by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Did you know that most of the explanations for Native American place names for the Southeast in Wikipedia are bogus . . . generally the speculations of some travelogue writer in the 1800’s? Since 2006, I have been in a running battle with anonymous “purple gatekeepers,” using pseudonyms, who sit at their computers all day deleting corrections to articles that might affect their fake Native American history. What I eventually discovered was that none of these people are Native Americans or even have professional credentials. Many, if not most, don’t even live in the United States.
Oh, there are some real lulu’s . . . for example, Tamasee (a common Creek village name) is defined by an official website of the State of South Carolina AND Wikipedia as “A Cherokee word meaning Place of the Sunlight of God.” It actually means in Creek, “Tama-descendants of.” The province of Tama was in southeastern Georgia! One of the villages named Tamasee, located in the extreme NW corner of South Carolina, joined the Cherokee alliance. The other villages, named Tamasee in South Carolina, joined the Creek Confederacy.
The Lower Cherokees had a maximum of 1200 people, but by the American Revolution were almost extinct. They occupied a minuscule area of the state, but South Carolina histories would have you believe that their numbers were legion and that they covered over half their state.
Work continues on a comprehensive glossary of Native American place names and important words in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Fortunately, there are sources for accurate translations of Native American words in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Muskogean words are accurately translated in Florida, but not the other indigenous languages. The remaining states are taking up most of my time. Here is an excerpt on the root word, Yama.
Yama – This word had multiple meanings among indigenous peoples of the Americas.
- In the Muskogee-Creek language, it is their name for the Mobilian Trade Jargon and the indigenous people, who lived on the lower Mobile River in present-day Alabama.
- In the Itsate-Creek language it referred to the first Creek town in the Southeast, located, where Downtown Savannah now sits, plus their ancient homeland in Mexico.
- In the Totonac language of Mexico, yama is an agricultural plot cleared from the forest. The equivalent word in Yucatec Maya is milpa.
- In the Zoque-Mixtec languages, it appears to be the real name of the “Olmec” Civilization. In the 1940’s, North American archaeologist, Mathew Stirling, took credit for discovering an ancient civilization in Veracruz State that had actually been discovered by Mexican archaeologist, Leopoldo Batres, in 1911. Stirling labeled his discovery “The Olmec Civilization.” Mexican archaeologists have known since the 1960’s that the Olmecs were cousins of the Aztecs, who arrived in southern Veracruz around 1050 AD and had nothing to do with this civilization, but the overwhelming cultural influence of institutions in the United States makes a name change impossible.
Yamacraw Bluff (GA) – Yamacraw Bluff is the name of the natural terrace on which Savannah, Georgia was founded in 1733. The top of the bluff was approximately 35 feet above high tide on the river, giving the city excellent protection from the tidal surges of hurricanes. It is now known that most of Savannah is situated on an ancient barrier island, which became dry land, surrounded by swamps and tidal marshes as the ocean receded eons ago. (See Yamacraw People for etymology.)
Yamacraw People (GA) – This is the name of an indigenous people, who once lived in the vicinity of Savannah, GA. When Charleston, SC was settled in 1670 the location was mostly uninhabited and considered cursed because of the fatalities from a past plague. In 1732, when Tamachichi (Tomochichi in English) heard that the British planned to establish a colony on Yamacraw Bluff, he gathered together a band of about 50 people from various branches of the Creeks, to establish a village immediately west of where Savannah was to be built. He then claimed for his village all the land between the Savannah and Ogeechee Rivers and sold it to the Trustees for the Province of Georgia. A reserve was left for the Creeks, at the site of the Yamacraw Village and nearby Irene Island. At least remnants of the Creek villagers remained until the American Revolution. All British maps labeled the territory originally claimed by Tamachichi as the Province of the Yamacraw Indians. Although Tamachichi’s village was labeled Yamacraw, his people were not Yamacraw. They were either extinct or long gone.
