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The Strange Contradictions of Native American Place Names in the North Carolina Mountains

The Strange Contradictions of Native American Place Names in the North Carolina Mountains


What do the indigenous people of Puerto Rico and Cuba have to do with the name of a major river that runs through Western North Carolina and the name of the State of Tennessee? You are going to be shocked! In a two part series, POOF is going to examine the historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence in the Western North Carolina Mountains.  Who really lived there in the past?

Although North Americans typically associate the North Carolina Mountains with the Cherokee Indians, very few of its geographical place names have any meaning in the modern Cherokee language.  Even the rivers running through the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s Reservation are Creek Indian words. 

The majority of these words are Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek which is the language originally spoken by most branches of the Creeks that formerly lived in Georgia and Eastern Tennessee.  However, some are Itza Maya or a combination of Muskogean, Maya and South American root words.  Ironically, since North Carolina archaeologists are not familiar with Creek cultural history or these other languages, they have sometimes unknowingly used standard Creek or Arawak words as names for Cherokee cultural periods or pottery styles.

In 1658, French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort wrote that in much earlier times, the region that we call the mountains of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee had been densely populated by peoples from the Caribbean Basin. By the mid-1600s, they had been largely replaced with  Apalachete’s (Proto-Creeks) and Shawnees, but some remained.  Indeed, even when the Cherokees later moved into the region, they occupied some villages with Arawak names. Those Arawak place names survive unto this day. Tahlequah, Oklahoma is one of those Arawak words.


Marketing North Carolina Pride Brand archaeology

All Southeastern tribes, except the Creeks, use a name for the Cherokees that means “Cave Dwellers.”  This name is also common among Midwestern and Northeastern tribes.  The first European map to even mention the Cherokees was published in 1717 and showed their villages clustered along the Holston River in extreme northeastern Tennessee. Earlier maps showed entirely different ethnic groups living in that region.   The location is nowhere near the major towns with large mounds in the Southeast.

Two the ethnic names on the 16th century and 17th century maps of Northeastern Tennessee did survive into modern times.  The Chalaka moved south to Alabama on the Tallapoosa River in present day Talladega County and joined the Creek Confederacy.  Ironically, it was a Chalaka town that white and Cherokee soldiers stormed in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.


The Chiska of Northeastern Tennessee are mentioned several times in the 16th century chronicles of the De Soto and Juan Pardo Expeditions.  Their villages are extremely difficult to locate because for houses, they dug man-made caves into the side of hills and mountains. Chiska is the Panoan (Eastern Peru) word for Bird.  Chisqua is also a Cherokee word for bird, plus Ani-Chisqua is the Cherokee Bird Clan.

Yet today North Carolina archaeologists label all Woodland and Mississippian Period towns and mounds in Western North Carolina as being Cherokee.   Tennessee has been bribed and pressured into placing signs that re-label Creek mound sites in the Tennessee Valley as being Cherokee sites . . . even though its archaeologists know good and well that the Cherokees were nowhere around. Between 2012 and 2015, Georgia archaeologists on the payroll of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, attempted to persuade the public that the Cherokees built 1000 year old stone terrace complexes in the northern half of their state.  The people in Georgia were not fooled.


In 1715, Cusate (Upper Creeks) still occupied the Tennessee River as far upstream as present day Knoxville, yet during the past two decades, the general public in Tennessee has been made to believe that this region was occupied by Cherokees, when Hernando de Soto rolled through here in 1540 AD.  By 1715, the Cherokees upstream greatly outnumbered the Cusate Creeks.  They probably would have already been overrun was it not for the large French fort.  However, with the onslaught of the Creek-Cherokee War in December 1715,  the Cherokees quickly swept over all the lands southward to the Hiwasee River.  The Hogeloge Uchees were also pushed back to the Hiwasee River.

The three federally recognized Cherokee tribes claim that the ancestors of the Cherokees were major participants in the Mississippian Culture and have lived in North Carolina for 10,000 years.  Also, they supposedly built all the mounds in a seven state area within the Southeast’s interior. In other words, they were the major players in the mound-building business throughout the Southeast. How could this conundrum be possible?

The indigenous artifacts found in Western North Carolina that date before around 1700 AD are extremely similar to those unearthed in neighboring states.  In fact, they are so similar that for most of the 20th century, archaeologists assumed that they were made by the same ethnic group.  They assigned the same cultural labels and pottery style names to adjacent regions of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

In 1826 and early 1827,  Cherokee Principal Chief Charles Hicks wrote “The History of the Cherokee People” in the form of eight long letters to future Principal Chief John Ross.  Hicks stated that the Cherokees arrived on the western edge of the Southern Appalachians about the same time that the English arrived in Charleston, SC (1670).  They found the “mound builders” in the mountains had been terribly weakened by a series of plagues.  He literally stated, “The Cherokees killed or drove off the Mound Builders.  We then burned their temples and replaced them with Cherokee town houses.”

