Myths of the Cherokee

Myths of the Cherokee

by James Mooney

Myths of the Cherokee – Buffalo Track Rock: This rock, of which the Indian name is now lost, is indefinitely mentioned as located southwest from Cumberland gap, on the northern border of the state.

According to Wafford, it was well known some eighty years ago to the old Cherokee hunters, who described it as covered with deep impressions made by buffalo running along the rock and then butting their heads, as though in mad fury, against a rock wall, leaving the prints of their heads and horns in the stone.

Chattanooga: This city, upon Tennessee river, near the entrance [413]of the creek of the same name in Hamilton County, was incorporated in 1848. So far as is known there was no Cherokee settlement at the place, although some prominent men of the tribe lived in the vicinity. The name originally belonged to  some location upon the creek. The Cherokee pronounce it Tsatănu′gĭ, but say that it is not a Cherokee word and has no meaning in their language. The best informants express the opinion that it was from the Chickasaw (Choctaw) language, which seems possible, as the Chickasaw country anciently extended a considerable distance up the Tennessee, the nearest settlement being within 80 miles of the present city. The Cherokee sometimes call the city Aʻtlă′nuwă′, “Tlă′nuwă (Hawk) hole,” that being their old name for a bluff on the south side of the river at the foot of the present Market Street. From this circumstance probably originated the statement by a magazine writer that the name Chattanooga signifies “The crow’s nest.”

Chickamauga: The name of two creeks in Hamilton County, entering Tennessee river from opposite sides a few miles above Chattanooga. A creek of the same name is one of the headstreams of Chattahoochee River, in White County, Georgia. The Cherokee pronounce it Tsĭkăma′gĭ, applying the name in Tennessee to the territory about the mouth of the southern, or principal, stream, where they formerly had a town, from which they removed in 1782. The state, however, that it is not a Cherokee word and has no meaning in their language. Filson, in 1793, erroneously states that it is from the Cherokee language and signifies “Boiling pot,” referring to a dangerous whirlpool in the river near by, and later writers have improved upon this by translating it to mean “Whirlpool.” The error arises from confounding this place with The Suck, a whirlpool in Tennessee river 15 miles farther down and known to the Cherokee as Ûñtiguhĭ′, “Pot in the water” (see number 63, “Ûñtsaiyĭ′, the Gambler”). On account of the  hard fighting in the neighborhood during the Civil war, the stream was sometimes called, poetically, “The River of Death,” the term being frequently given as a translation of the Indian word. It has been suggested that the name is derived from an Algonquian word referring to a fishing or fish spearing place, in which case it may have originated with the Shawano, who formerly occupied middle Tennessee, and some of whom at a later period resided jointly with the Cherokee in the settlements along this part of the river. If not, Shawano it is probably from the Creek or Chickasaw.

Concerning “Chickamauga gulch,” a canyon on the northern stream of that name, a newspaper writer gives the following so-called legend, which it is hardly necessary to say is not genuine: The Cherokees were a tribe singularly rich in tradition, and of course so wild, gloomy, and remarkable a spot was not without its legend. The descendants of the expatriated semi-barbarians believe to this day that in ages gone a great serpent made its den in the gulch, and that yearly he demanded of the red men ten of their most beautiful maidens as a sacrificial offering. Fearful of extermination, the demand was always complied with by the tribe, amid weeping and wailing by the women. On the day before the tribute was due the serpent announced its presence by a demoniacal hiss, and the next morning the fair ones who had been chosen to save the tribe were taken to the summit of a cliff and left to be swallowed by the scaly Moloch.

Chilhowee: A mountain and station on the north side of Little Tennessee river, in Blount County. The correct Cherokee form is Tsûʻlûñwe′ĭ, applied to the lower part of Abrams creek, which enters the river from the north just above. The meaning of the word is lost, although it may possibly have a connection with tsûʻlû, “kingfisher.” It has been incorrectly rendered “fire deer,” an interpretation founded on the false assumption that the name is compounded from atsi′la, “fire,” and aʻwĭ′, “deer,” whence, Chil-howee. For legends localized in this vicinity, see the stories noted above. Chilhowee occurs also as the name of a stream in the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

Lenoir: On the north bank of the main Tennessee, at the junction of the Little Tennessee, in Loudon County. The Cherokee name is Wa′gĭnsĭ′, of which the meaning is lost, and was applied originally to an eddy in the stream, where, it was said, there dwelt a large serpent, to see which was an omen of evil. On one occasion a man crossing the river at this point saw the snake in the water and soon afterward lost one of his children.

