What does Chickamauga mean?

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Work is continuing on a massive glossary and etymology of Native American words in the Southeastern United States. It will include place names, plus the names of indigenous towns and political titles recorded by early Spanish, French and British explorers. The tedious research is spiked with humor, however. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, publishing books on the English meanings of Native American place names seemed to have been in vogue. There are a bushel basket of such publications.

Very few of the authors seemed to have thought of using a Native American language dictionary, when interpreting these words. There are a legion of Creek and Chickasaw place names, which have been defined as “The Cherokee word for waterfall or the Cherokee word for “beautiful spring, etc.” The Creek word for bear became the name of “a famous Cherokee princess.” The Itsate Creek word for a small town became “the Cherokee word for “thundering water.”

However, the most blatant example of nonsense might make an ideal plot for a sequel to the movie, “Bad Teacher.” A normal school (junior college) instructor from Mississippi with a high school degree went around the South self-styling himself Professor Hawkins. He paid for his travel costs, room and board by giving lectures on the American Indian history of that particularly town. He believed that the Choctaws and Chickasaws were the descendant of the Hittites and thus all American Indian place names in Dixie were Hittite/Choctaw/Chickasaw words. This was a first. He even interpreted the Cherokee place names as Hittite-Choctaw.

Well, without further ado, I will provide you the entries in The Native American Words of the Southeast © on “Chickamauga.” It is a controversial word in northern Georgia and Tennessee, which draws many interpretations.

Chickamauga Cherokees (GA, TN & AL)

After being catastrophically defeated by American Patriot forces during the early years of the American Revolution, the majority of chiefs in the Cherokee Alliance voted to sign a peace treaty with Congress and henceforth remain neutral in the war between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies.

Those warriors, who refused to go along with the peace treaty were banished from the territory of the Cherokee Tribe.  Some headed north to what is now southeastern Kentucky.  Some headed southwestward into Upper Creek and Chickasaw towns that had sided with the British. One small band, headed by Chief Sourmush established a camp on Long Swamp Creek in present day Pickens County, GA (Upper Creek territory).  Another hostile band established a large town on Bear Creek in present day Gilmer County, GA.

Most Creek towns in present day Georgia and South Carolina were either neutral or enemies of the Cherokee.  At the onset of Cherokee hostilities in 1776, many Creek farmsteads in Northeast Georgia had been attacked by the Cherokees because they were similar in appearance to Anglo-American farmsteads.

A large Chickasaw town on the Tennessee River, named Chickamauga, was particular hospitable to hostile Cherokees and Upper Creeks.  It was located on the Georgia side of the Tennessee River, where it cuts through Lookout Mountain.  This was an ideal defensive location, which enabled the warriors at Chickamauga to see people approaching from any direction.

Over time, more and more Cherokee bands established satellite villages around Chickamauga. By the end of the American Revolution, the renegade Cherokees outnumbered the Chickasaw and Upper Creek residents of Chickamauga.  Although some Chickasaws and Upper Creeks continued to attack white settlers for a decade after the end of the American Revolution, the Chickamaugas became known to whites as hostile Cherokees.  For the etymology of Chickamauga, see “Chickamauga Creek.”

Chickamauga Creek (GA & TN)

Chickamauga is the name of three streams in northern Georgia and one stream, entirely in Tennessee.  The better known ones are in extreme northwestern Georgia and Metropolitan Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The other Chickamauga Creek is in White County in Northeast Georgia.

Chattanooga:  North Chickamauga Creek begins on the portion of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and flows southward to the Tennessee River

Northwest Georgia: West Chickamauga Creek: This large stream begins from springs on the slopes of Lookout Mountain in Walker County, Georgia; joins South Chickamauga Creek then flows generally northward to the Tennessee River.

Northwest Georgia: South Chickamauga Creek:  This stream begins at springs in the vicinity of Ringgold, GA then flows generally northward until joining the West Chickamauga Creek and flowing into the Tennessee River. 

Northeast Georgia:  This stream is created by the confluence of Sautee and Bean Creeks in the Nacoochee Valley.  It then flows southward to the Chattahoochee River.  The oldest known examples of Chickasaw traditional architecture are found along Chickamauga Creek.  These are known as the Eastwood Village Site and the Lunsford Royal Compound Site.  The creek flows directly adjacent to the royal compound, which would be named Chiki Mako in Itsate Creek.  

The 1680 Map of North America by Robert Morden contains the words, Domus Regis over what would become Northeast Georgia.  Those Latin words mean “House of the King” so this interpretation of Chika Mauka makes sense.

The Kenimer Mound adjoins the confluence of Chickamauga Creek with the Chattahoochee River. To the right is the Eastwood Village Site.

Bogus Etymologies

1. (The Chattanoogan Newspaper) It is a Shawnee word meaning “dwelling place near the big water.”

2. (Local folklore) Chickamauga is a Creek or Cherokee word that means “River of Death.”

3. (Access Genealogy) Chickamauga in Cherokee was Tsǐkăma’gi, a word apparently of foreign origin and probably Shawnee, Creek, or Chickasaw).

4. (Glenn Tucker) Chickamauga is either from the Lower Cherokee tongue meaning “stagnant water,” “good country” (from the Chickasaw) or “river of death” (dialect of the “upcountry Cherokee”).

5. (James Mooney) In Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee, he wrote that Chickamauga is the more common spelling for Tsïkäma’gï, a name that “has no meaning in the Cherokee language” and is possibly “derived from an Algonquian word referring to a fishing or fish-spearing place.

6. (William Bright) “The most plausible etymology for Chickamauga is that it is from the Chickasaw word chokma “be good” plus the verb ending -ka.”  So, William, what does “ka” mean?

7. (Merriam Webster) A Cherokee people, who lived near Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The meaning of this ancient Cherokee word has been lost.


Chickamauga is the Anglicization of the Cherokee pronunciation of the Chickasaw words,  chika mauka, which mean “house or dwelling place” – king.“ C2  Until the late 1780s, the Tennessee River was named the Callimaco River, which is an Itza Maya word meaning “House of the King.” In Itza, calli was a large house or palace, while chiki was a commoner’s modest house.  Mauka is obviously derived from the Itza and Itsate word for king, mako.  A parallel example would be the Chickasaw and Kansa (Kaw) word for town, which is tamaTama in Itza Maya and Itsate Creek is the verb meaning “to trade.”  IM & C2


  1. Richard, another connection to a ancient peoples word “kali”? I think the Native lore of the Tall fair skinned people of Ohio and Kentucty…had to be a Indo langue people. Some of their words got passed down to you? Small shells found at some of the “old copper age sites”…that’s money in the old days of India. Tali-ge-we (Talismen stone age people of India who made it here and Europa). Here they are in the 20th century wearing a dot on their forehead…3 billion people.

    Liked by 1 person

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