . . . first of all, neither Apalachi nor kola have any meaning in Muskogee other than being parts of proper nouns.  Kola was a non-Muskogean suffix word meaning “people or tribe” used on the Gulf Coast.

Then there was the problem that the Apalachicola did not move down into the Florida Panhandle until the 1700s, after the Apalachee had become almost extinct . . . as a result European diseases,  Spanish oppression and a combined Apalachicola-British invasion of Florida in 1705. French maps showed many other Apalachicola towns on the Etowah River in Northwest Georgia until after the French and Indian War.

Most references explain that the Appalachian Mountains are named after the Apalachee Indians in Florida by the Spanish in the 1500s.  That doesn’t make any sense.  The Florida Apalachees lived 300 miles south of the Appalachian Mountains.

A 17th century French ethnologist opens the door

In his 1658 book, l’Histoire naturelle et morale des îles Antilles de l’Amérique,  Charles de Rochefort wrote that the most powerful indigenous people in the Southern Highlands and Piedmont were the Apalache-te.  Their greatest concentration of towns were along the Apalachee River in present day Northeast Metro Atlanta.   “Te” is the Itza Maya suffix for “people or tribe.”

De Rochefort also said that the indigenous people in Florida that the Spanish called the Apalache, did not originally call themselves that name, but were instead originated as a colony of the Apalache in North Georgia.  The colonists had eventually mixed with another ethnic group and now spoke a different language than the Highland Apalache.  However, they still called themselves by the Apalache name of Tulahalwasi (Tallahassee) which means “Offspring of Highland Towns” in English.

Apalachee elite by the North Oconee River in present day Metro Atlanta.

Apalachee elite by the North Oconee River in present day Metro Atlanta. (engraving from 1658)

De Rochefort described the Highland Apalache as having cultural traits that are immediately recognizable as being a mixture of traditions in Eastern Peru and Southern Mexico.  The clothing  of their elite was identical to that even today of the Panoan peoples of Eastern Peru.  The French scholar described the Highland Apalache commoners as having cultural traits and living in villages identical to that of the Creek Indians in the early 1700s.  The elite lived in field stone structures on the sides of mountains and large hills.  Their temples were also built of stone.  The commoners lived in classic Totonac or Itza Maya chikis along the rivers and built modest mounds for their town chiefs.

Essentially,  what Charles de Rochefort stated in 1658 was that  Apalache was merely the pre-18th century name for the Creek Indians.  In 1735,  the Creeks told the colonists in Savannah that the words Coweta and Apalache meant the same thing. This statement is in the recently discovered “Migration Legend of the Creek People.” 

Fact-checking De Rochefort and the academicians

Virtually all Southeastern anthropological texts state that the Florida Apalachee spoke a Muskogean language.  Indigenous language maps label their language Southern Muskogean.   There is a problem though,  very few of the Florida Apalachee town names can be translated with the dictionary of any Muskogean language.  However,  almost all can be translated with a Southern Arawak dictionary from Peru.  For example,  the capital of the Florida Apalachee was Anahica.   Anahica means “Place of the Elite” in Southern Arawak.  The only major Apalachee town that was not an Arawak word, was Apalachen.  The Spanish chose that word as the source for the name of the whole tribe.

Anthropological references provide a glossary of “Apalachee” words.  The glossary was created by a friar working at the Mission St. Martin de Tamale.   The language he recorded was a dialect of Itsate, which evolved from mixing a language like Chickasaw with Itza Maya.   By the 1700s, it was mixed again with Muskogee, which is the most aberrant of Muskogean languages.  That hybrid language is now called Hitchiti by English-speaking linguists.

There is another problem.   The parishioners in the three Franciscan missions named Tamale, Tama and Talimali were refugees from the Tama Province of the Upper Altamaha Basin in Georgia,  not ethnic Florida Apalachee.  They had been exiled after converting to Roman Catholicism.   That glossary cannot translate any of the Florida Apalachee town names.

So Pasteur Charles de Rochefort seems to have been right on all points.  For the past two centuries,  American academicians having been extrapolating academic books and papers with an inaccurate understanding of who the Florida Apalachee really were.

We have very pretty cousins in Eastern Peru!

ShipiboDancing6By pursuing the South American cultural traits described in the words and engravings of De Rochefort’s book,  I was astonished to find that the Panoan Peoples of Eastern Peru not only dressed like the Apalache Elite in De Rochefort’s engravings, but their traditional stamped pottery styles were identical to the stamped pottery of the Woodland and Mississippian Periods in Georgia.  Conibo men in Eastern Peru wear “Creek long shirts” today with patterns on them identical to Late Swift Creek pottery in Northeast Georgia.


tambor_de_tronco_largo1The cultural connection went far beyond clothing though.   The Creeks and Panoans share the use of the Sacred Black Drink made from an indigenous holly leaf and also the word for that drink.  In both cultures a cylindrical drum made from a tree trunk was the favorite drum among many types of percussion instruments.  Both the Panoans and the Itstate Creeks called it a tamama.

