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Sheezam Andy! Chattahoochee is an Itza Maya word!

Sheezam Andy!   Chattahoochee is an Itza Maya word!


If it was a snake, it would have bit me.  Lordamercy, I wish I had realized this fact in 2012, when I was speaking to the film crew of the History Channel’s “America Unearthed.” The staff of the US Forest Service’s Chattahoochee National Forest were jointing funding “Maya Myth-Busting in the Mountains” along with the Eastern Band of Cherokees.  The Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists were going on speaking tours to Atlanta’s elite, telling them that there were no Maya place names in the Southeast.  How would they know?  They never bothered to learn our Creek languages, much less, the Itza Maya language.

The official explanation of Chattahoochee is that it is the Anglicization of Muskogee words that mean, “Marked Rock Stream.”   That is what the professors at the University of Oklahoma replicated, when writing the official Muskogee-Creek dictionary.  However, it was obvious that they were merely copying what some expert said in the past.  Their conversion of the “official translation” into Muskogee didn’t quite make sense.  In phonetic English, they would be Chaw-tō-hoo-chē-haw-chē.   I eventually learned that the translation originated with an Anglo-American academician, who claimed to know Muskogee. 

There is another problem though.  The name appears on the maps several decades before the arrival of any Muskogee speakers on the river in 1716, during the Yamassee War.  Throughout the Early Colonial Period,  the Chattahoochee River was the domain of Apalache-Creek and Itsate-Creek-speaking towns.  Even in the 1800s,  Muskogee speakers were confined to the section of the river near Columbus, GA.  After the American Revolution,  Mikko William McIntosh DID lay claim to a large Creek town site upstream from Columbus in Carroll and Coweta Counties.  However, until its abandonment around 1700, this town was Itsate.  It was probably sacked and burned in the late 1690s by the Coweta Creeks, who spoke Muskogee.  The location is now Chattahoochee Bend State Park and the McIntosh Reserve Historic Site.

Itza Mayas, Itsate Creeks and Apalache-Creeks (North Georgia) used the same word, haw, for river.  The Itza and Itsate suffix for small is che.   A hawche in these languages means a shallow, mountain river or a large creek . . . like the Chattahoochee River in the photos above.  Muskogee speakers later absorbed this word used for shallow mountain rivers and made it their word for all rivers and streams.

I am fairly certain now that the Muskogee language originated in the Upper Tuckasegee and French Broad River Valleys  . . . the region between Asheville, NC, Hendersonville, NC,  Highland, NC and Franklin, NC.  That area still had some Muskogee speakers until after the French and Indian War. Muskogee appears to be a blend of Itsate Creek, Shawnee and Archaic Irish Gaelic.  How else can you explain the Gaelic words for water and tribe being used by the Muskogees, but not the other branches of the Creeks?  At the onset of the Little Ice Age or around 1500 AD, the Muskogee-speakers moved south to the Upper Ocmulgee River Basin near Indian Springs and Jackson, GA. 

It never dawned on me to look up chata in some Maya dictionaries until recently.   In Itza and Kekchi Maya, chata means “ancient” in the context of ancient ruins or a region that has been occupied by humans for a long time.  That is exactly the situation in the Nacoochee Valley.  Robert Wauchope found numerous Clovis Points, dating from the Late Ice Age, but also several town sites that were occupied almost continuously from around 1200 BC to the horrific 1696 AD smallpox plague.   He also found a continuous string of ancient village sites along the white water section of the Chattahoochee, which stretches from Helen, GA to Atlanta, GA.  South of Atlanta, the Chattahoochee broadens, deepens and slows to the scale that it could not really be labeled a hawche in the Itza and Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek languages.

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.



    Nice job
    Keep up the good work!


    Richard, Another Good find of a connection word with the Itza/Issa Maya in Georgia. Makes me wonder how long the different cities of the Maya and Mexico were connected to the South East. Do the Yuchi have any lore about the Yucatan or Mexico? Thanks for your articles.

    • The Uchee (that’s the spelling used in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama) stated that they initially arrived from across the Atlantic in the Savannah Area, but eventually traded as far as Cuba.


    Just a thought…. Haw River and Saxapahaw in North Carolina …. seem a little far east but interesting synchronicity…


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