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What does Coosa mean?

What does Coosa mean?


Dear Mr. Thornton:

I am a graduate anthropology student in Alabama.  I just last night discovered the People of One Fire web site.  It is incredible!    Thank you for the complements about our archaeology program in Alabama.  We think that it is one of the best in the nation and getting better!

Where were you when I needed you?   🙂  This past semester I had to write a paper about a cluster of archaeological sites on the Coosa River.   I could never find out the meaning of the word, Coosa.  My professors didn’t have a clue what the word meant.  The Creek dictionary just said that “it was the name of a tribal town in Alabama.”   

I contacted both the Poarch Creek Band in Alabama and the Creek Nation in Oklahoma.  They also had no clue what the word meant.  I thought that was strange.  Does that mean that it is not even a Creek Indian word?   Is it a Cherokee or Chickasaw word?

An article on Coosa County, AL said that it was a Cherokee word, meaning “rippling water.”   Several Alabama and Georgia genealogy web sites said that it was a Cherokee word that means, “creek or cane brake.”    A Georgia history website said that it is the Cherokee word for “river.”  None of these sound right.  After reading some on the articles on this web site, I have a feeling that you know the correct answer.

Other questions –  The De Soto Chronicles uses the word, Coça, for the large town that De Soto visited.  Does Coça mean the same as Coosa?   Are words like Cusseta, Cussaw and Cusabo related the word, Coosa?   My professor told me that Cusabo and Coosa were different languages and therefore were not related.  Do you know anything about this?

If you publish my letter, please do not print my name, email address or university.   The secretary at our Anthropology Department can verify that I am a student here.

Thank you very much for your time.


Coosa has very surprising origin

Dear Lady X:

There is an enormous amount of inaccurate information about the Native Americans of the Lower Southeast on the internet these days.  It seems almost impossible to get rid of it.  

We will get right to your question.   Coosa is the Anglicization of the Creek proper noun, Kvse . . . which is pronounced, Käu : shë.   A Muskogee-Creek S is pronounced roughly as “sh.”    Maya,  Itsate and Koastate Creek have multiple S sounds that are similar to consonants in East Asian languages.  Kvse is what the Upper Creeks in Oklahoma still call themselves. 

Kvse has no meaning in Muskogee-Creek, other than being a proper noun.  The “Coosas” were NOT originally Muskogee speakers.


European spellings

Many of the sounds in Native American languages are different than those in European languages.  Of course, there are also different sounds among European languages, which each nationality tries to approximate within their phonetic meanings assigned to alphabet letters.   For example, “sk” in Swedish sounds like “sh” in English . . .  “ll” in Spanish sounds like a Y in English.  

In general, Europeans interpreted the ë sound at the end of Creek words as a short “a” sound.   In Late Medieval Castilian, ç  meant the equivalent of an “sh” in English.  The Spanish interpreted the “v” or “aw” sound in Muscogean languages as either an o, a or u.  English  rarely used the letter K in the 1500s and 1600s.  French and Spanish still don’t.  Thus, the De Soto Chroniclers wrote down Coça.   French explorers wrote the word as Cousha.     British explorers and mapmakers wrote the word as Cusa.   American English speakers eventually changed Cusa to Coosa.   All of these spellings are for the same Creek proper noun.


Etymologies of Coosa,  Cusabo and Cusseta

Coosa (Kvse~Kaushe) –  Until about four years ago I thought that Kvse was a hybrid Itza Maya – Muskogean word that meant Eagle (Maya) – descendants of (Muskogean) .  However, after realizing the profound Eastern Peruvian – Amazonian influence on ancient Creek words and traditions, I changed my mind and now am fairly certain that Kaushe is a direct borrowing of the Panoan word, kaushe,  which means “strong” or “elite.”  

The Panoan peoples originated and still live in the Satipo Province of eastern Peru.  There was a province in Southeast Georgia near the Satilla River named Satipo.  The word means “Colonists – Place of.”   Also . . . Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, visited a town named Satipo in 1568, while traveling through the Great Smoky Mountains.

The traditional clothing and the Sacred Black Drink ritual of the Creeks was absorbed from the Panoans.  The Panoan and Creek words for the Sacred Black Drink, made from holly leaves, is the same . . . ase.    The Creek words for chicken (tolose),   sweet potato (aho), lima bean (talako), canoe (pira) and village chief (orata) are also borrowed from Panoan languages.  This is very important . . . almost all of the 16th century tribes and place names in Southeast Georgia are Panoan or Tupi words.  Both languages are from South America.  The remnants of the Coastal Plain tribes settled on the Chattahoochee River from Eufula, AL southward and joined the Creek Confederacy.  Eufaula was originally a Satile village near present day Brunswick, GA and St. Simons Island. 

The leaders of Kusa told Hernando de Soto that their society consisted of an elite and commoners, who lived in separate villages. The commoners were originally Muskogeans, while the elite were apparently a mixture of Itza and Panoan genes.  It all makes sense.


