Southwest Georgia was inhabited by various groups of Native people for hundreds and hundreds of years prior to the first European incursion. It therefore makes good sense that many of the rivers, streams and locales bear names derived from Native languages.
Those wishing to pursue this topic in more detail will encounter three scenarios. There are many place names in southwest Georgia which have maintained a pronunciation close to what the Native people would have used themselves. There are however as many or more place names, which while maintaining a Native flavor, continue to confound even the scholars who study these type things for a living. Last but not least there are many place names in southwest Georgia which originated in the Native tongue but were early on translated and changed by the White settlers. In many of those instances the Native pronunciation was either too vague or too difficult.
One of the earliest groups of Native people to occupy southwest Georgia were the Hitchiti. Their territory ranged from the Chattahoochee River basin to as far north as Macon, Georgia and the Oconee River. The names of some of their more well-known groups were Apalachee, Oconee, Ocmulgee, Chiaha and Sawolki. The latter may have been the parent group of the people we know today as the Miccosukee. By the time of European settlement, the Hitchiti people of Georgia and Florida had been largely absorbed by an influx of their distant cousins, the Muskogee. Better known to us as the Creeks, these Muskogee people spoke a language very similar to Hitchiti. As we will see, remnants of both languages have survived in the place names of southwest Georgia as well as northern Florida.
Alapaha: A river forming in lower Dooly County, Georgia, then flowing through or touching many South Georgia counties, including Lowndes and Echols, before joining the Suwanee River in Hamilton County, Florida. This name was also applied to a former community and Post Office, in Lowndes County, Georgia. Some scholars are convinced the name Alapaha is derived from the Timucua as opposed to the to the Muskogee language. At the time of Hernando DeSoto’s arrival in 1539, the Timucua were one of the largest if not the largest group of Native people in Florida. Some scholars believe their territory extended into the lower areas of Georgia. As DeSoto marched through Florida most of the Timucua people resisted his encroachment. For this they were for all practical purposes “wiped out.” That meaning killed or sold as slaves to plantations in Cuba and the Caribbean islands. The vast majority of things we know regarding the Timucua culture and language come from archeology, the chronicles of the DeSoto expedition and the four Timucua Natives who Spanish Priests were able to save and extensively interview. The use of the number four here is not that much of an exaggeration. The word Alapaha could be derived from the Muskogee word apala meaning “the other side.” A more popular thought process is tied to the Timucua words for bear and house. Those being ara (are rah) and paha. There are few scholars who will take a definitive stand on the exact origin and meaning of the word Alapaha.
Attapulgas: A confirmed Native American village just above the Georgia-Florida border in Decatur County. There was once another village of significance by this same name further south and toward present-day Apalachicola, Florida. The Decatur County, Georgia location began to appear in records around 1818 in conjunction with the Seminole conflicts. The name of this place stems from the native words atap ha (ah top ha) meaning dogwood and ulga (ull guh) or halgi (awl gee) meaning a place. Attapulgas translates as a place where Dogwoods are found, or perhaps better said, a Dogwood grove.
Aucilla: A waterway rising in the southern part of Brooks County, Georgia, then flowing south into Jefferson County, Florida and eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachee Bay. There is little doubt this name stems from the Timucua language. At the time of Hernando Desoto’s exploration of Florida, today’s Aucilla river was the boundary between the Timucua and Apalachee people. These were two separate Native cultures speaking totally different languages. When DeSoto turned west from the area of present-day Lake City, Florida he was seeking a Timucua village called Asile (ah see lee). That place had been described to him as a major population center with abundant stores of corn. The meaning of Asile is not known. It is however the forerunner of what we today refer to as Aucilla.
Fowl Town: This term was applied to various locations where the “Miccosukee Band” led by Chief Neamathla relocated between 1814 and 1818. The moves were all connected to conflicts stemming out of the War of 1812, the Treaty of Fort Jackson and lastly a dispute between Chief Neamathla and the Commander of Fort White. Three locations, the southeastern side of the lower Flint River in present day Decatur County, Georgia, a site in Jackson County, Florida and lastly a site on Lake Miccosukee in Jefferson County, Florida, all bore this name. The White people were satisfied to use the translation as opposed to the Native name. In the Native tongue tulakosi (tuh lah koh see) stems from the words talofa (tah low fah) meaning a small village and kosi (koh see) meaning chicken or fowl. Today there is place on Four Mile Creek, southeast of Bainbridge in Decatur County, Georgia known as Fowl Town.
Grand Bay: A swampy but considerable run of water in eastern Lowndes County, Georgia which joins the Alapaha River in Echols County, Georgia. Grand Bay is mentioned within the context of this article as it appears on some old maps as Alapacoochee. The Native term we pronounce as “coochee” is a well agreed and understood diminutive in both Hitchiti and Muscogee. Alapacoochee therefore translates as Little Alapaha.
Micco: A known place in Hamilton County, Florida which at one time served as the county seat. Pronounced me koh, this is the well accepted Muskogee and Hitchiti word for leader or head man. This word was incorporated into the names of many well-known Native leaders. One of the best examples being Micanopy (me koh no pea), which translates more or less as top or exalted leader.
Miccosukee: A well-known body of water in north Florida contained for the most part in Jefferson County. The Miccosukee were one of the most well know and documented tribes of this area. Their language is one of the best examples of the Hitchiti dialect of the Muskogee language group. Early attempts by the Colonial government in America to count Native people, indicated the Miccosukee numbered two-hundred rifles. That meaning men of fighting age. The camps of this tribe were said to spread five miles along the southern side of the present-day lake. Micco (me koh) means head man or chief and saufke (sowf key) pig or swine. There are written accounts which state the ability of this tribe to kill alligators with ease made a strong impression on the White people. The same evidence indicates those White people also noted the alligators were not just killed but also skinned and eaten. Another comment from the same source states, “these people kill and eat alligators the way we do hogs.” None the less, micco saufke translates to Pig Chief.