Muskogeans in the Southeastern United States rolled their R’s so profoundly that Europeans typically wrote them down as L’s.    Europeans recorded several types of S sounds in Itsate and Apalache Creek as an S.   The “Si” suffix from Northeastern Mexico that means “Offspring of,”  “children of” or “satellite village of” was actually pronounced by the Apalache something like “tzjhē”  . . . but Europeans wrote the syllable as “che” or “tchee.”

Thus, the English word Apalache would be written in the Panoan language as Apara-si.    The “si” was a suffix added in the Southeast by Muskogeans, whose ancestors came from Tamaulipas, Mexico.  Apara means “From the sea” in Panoan.   Apalache therefore means “Offspring from the Sea”

Some Colonial Era maps label the North Georgia Mountains as Apalache or Apalatsy, while others use Apalachen like the Florida village visited by Hernando de Soto in late 1539.   Why would the words appear to mean essentially the same?    The Panoan Dictionary quickly answered that question.   Adding “en” to Apalache makes it plural.  Apalachen . . . ergo  Appalachian . . . merely means “Apalachees.”

The cola in Apalachicola and Pensacola is actually the South American word cora, which in another Amazonian language more closely related to Tupi-Guarani, means “people.”

And now you know!

Funny Footnote

About 35 years ago,  North Carolina archaeologists convinced their peers in the Southeast to use the term “Appalachian Plateau” to describe all the indigenous cultures of the Lower Southeast with the dream of someday having the word Cherokee being considered synonymous with “Appalachian” so that Western North Carolina would become the center of the world.    Little did they know that they were merely confirming that the ancestors of the Creeks occupied the whole region, when they were called the Apalache.

It’s Friday night so let’s go party with our relatives in Peru!  Now you also know why these pretty Shipibo gals in Satipo Province are identical to Creek gals in Alabama, Florida and Georgia and their boyfriends are wearing Creek (er-r-r Panoan) longshirts.  

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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.



    In this article, you state “The origin of the word Appalachian is the hybridization of a South American root word with a suffix from northeastern Mexico”. you also state that though most assume that the name comes from Native Americans that lived in Florida that it was nonsense because they live 300 miles away from the area. What I don’t understand is how is that more unlikely when the origins you claim it came from is thousands of miles away. As a student of Native Americans studies can you explain this to me so I can have a better understanding?

    • Hey Yvonne
      Well, for starters, all Creeks from eastern, northern and southeastern Georgia, plus Coastal South Carolina carry substantial Panoan DNA from Satipo Province Peru. The original clothing and hats of the proto-Creeks in Georgia, who called themselves Aparashi, and the Panoans of Peru were identical. Many of our most basic cultural traditions and the words that describe them are from the Panoans. Swift Creek pottery originated among the Conibo Panoans in Satipo Province then later appeared first at the Mandeville Site on the Lower Chattahoochee River. Another example, the Creek and the Panoan word for the “Sacred Black Drink” made from yaupon holly is ase. The Panoan and Creek word for a village chief is orata. Virtually all the village and town names on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia that were recorded by the 16th century French and Spanish explorers are Panoan words that have no meaning in any Muskogean languages.

      None of the village names of the Florida Apalache are Muskogean words. All but one are Southern Arawak words from Peru. The Florida Apalachee commoners were Southern Arawaks, while their original elite were Apalache from Northeast Georgia. The Florida academicians, who decided that the Florida Apalachees were “Southern Muskogeans” didn’t know the Muskogean languages and decided that the Florida words were “Creek”. LOL Anihaica, the capital of the Florida Apalachee near Tallahassee is a Southern Arawak word from Peru, which means “Elite – Place of.” One Florida Apalachee village had a Georgia Apalache (Panoan) name. It was Apalachen. That is the plural of the word Apalache in the language spoken in NE Georgia. That is why the original name of the Georgia Mountains was Apalachen. The term was later expanded to the whole chain of mountains in eastern North America.

      For a complete answer, you can order “The Apalache Chronicles” by Marilyn Rae and Richard Thornton from Ancient Cypress Books online. (just $18) It is the English translation of the French book about the Richard Brigstock Expedition to Georgia in 1653 by French ethnologist Charles de Rochefort. However, it includes commentary by me since De Rochefort did not know the meaning of the many Apalache-Creek words, he included in the text. De Rochefort provided us with the most comprehensive description of Georgia in the 1600s available.


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