The Cherokees consistently stated until the late 20th century that they did not build the mounds and stone structures in the Southern Highlands. Nevertheless, most Caucasians in the Southern Appalachians assumed that the Cherokees had always lived there.  Therefore the presumption was that the Cherokees had built all the mounds and made all pottery that was found in the Southern Appalachians.  North Carolina anthropology professors were quite happy to share archaeological labels with neighboring states.  These were all Cherokee artifacts, so it didn’t matter.

In 1874, pioneer Georgia archaeologist, Charles C. Jones, observed that the artifacts found in Georgia’s Nacoochee Valley were identical to those found in Macon, where the Creek Indians had always lived. A decade later, a swarm of archaeologists from the Northeastern United States began mining the Indian mounds in North Georgia.  They did not pay attention to what Jones had said.  They labeled the mounds, “probably Cherokee,” but were primarily concerned with finding trophy artifacts to bring back to Northeastern Museums.

A series of WPA, TVA, National Geographic Society and state funded archeological investigations between 1933 and 1974 in the Highlands of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina completely changed the situation. In Georgia, there was a continuous archaeological record of artifacts associated with the ancestors of the Creek Indians into the 1700s.  The Tugaloo Island site, near South Carolina and North Carolina was found to have been burned around 1700 AD. Its Muskogean occupants were replaced by a much more primitive people, making artifacts typical of the Cherokee Indians.  The Muskogean occupation of the Little Tennessee River Valley ended in the mid-1720s.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the new science of radiocarbon dating was providing alarming information about multiple cultural level archaeological sites in Western North Carolina. There was anywhere from a 60 to 100 year gap in age between large planned towns with rectangular houses that were typical of the Creek’s  ancestors in Georgia and small unplanned villages with crude round houses and pottery typical of the Colonial Period Cherokees.  Only three definite Cherokee villages revealed radio-carbon dates earlier than 1720. Those three were from around 1690 to 1700.

At this point, North Carolina anthropologists and historians panicked.  If their “mound builder” artifacts had the same name and looked the same as those made by ancestors of the Creek Indians in Georgia and Tennessee, then sooner or later, the public would start assuming that the Creeks had lived in Western North Carolina until the late 1600s . . . which is exactly what Cherokee Principal Chief Hicks had written in 1826.

The archeologists came up with new names for their cultural periods.  The word assigned to prove that the Cherokees were in North Carolina during the Woodland Period was Conestee . . . a pure Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek name!  Because the North Carolina academicians knew nothing about Muskogean culture, the label continues to this day.

Brasstown Bald USFS Museum

Brasstown Bald Mountain USFS Museum

At that exact same time, the US Forest Service was furnishing a museum on top of Brasstown Bald Mountain in Georgia.  Very heavy political pressure was placed in Washington, DC to make this museum into a propaganda exhibit that told a very different story than what visitors saw in North Georgia museums, owned by the State of Georgia. The legitimate late 18th century and early 19th century Cherokee artifacts came from North Carolina. However, the majority of artifacts were from the Pre-European periods and came from much farther south in Georgia, where the Cherokees never lived.  The displays were labeled “10,000 years of Cherokee history.”

The Brasstown Museum contains a small exhibit of artifacts, excavated from the vicinity of Etowah Mounds in Northwest Georgia.  The sign at the Brasstown Museum states that “No one knows who built the mounds in North Georgia.”  It adds that the “mound builders” lived for a brief time in North Georgia then left.  The word, Creek Indian, is never mentioned in the USFS museum.

The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that ordered all American Indian artifacts found in Western North Carolina were to be labeled that they were made by ancestors of the Cherokees. The law also stated it was the official policy of the State of North Carolina that the Cherokees had lived in North Carolina for at least 1,000 years.  During the past decade, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian has changed the story to say that the Cherokees have lived in North Carolina for 10,000 years and that they were the ancestors of the Aztecs and Mayas!

The most recent phase of the efforts by North Carolina Cherokees for being considered participants in the so-called Mississippian Culture is to pay archaeologists to say that. They also provide financial assistance to and promote the books of authors, who write either non-fictional or fictional books, which present the Cherokees as being long-time residents of North Carolina . . . and especially if the novels describe the Cherokees building ceremonial mounds and large towns.

The tribe has also adopted the cultural symbols of tribes definitely associated with the construction of large planned towns. The logo of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian is a gorget found in southwestern Missouri near Cahokia Mounds in the 1890s. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. Docents at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC tell visitors that the gorget was found at their reservation.

The logo for the Eastern Band of Cherokees Cultural Preservation Office is a shell gorget found by an archaeologist from Harvard University in Mound C of Etowah Mounds during the 1920s.  The book cover of the new Cherokee Dictionary is a gorget found in Moundville, AL near Tuscaloosa that is also a sacred symbol of the federally recognized Muscogee-Creek Nation.  A note in the preface of the Cherokee Dictionary states that the book cover is a traditional North Carolina Cherokee religious symbol  . . .  an absolute lie.

