The ancient Irish words of North America

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Cullowhee was in County Donnegal Ireland before it was in North Carolina

It was my first and last attendance of a meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference. About 15 years ago, I drove up to the University of North Carolina – Charlotte to attend a SEAC meeting, whose theme was “Interactions between Spanish Explorers and Native Americans in the 16th century Carolinas.”  There were no Native American or Latin American speakers at the conference. The Saturday morning session quickly erupted into a heated argument between professors in North Carolina and South Carolina on whether the town of Cofitachequi was Cherokee or Catawba. Its true etymology is “none of the above.”

Actually, both Cofitachequi and Catawba were Europeanizations of Creek words meaning respectively “Descendants of Mixed People” and “Place of the Crown.”  Well, Katawpa was originally an Itza Maya word.  Eighteenth century maps show their mother province was along the Chattahoochee River between present day Atlanta and Gainesville, GA.  They also established themselves as the elite of a Siouan people in South Carolina, called the Issa, but ultimately the Issa became known by their Mesoamerican name, Anglicized to Catawba.  As for the Cherokees, mid-17th century maps show them living in Quebec, east of Lake Ontario, so they couldn’t have been in South Carolina in 1540, when De Soto’s conquistadors rampaged through there. The Katawpa in Georgia were members of the Creek Confederacy and by the late 1700s were located on the Lower Chattahoochee River.

The actual meanings of the Castilian spelling of the Creek words Cofita (Kofetv) and Cofitachequi (Kofitvciki) would have great significance in my research!

Arriving late and then sitting beside me, was a highly respected archeologist from Colombia. She immediately became agitated because none of the professors even knew how to pronounce Spanish words.  As we passed notes back and forth, I informed her that these combative professors also obviously didn’t know any Native American languages.  They were merely showing their support for their home state football teams. 

We eventually left the meeting.  She accompanied me on a grand tour of the North Carolina Mountains and Downtown Asheville, then the next day we drove over to Knoxville, Tennessee to visit the McClung Museum.   The following weekend we reunited at Ocmulgee in Macon, Georgia, where she correctly interpreted the huge megapolis as a multi-ethnic regional trading center.

At the McClung Museum, we noticed that several figurines were labeled as “unknown gender.”  However, we both knew that the Mayas (and the Creeks) always portrayed women seated in a kneeling position and men with their legs crossed.  We told that to the museum manager as we were leaving.  Just as we were reaching the exit door of the museum, a very famous female Anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee, raced up to us and chewed us out for daring to interpret their exhibits. She told us that we were not qualified to interpret Indian artifacts and not to come back.  Of course, she had no way of knowing our professional backgrounds, but both Pilar and I were mestizos – mixed European and Native American.  For that reason alone, she should have listened to us, rather than treating us like peasants. Pilar never told her, who she was and fortunately got a good laugh out of it.

Anthropology without linguistics is not Anthropology

The primary point of this parable is a revelation that much of the current orthodoxy in Southeastern United States anthropology was developed in a linguistic and Anglocentric vacuum. Anthropologists in Europe and Latin America would be horrified, if they knew that fact.  

There are a lot of new faces at the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology, but in the past, it had professors, who were experts on some obscure South American or African language . . . yet, I would be willing to bet that not one faculty member ever knew the meaning of the Creek word, Oconee, which is the name of the county where UGA is located and the river, which flows through it. Charles Hudson, the UGA professor, who promoted himself as the leading expert on the Southeastern Indians and Spanish colonization, certainly didn’t.  At least, when he was in my office in Asheville, he also couldn’t correctly pronounce Spanish words either.

For starters . . . if the 20th century anthropology professors, who formulated their orthodoxy even knew the history of European alphabets, it would have made a big difference.  For example, the letters K and W are new additions to the alphabet and still used very little in Spanish. The sound that Germanic languages wrote as “SH, SS or SK” was written as an X in some Iberian languages and a Ç in other Iberian languages.  Late Medieval Spanish explorers did not have an “äw” sound in their vocabulary, so tried to reproduce it in Castilian texts as an A, U, O or I.  Thus, a Native American town, visited by Hernando de Soto was written by its chroniclers variously as Guaxule, Guasile or Guaçale.  In modern English phonetics, the word would be spelled Wä : shäw : lē.