Cusabo –  The word, Cusabo is actually the name of a group of provinces on the coast of South Carolina, south of Charleston.  The name of this alliance was actually Kaushabo.     The word is pure Panoan from Peru and means “Strong or elite – Place of.”   There is also a Panoan tribe in Peru named the Kaushebo. 

So your professor was wrong.  There is a direct relation between Coosa and Cusabo.  Both words are derived from the Panoan languages of Eastern Peru.   Santee . . . as in the Santee River of South Carolina, is a Southern Arawak word from Peru.  It means the same as Sati in Panoan.


Cusseta –  The vassals of the great town of Kvse (Coosa) in the Tennessee Valley and Northwest Georgia called themselves Kvsete . . . which is a hybrid word, which combines the Panoan root, Kaushe, with the Itza Maya and Itsate Creek suffix “te” for “people.”   It means “Coosa People.”     The same word in Muskogee-Creek is Kvsetv  or Kaushetaw. 

The French established a fort on Bussel Island, Tennessee in the late 1600s then became thoroughly familiar with the peoples of the Southern Highlands.   They wrote down the name of the Kaushete as the Coushete.     English-speakers initially wrote this word as Cusatee in the early 1700s.  For example, the 1715 Beresford Map calls the Tennessee River, the Cusatee River.   Over time, the spelling evolved to Cusseta.


I realize that my answers to your questions, are a slap in the face to Southeastern archaeological orthodoxy, but they make sense.  The problem is that for generation after generation, anthropology professors in the Southern universities never bothered to learn the Creek languages and certainly did not attempt to determine the etymologies of Creek place names and words.  They ignored the Colonial Period maps and even eyewitness descriptions.   The result was a highly flawed understanding of the Southeast’s past.   The Americas before Columbus and Hernando de Soto was much more complex than they imagined.



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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.



    Hi Richard Thornton. I have been reading your posts about the Coosa Native American and your answer to the graduate student. I was very impressed with such a thorough and interesting answer. Reason being that I thought the ancient Minoan script writings which I am studying is complicated, but this language is even more so. I also have an interest in the Native American Indian. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Can’t wait for the next post on this subject.

    • There are some strange scripts on petroglyphs in the interior of the Southeast. We are trying to re-create the Highland Apalache (North Georgia not the Florida Apalachee) writing system, which disappeared shortly after 1735. It was described as “peculiar red and black characters, not pictures, which were unlike any other known writing system.” So . . . right now I am trying to figure out which scripts on petroglyphs are Apalache and which are by others.


    Hello Dr. Richard Thornton and Lady X. Dr. Thornton in my researches on the names and origins of Coosa I thoroughly believe that the Coosas people were the Original group of Mound Builders in the Western Hemisphere, The Americas.

    I say this because the word, name and peoples can be found throughout the Southern States, Ohio-Illinois, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and the Island States.

    The reason for my position is that the Muscogees call the Coosas our Mother Group. cf. Abhika, Coosa, Cusetta, Cussitaw etc.
    Furthermore in Cortez’s records he was told by Montezuma’s peoples that the wealthiest and greatest builders of the Pyramids and Mounds were the Coosas and pointed him here to North America.

    The de Soto expedition to say the least about that matter. The Coosas were more than just one group of peoples.
    And the Coosas Chiefdom was a socio-political entity with a federal and confederate idea and system long before European colonists arrived on our shores here.



    Hi Richard, Another Great article from you. I was wondering if you or someone could list the symbols found in the written document given to the British in Savannah? and are you now believing that the Kvse-te migrated from Eastern Peru (Paru). These symbols might help connect the dots for the Native South Eastern peoples migrations. Thank You.


    Hi Dr .Thornton, I apologize but I’ve been away from my computer for several weeks as I had to get it fixed. I sent you a question a few weeks ago and I’m not sure if you answered it since my comp was down. If I could I’d like to ask it again, if you’d be so kind to answer it (again?). I’m from southwest Alabama (Monroe County).. According to one or two of the Desoto accounts, Desoto stopped in Piachi before he went to Mauvilla. Piache was in what is now Claiborne, also in Monroe County. It’s on the Alabama River, atop a Very high bluff(about 200 ft high). Do you know anything about Piachj? I read somewhere that it means “little trees”. And it was supposed to be well fortified,etc. But I was curious if you know any history of that village and its people? I’d appreciate it very much. Thanks, John Abbott

    • Yes, John I answered your question, but will answer it again. By the way, I do not have a doctorate. In fact, when I was a student, a PhD in architecture was not even offered. I do have eight years of university education, from three universities . . but was really was “wet behind the ears” when finishing all of that.

      The location for Piachi that you mentioned is speculative and not a fact. It was based on the presumption by Alabama scholars that the location of Kusa in 1540 was in Talladega County, AL. However, that location was proven five decades ago to be from the 1600s. Kusa was located under what is now the lower reservoir of Carters Lake in Georgia. So that Piachi was more likely in the vicinity of Gadsden, AL.


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