Ochlocknee River: A waterway running through southwest Georgia and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachee Bay. The Hitchiti word for yellow of yellowish was lagni (log knee) and sometimes lahni (Lonnie). The Hitchiti word for water was oki (oh key). So, what was okilagni to the Native people became Ochlocknee to the Whites. The translation being yellowish water.
Octahatchee: A place name and lake in Hamilton County, Florida just below the Georgia border. It doesn’t get much better than this one. The Muskogee word for sand, sometimes sand bar, was ochta (ahk tah). The word for a stream or water way in their language was hutchee (hut chee). The hutchee of the Natives was quickly carved in stone by the Whites as hatchee (hat chee). Octahatchee translates well as sand or sand bar creek.
Okapilco: A water way running through Brooks County, Georgia and emptying there into the Withlacoochee River. Also, a former town and postal location in northern Brooks County, Georgia. This name appears to borrow from both Muskogee and Hitchiti. Oki is without doubt the Hitchiti word for water. Pilwa (pull wah), a word shared in both languages, was used to describe a low swampy area. The next part is more difficult but works well into the translation. The Muskogee word for big or large was the very difficult to pronounce thucclo (thuck low). The pronunciation in the native tongue is said to have sounded more like rakklo (rahk low) or (rah kow). Therefore, what to the Natives would sound out, oh key pull wah rahk low, for the Whites became Okapilco. The meaning being big, swampy water.
Okefenokee: No discussion of Native place names in Georgia is complete without this one. First mentioned on a map of a colonial surveyor in 1769 as Ekanphaenoka, this place name derives from the Hitchiti word for water, oki (oh key) and a shared word between Hitchiti and Muskogee, finoca (fin oh kah), meaning to quiver or shake.
Olustee: A stream and place name in Baker County, Florida. The community of Olustee once had a Post Office and preceded Macclenny as the main town in that county. This place name is derived from the Hitchiti words oki (oh key) meaning water and lasti (last tee) meaning dark of black.
Piscola Creek: A water way running through Thomas and Brooks counties and emptying into the Withlacoochee River southeast of Quitman, Georgia. Piscola is a word more commonly associated with the Choctaw dialect of Muskogee. Historically speaking, the Choctaw dialect of Muskogee was not used spoken as far east Thomas County, Georgia. The exact Native meaning of this word is subject to debate.
Suwannee River: A well-known river emanating out of the Okefenokee basin, then flowing southwest until emptying into the Gulf Mexico. The Suwannee is joined along its southwestern flow by the Alapaha and the Withlacoochee rivers. There are several theories which attempt to explain the word Suwannee, few of them definitive. The name may derive from a Timucua word of which we have no knowledge? Desperate attempts by some to not leave the name of this well-known river undefined, point to the Spanish language. The theory being this name is a twisted version of San Juanito (little San Juan-St. Johns). At the end of the day the origin of the name Suwannee remains subject to speculation.
Tallahassee: The general location of the city of Tallahassee, Florida has been identified as the site of a Native village of consequence since the 18th century. The Muskogee word for an established place of residence, better said, a village, was talofa (tah low fah) or either talwa (tal wah). The difference being a talofa was smaller and less permanent than a talwa. Tallahassee translates quite nicely from the Native word talwa (tal wah) and hussee (huss see). This literally meaning old town, place or village.
Tallokas: Two reasonable explanations for this place name in Brooks County, Georgia, at one time a community with a Post office, are a group of villages or a place where wild peas are found. The Native word talofa has been explained above under Tallahassee. The Muskogee word for wild peas was taloki (tah low key).
Withlacoochee River: One of the main waterways passing through Lowndes County, Georgia which flows south into Florida and joins the Suwannee River. The Muskogee word for water was wewa (way wah or wee wah). The term coochee as a diminutive has already been explained. More complicated, but also previously explained under Okapilco, is the Muskogee word for big or large. So, what to the Native people would sound out wee wah rahk low, koo chee became to the Whites Withlacoochee. This literally meaning water, big, little.
More Native place names are found on the outer edges of southwest Georgia than within that area itself. This also holds true for confirmed Native villages of consequence. When addressing this factor as to why, a lengthy discussion can be opened. A more compact explanation would center on larger waterways, a hunting area as opposed to an area suited for long term residence and the historical movements of various tribes for various reasons over a two-hundred-year period. While there were known and confirmed Native villages in southwest Georgia, a case can be made the area was primarily used as a hunting ground.
The author recommends the following sources for those wishing to extend their knowledge of Native place names in Georgia and Florida.
Early History of The Creek Indians & Their Neighbors, John R. Swanton, University Press of Florida, Gainesville et al, copyright 1923 Board of Regents of the State of Florida, originally 1922 by the Smithsonian Institution
English and Muskogee Dictionary, Collected from Various Sources and Revised by Rev. R.M. Loughridge, D.D. and Elder David M. Hodge Interpreter, Creek Mission Indian Territory, reprinted By Permission 1964 by B. Frank Belvin General Missionary to Creek and Seminole Indiana Baptist Home Mission Board Okmulgee, Oklahoma
Placenames of Georgia, Essays of John H. Goff, edited by Frances Lee Utley and Marion R.
Hemperly, 1975, University of Georgia Press
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