Not knowing anything about the etymology of the Native American words, which they frequently quoted, they missed many important hints that the early history of the Southeast was far, far more complex than they ever dreamed.   Instead . . . pure speculations by authority figures in their profession became the next generation’s facts.  Most often they labeled any non-English geographical place name in the Southern Highlands as “an ancient Cherokee name, whose meaning has been lost.”  

The Muskogee Creeks and Cherokees pronounced an S as an SH sound.  Itsate Creeks, who were predominant in Georgia and western North Carolina, had several S sounds, like their ancestors, the Itza Mayas.  Thus, an S in an Anglicized Creek place name could be an English S, Sh, Tch or Jzh sound.

Muskogeans and Panoans (Peru) pronounce a P and B about half way between a P and B.  A T is often, but not always, pronounced halfway between a T and D.  These nuances also confuse the European spelling of Native words in the Southeast.

Several Southeastern and eastern Peruvian tribes roll their R’s so hard that English and French speakers record the sound as L.  Spanish and French speakers were not around these peoples long enough to learn the full words, so . . . The Spaniards’ Chicora was the same place as the French explorers’ Chiquola and the Creek town, where Savannah, GA is today, which the British colonists wrote as Palachicola, Apalachicola and Palachicora.   The correct Creek spelling of the word is Apalasikora.

On the trail of an ancient Northern European language

Very early on in my journey back in time, I realized that Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Algonquian, Shawnee, Cherokee and Muskogee-Creek used the same suffix word for people or tribe.  It is written today as a ge, ghe, gi, ki or kee, but is pronounced the same and means the same.  Clearly, there was cultural contact, if not, migration back and forth across the Atlantic.

The Uchee (Yuchi) consistently told Georgia colonists that their ancestors came across the Atlantic from the Home of the Sun in ancient times to settle on the Savannah River, and that no one was living in the Southeastern Coastal Plain at that time.  However, there were many mounds and shell structures, so they knew that someone had lived there before them.

The Muskogee Creek and Savannah River Uchee use the word, ue, for water. Yuchi is a Tennessee frontier misspelling of that tribal name.  Ue was also the word for water among the Atlantic Coastal peoples of Ireland and France. The modern Irish Gaelic word for water,  uisce,  sounds very similar to Uchee.  The modern French word for water, eau, is derived from it.    Uchee is the Anglicization of the Creek word, Us-si (pronounced Ue-jzh) which means “Descendants of Water (or ocean).   Other Itsate Creek (Itza Maya based) words for the Uchee were Oka-te (Water People), Oka-ni (Oconee ~ Born in Water) and Oka-si (Ogeechee ~ Descended from Water). 

I was on to something and began looking around for other Native American place names of Archaic Irish origin.  It took awhile, because first I had to learn more about the archaic languages of Ireland and early Irish history. 

Thrice in the ancient past, there had been radical ethnic changes in Ireland.  There was a 20 year period of incessant rain around 2350 BC, which nearly depopulated the island.  The aboriginal Irish were Asiatic.   Around 1200 AD another natural disaster had nearly depopulated the island, which was followed by an influx of people from Iberia.  Iberians form the largest block of DNA test markers among modern Irish. Then around 500 BC, people with knowledge of iron weapons and tools had invaded Ireland from Britain.  The so-called Black Irish in western Ireland are descended from the first two populations in Ireland.  Also, somewhere during those epochs, extremely tall, robust red-haired people had invaded Ireland from Scotland and settled among the other ethnic groups.

Then I noticed that MANY old Irish place names end in Re or Ry.  In Gaelic the spelling today is reigh and it means the same as the Iberian word, rey, Germanic word reich and the Scandinavian word, rik . . . kingdom or nation. Ei was the archaic word for island in pre-Germanic Scandinavia.  Ei-re or the Irish Gaelic word for Ireland, means “Island kingdom or nation.”   The English words isle and island have the same archaic root.  Other common Irish place or family names are Kerry, Corry, Curry, Osrey, Tipperary,  Derry, McCrory, etc.

