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Wednesday, 17 August 2011 14:22

Our unique geography leads to unusual names

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About a year and a half ago I wrote a column titled “Mountain Topography and Language Lend Themselves to Colorful Names” that sparked a number of e-mails and letters. Obviously there are other folks out there who enjoy thinking about “the lay of the land.” After all, there’s no other place in the world that surpasses the actual topography of the southern mountains. And there’s no place where the people of a region have utilized a more delightful language to describe their homeland.”

Here then are some additional examples. I’ve restricted myself to the Smokies region west of Asheville. Unless otherwise noted, my general sources are William S. Powell’s The North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Place Names (UNC Press, 1968) and Allen R. Coggins’ Place Names of the Smokies (Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1999). I have sometimes added additional commentary:

• ADVALOREM BRANCH in Swain County within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An advalorem tax is one based on a percentage of assessed value.  Land taxes have never been popular in Swain County or in general, but maybe someone just liked the sound of the word.

• AKWETIYI (or AGWEDIYI) is a Cherokee word for a site in the Tuckaseigee River at the mouth of Dick’s Creek in Jackson County. It means something like “the place of the lizard monster” as it was believed that a dangerous creature resided therein.

• ANGELICO GAP and ANGELICO MOUNTAIN are Cherokee designations for places in Cherokee County. Angelico is the Cherokee designation for an herbaceous plant used as a cooked green.

• AQUONE is a community in Macon County on the upper Nantahala River. The word is believed to be a corruption of ““egwanulti” (by the river).

• BEAR BRANCH or BEAR CREEK have a combined 36 entries statewide in Powell’s Gazetteer.

• BEAVER CREEK or BEAVERDAM have a combined 45 entries statewide in Powell’s Gazetteer.

• BELL CONEY MOUNTAIN is situated on the eastern side of Lizzy Mountain in Jackson County (see the Big Ridge topo). I’ve never been to Bell Coney and don’t know how it came by that name.  Anyone out there know?

• BIG BUTT is situated in Macon County between Mooney Gap and Bearpen Gap. In geographic parlance, “butt” refers to an abrupt, broken off end of a ridge or mountain.

• BIG FAT GAP is situated in northwestern Graham County at the head of Bear Creek. What does the word “fat” signify in this sort of geographic context? I should know, but don’t.

• BIG HOGBACK CREEK is situated in Jackson County. I assume this creek is associated with HOG BACK MOUNTAIN, so-named because the mountain features jagged rocks along its spine.

• BONE VALLEY CREEK is situated in Swain County in the GSMNP. In 1888 cattle were trapped along this tributary of Hazel Creek in a horrendous blizzard. Named for the bleached bones of these animals that lay in the valley for years.

• BOOGERMAN TRAIL is situated in Haywood County in Cataloochee Valley within the GSMNP. Named for Robert Palmer, whose nickname was “Boogerman.” As he grew older, Palmer became increasingly reclusive and sported a brushy beard that tended to frighten young folks.

• CATALOOCHE is thought to a corruption of the Cherokee word “Gadalutsi,” which is variously translated as “fringe standing erect” or “wave upon wave” in reference to the trees along the valley’s ridge crests.

• CATSTAIRS is a steep trail situated in Macon County along Overflow Creek in Blue Valley. Wildcats supposedly established the route to go from one mountain to another. Or maybe it was so narrow and difficult that it only seemed suitable for wildcats?

• CHATTOOGA RIDGE and CHATTOOGA RIVER in Jackson County are place names derived from the Cherokee word “chatawga”

• COWEE or COWEETA are places names for an old village, a modern community, a creek, a mountain bald, gaps, and a hydrologic station in Macon County. The words mean “place of the Deer Clan.”

• DEVIL’S TATTER PATCH, situated in Swain County within the GSMNP, is one of the numerous place names that invoke the devil in Western North Carolina. He is associated with DEVIL’S NEST (a peak), DEVIL’S PRONG (a creek fork), DEVIL’S SHOALS FORD (a crossing), DEVIL’S GARDEN (steep eroded land), DEVIL’S DEN (rugged terrain), DEVIL’S COURTHOUSE (high outcrop), and numerous other sites local inhabitants deemed fit for the devil himself.   

• EAST LAPORTE is a community in Jackson County east of Cullowhee alongside the Tuckaseigee River. It is named for the site of an 18th century French trading post that the French considered to be the east gate (“la port”) to the Cherokee country.

• GABBY BRANCH is situated in Cherokee County. What a wonderful name for a mountain stream! Instead of merely babbling away, this one seemed to be “talking incessantly.”

An Indian named Running Deer hunted deer in the area with his dog, Wolf. Late one winter day, he wounded a deer with an arrow, and Wolf set out after the wounded animal, which headed into the main stream with the dog close behind.

“A moment later Running Deer spotted Wolf, who was dangling from a mass of jammed logs, debris, and fox grape vines in the middle of the stream. His entanglement was so severe he was in imminent danger of drowning. Running Deer shouted encouragement to Wolf as he plunged into the icy flooded water, fought his way to the dog, and released him. The two then swam to the bank and resumed the chase of the wounded buck, which was soon captured in a clump of laurel bushes.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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