Morganton: On a rocky hill on the old Indian trail on the west side of Little Tennessee river, above and nearly opposite Morganton, in Loudon County, are, or were a few years ago, four trees blazed in a peculiar manner, concerning which the Indians had several unsatisfactory stories, the most common opinion being that the marks were very old and had been made by Indians to indicate the position of hidden mines.

Nashville: The state capital, in Davidson County. The Cherokee name is Dăgû′năwelă′hĭ, “Mussel-liver place,” which would seem to have originated in some now forgotten legend.

Nickajack: A creek entering Tennessee river from the south about 15 miles below Chattanooga. Near its mouth is a noted cave of the same name. The Cherokee form is Nĭkutse′gĭ, the name of a former settlement of that tribe at the mouth of the creek; but the word has no meaning in that language, and is probably of foreign, perhaps Chickasaw, origin. The derivation from a certain “Nigger Jack,” said to have made the cave his headquarters is purely fanciful.

Savannah: A farm on the north bank of Hiwassee River at a ford of the same name, about 5 miles above Conasauga creek and Columbus, in Polk County. Here are extensive remains of an ancient settlement, including mounds, cemetery, and also, some seventy years ago, a small [415] square enclosure or “fort” of undressed stone. According to a tradition given to Wafford, the Cherokee once prepared an ambush here for a hostile war party which they were expecting to come up the river, but were themselves defeated by the enemy, who made a detour around the Black Mountain and came in upon their rear.

Tennessee: The Cherokee form is Tănăsĭ′, and was applied to several localities within the old territory of the tribe. The most important town of this name was  on the south bank of Little Tennessee river, halfway between Citico and Toco creeks, in Monroe County, Tennessee. Another was on the south side of Hiwassee, just above the junction of Ocoee, in Polk County, Tennessee. A third district of the same name was on Tennessee creek, the extreme easterly head of Tuckasegee river, in Jackson County, North Carolina. The meaning of the name is lost. It was not the Indian name of the river, and does not mean “Big spoon,” as has been incorrectly asserted.


For more important legends localized in Georgia see the stories Yahula, The Nûñnĕhĭ, The Ustû′tlĭ, Âgan-uni′tsĭ’s Search for the Uktena, and The Man who Married the Thunder’s Sister. White’s Historical Collections of Georgia is responsible for a number of pseudo-myths.

Chopped Oak: A noted tree, scarred with hundreds of hatchet marks, formerly in Habersham county, 6 miles east of Clarkesville, on the summit of Chattahoochee ridge, and on the north side of the road from Clarkesville to Toccoa creek. The Cherokee name is Digălu′yătûñ′yĭ, “Where it is gashed with hatchets.” It was a favorite assembly place for the Indians, as well as for the early settlers, according to whom the gashes were tally marks by means of which the Indians kept the record of scalps taken in their forays. The tradition is thus given by White (Historical Collections of Georgia, p. 489, 1855) on some earlier authority:

Among the curiosities of this country was the Chopped Oak, a tree famous in Indian history and in the traditions of the early settlers. This tree stood about 6miles southeast of Clarkesville, and was noted as being the Law Ground, or place of holding company musters and magistrates’ courts.

According to tradition, the Chopped Oak was a celebrated rendezvous of the Indians in their predatory excursions, it being at a joint where a number of trails met. Here their plans of warfare were laid; here the several parties separated; and here, on their return, they awaited each other; and then, in their brief language, the result of their enterprise was stated, and for every scalp taken a gash cut in the tree.

If tradition tells the truth, and every scar on the blasted oak counts for a scalp, the success of their scouting parties must have been great. This tree was alive a few years since when a young man, possessing all the prejudices of his countrymen, and caring less for the traditions of the Indians than his own revenge, killed the tree by girdling it, that it might be no longer a living monument of the cruelties of the savages. The stump is still standing.




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