Then I noticed that the name of the largest Uchee tribe in eastern Tennessee was named the Togaria on French maps. European speakers often confused a g and k sounds among Southeastern Indians.  The real word would have been Tokah-re. Tokah-le means “freckled” in modern Muskogee Creek, but was originally written as Tokah-re.  Tokah is the original root of such Georgia place names as Toccoa and Tugaloo, so apparently, the Tokah-re were also on the headwaters of the Savannah River.   So we know there was a “Freckled Nation” in eastern Tennessee and the Savannah headwaters.  

I looked up words similar to Tokah in an Irish Gaelic dictionary.  Shezam!  Tokah is also a modern Gaelic word, which means “best, principal or elite.”   So, the name of a very large Uchee tribe would be clearly understood by a Gaelic speaker today as “Principal People.” 

Remember, the “re” suffix in Uchee, which means “people, tribe or nation” was usually written by English speakers as either “lee” or “ly.”    Suddenly there were hundreds of geographical place names in the United States with nominally Native American names, but actually, Archaic Irish names.  Almost all the tribes on the South Atlantic Coast used “re” as their word for “tribe or nation.”  Their vocabulary is reflected in the numerous geographical or tribal names ending with “ree, le, lee or lah.”  There are rivers such as the Nottely in Georgia (People on the Other Side) plus Enoree and Wataree in the Carolinas.  Sutalee Creek in Georgia is a hybrid Creek-Archaic Irish word that means “Sky People.”   However, there are even indigenous tribes in eastern Mexico that also used the “re~le” suffix for “people or tribe.”  Tamaulipas is a hybrid Itza Maya-Archaic Old Irish word that means “Trade-people-place of.”  

The Tokasee Creeks originated along the Tuckasegee River in the North Carolina Mountains. Their name in “pure Creek” means “Freckled-descendants of,” but we now know that Tokah originally meant “principal” in Ireland.  Tuckasegee is the Anglicization of the hybrid  Old Irish-Creek-Gaelic Irish word Tokah-si-gi, which means Descendants of the Principal People – People.  The Tokasee were known as being very tall, brawny, freckled and sometimes having either red or brown hair.  The name makes sense.  Oh, did I mention that the Cherokee say that they encountered “giants” when they entered the Tuckasegee River Basin in the early 1700s?

The largest town on the Tuckasegee River is Cullowhee. Cullawhee is the Cherokee-nization of the Creek name of the Tucksegee River –  Kurra-ue (Kurra Water) . . .  pronounced like Kulla-we.. Nearby are the famous Judaculla Petroglyphic Boulder, which is the photograph above and the Cullasaja River.   In the northeastern tip of Georgia, where we see Tokah-rooted words, there is Currahee Mountain and Cullasee Creek   The Cullasee were another division of Creek Confederacy, allied with the Tokasee.   Most of both these tribes eventually moved to Florida and became members of the Seminole Alliance.

I was wondering. Since Curry and Corra are typical Irish names, was the Proto-Creek province of Curra or Kulla in adjoining areas of North Carolina and Georgia actually an Irish ethnic name?    Oh, yes indeed.   The province of Curra or Corra was formerly the name of Counties Donegal, Derry and Antrim, plus an adjoining area of Scotland.  The word can mean either spear or the name of an Irish goddess.  Its inhabitants were known for being very tall, brawny and freckled.  They were also expert seafarers and are associated with the many petroglyphs in County Donnegal. 

The Judaculla Petroglyphs do not carry the name of a giant or a Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost.  Judaculla is a hybrid Creek-Archaic Irish word, which means “The Sky Over Curra.”

Implications for DNA testing

If you Native heritage is Uchee, Creek, Seminole or Chickasaw,  there is a very good chance that at least some of your “Irish-Scottish” DNA markers actually are from a people, who came to North America, 2500 to 4500 years ago.  That Archaic Irish DNA should be labeled as Native American.

Implications for me

If you are a lovely Irish lassie, I am mixed-blood Creek and Uchee . . . 6’-3”, brawny and somewhat freckled.  My Native ancestors lived in Northeast Georgia, where many old Irish place names are found.   Kiss me, I’m Irish!

2 Comments


  1. Richard, based on the statements of the Creeks giving a written history to the Savanna Britons in red and black letters…the Egyptians used red and black symbols as well. Have you seen any “hand bag” stone works like the Sokee/Zokee left in Mexico… in the South? They are found on the Gorbeki stones as well. Thanks again for the articles.

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