Seventeenth century maps, plus the place names and rivers of Western North Carolina, tell a very different story.   Until the second decade of the 18th century, the Creeks called the Cherokees, Cofitachete, which means “Mixed Race People.” A word like Cherokee did not appear on any map until 1715. You can see the word, Cofitachete on earlier maps. They were the offspring of various bands of Mediterranean, North African and European male immigrants, who intermarried with females from several tribes.  However, the most powerful Cherokee families often had little or no Native American DNA.  That is being proven today by DNA testing.  The typical Cherokee today has over twice as much Middle Eastern DNA as the typical American Jew.

From around 1620 to 1690, the mixed race ancestors of the Cherokees, living in Southwestern Virginia  and Southern West Virginia were provided firearms by Dutch, British and Sephardic Jewish slave traders.  At the time, no other tribes had firearms and so these slave raids would have horrific impacts.  Vast areas of Virginia, Kentucky, Northeast Tennessee and the Carolinas were depopulated by the slave raids.  The Cofitachete would kill all adult males they captured.  Most women and children would be shipped to Caribbean sugar plantations, where they endured short brutal lives, making European planters very wealthy.  Their life expectancies were about two sugar harvesting seasons.

The Cofitachete raiders would keep a few teenage girls as concubines and wives. These girls would carry vague memories of their heritage and village names. However, these girls were not yet proficient pottery makers. That is why when the “Cherokees” first entered North Carolina around 1700 AD, Qualla (ie Cherokee) pottery looked like crude imitations of Creek Lamar Style pottery.

During the late 20th century, archaeologists identified a chain of towns, such as at Tugaloo Island, along the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains that were sacked and burned around 1700 AD. These ruins seem to mark the arrival of the Cherokees in the region.

During the late 20th century, archaeologists identified a chain of towns, such as at Tugaloo Island, along the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains that were sacked and burned around 1700 AD. These ruins seem to mark the arrival of the Cherokees in the region.

Some people living in the pre-Cherokee villages of North Carolina elected to stay put and join the Cherokees. Thus, very few of the early Cherokee villages in North Carolina had Cherokee names. Most Western North Carolina inhabitants fled south to join their Creek, Uchee and Shawnee relatives.  This is why you often see the same Creek place names in Western North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Eastern Tennessee and Florida.  The Creeks in Graham, Swain, Clay and Cherokee Counties, North Carolina eventually became the core of the Seminole Alliance in South Georgia and North Florida.

It is very clear that very little said by the academic community and Cherokee officials about Cherokee history before 1715 is factual.  Well the fact is that the Cherokees don’t have a cultural memory before that time and a vast stack of cards that ignores the available evidence has been erected in its place.

All the evidence points to the Cherokees being descended from peoples of South American ancestry, who formerly lived in hand dug caves.  Their language is a blend of the many languages of peoples, who joined the tribe as its territory and military strength grew.

Part Two is a glossary of Native American Place Names in Western North Carolina . . . their ethnicity and meaning.

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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.



    I’d like to put in a request on info on the word “Okalona”. It’s a road right about 30 miles from the NC border in Tennessee

  2. Oka is the Itsate and Cusate word for water. The original word probably referred to a spring or source of potable water.


      Thanks, I’ve been trying to figure out what it meant all this time, few people to ask.

      it is near a few small rivers, one nearby called ‘dry creek’ goes into a cavern system, apparently.. These mountains are complex.
      There’s many a road around here based on a ‘traditional’ name, The only way to get from one area to another before more advanced road-making 🙂


    such great information. everything does fit. you are discussing my “Cherokees (?)” Reagans from Swain County , NC. I have long believed “they” (Cherokees in general.. east & west) really do not know who they are/were. And, recent dna does not fit the story , but does fall in with your mentions. Clothing colors/patterns do not match the historicals , but does look south American. someday , it may cost a lot of money to change all those road and bridge sign names…:o)


    When was the area on the Apalache River inhabited?

    • Clovis points have been found that area so it was inhabited during the Late Ice Age. There has been very little professional archaeological study of the Apalachee River Basin even though stone structures are found along most of its length. Three different archaeological firms examined the stone ruins along the Mulberry River in the early 1990s, but couldn’t agree what they were.


    Hey Richard,
    I found an old National Geographic with an article about Cappodocia the huge ancient underground city in Turkey. Since the DNA make up of Cherokees has a large middle eastern component and you think the Chiska may be their ancestors has any one studied the possible ties the Chiskacould have with the people that built the underground Turkish cities. Could the Chiska in Peru be related, or a culture transfer happened between them in the past? If the climate and geology are similar they could have arrived at a similar solution. Its cooler underground.
    Really like the work you do, thank you

    • The Chiska were a Panoan speaking people from Eastern Peru. Chiska is the Panoan word for bird. It is also the Cherokee word for bird.

      Ironically, the Conibo People who created Swift Creek pottery were also Panoans. However, they were mound builders, while the Chiska were rather primitive and lived in man-made caves.

      Everybody seems to really like the videos. We will do that more.




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