Etymology – Yamacraw is the Anglicization of the Georgia Apalache word, Yamv-kora, which means “Yama People.”
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Yamacutah Shrine (GA) – This is the ascribed name of the most sacred Creek shrine. It was or is located in Northeast Georgia on the Middle Oconee River near Hurricane Shoals. The most detailed description of the shrine may be found in The Early History of Jackson County, Georgia by Gustavus James Nash Wilson. This fascinating book is available online. Detailed description of the shrine is possible because two surveyors, on their way to stake out what would become the University of Georgia, camped out on the shrine and measured it.
Creek descendants in Georgia and South Carolina have vague cultural memories of such a sacred site, but uniformly do not recognize the term, Yamacutah. The word could very well have been either contrived or misspelled by Gustavus Wilson’s frontier ancestors. Simplistic versions of the visit from an extraterrestrial may be found in the “Lone Man” myths of the earth lodge Siouans (Kansa, Mandan, etc.) who originally lived in the Southeast.
Nevertheless, in the Creek tradition, an extraterrestrial human came down from the sky in the Georgia Mountains, probably in the Nacoochee Valley. There are many cultural memories of contacts with extraterrestrials there. The logo of the place he came from was a combination of two symbols – a ring of three crescent moons and a ring of five crescent moons.
He lived among the ancestors of the Apalache-Creeks in Northeast Georgia and taught them the basics of a civilization. He gave them a writing system, advanced mathematics, precise surveying, astronomy, the practice of having written laws and town planning. The Creek’s ancestors already had a monotheistic religion, but he encouraged them to eliminate all shedding of animal and human blood in association with that religion. To this day, all shedding of human or animal blood is prohibited within one Creek mile (about two English miles) from a temple or shrine. The location where the Visitor went back up into the sky became the Yamacutah Shrine. The actual spot was marked by a stone statue of the Visitor looking up into the sky and a small mound.
The fact is that the Creeks are the only indigenous people in the Americas, who used both a 10-based numerical system and the concept of a zero. William Bartram observed Creek surveyors in northeast Georgia and stated that they were far more accurate than their English counterparts, but used equipment that no whites understood. Creek leaders told the people in Savannah that there were many other worlds in the universe, where human-like people lived, but they were laughed at. The Creek calendar was equally accurate as ours today and far more accurate than the Julian calendar, used in England until 1752. It had 12 30-day months, plus 4-6 leap days during the New Year’s Festival, which Day Keepers (astronomers) used to re-calibrate the calendar. The extraterrestrial visitor story may be a myth, but nothing else explains why a Pre-Industrial people could have such skills.
Etymology – Yamacutah is the Anglicization of the Muskogee-Creek word, Yama-kutv, which means “Yama People – massacred.” The meaning does not seem appropriate to the shrine.
Yamapo (Mexico) – Yamapo is the indigenous name for the Jamapo River in Veracruz State, Mexico. The river begins on the slopes of the Orizaba Volcano then flows eastward to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the Yamapo is stained red because of the high iron content of the soils near Orizaba. Called the “Bloody River” or Chate-Hawchee (Catē : hvci) in the Migration Legend of the Creek People, it figures prominently in the early history of the Kaushete or Upper Creeks. Its Muskogee name appears to be the source of the Chattahoochee River’s name.
Etymology – Yamapo is a word in the Itza Maya language or a language closely related to Itza. It means, “Yama-Living Place of.” IM
Yamasee (GA & SC) – This is the name of an alliance of tribes or provinces in the Coastal Plain of present-day Georgia and immediately adjacent area of South Carolina during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Its members appear to have been multi-ethnic and some cases relatively recent arrivals to the region. Its “capital town” of Pocataligo carried the same name as an important Xuale town in northern West Virginia.
Etymology – Yamasee is derived from the Creek word, Yamasi, which means “Yama-Descendants of” or possibly, “speakers of the Mobilian Trade Jargon.” A See Yama and Yamacraw