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Many history buffs in the Georgia Mountains are obsessed with all things Cherokee. They assume that Creek place names such as Oconaluftee, Coosa, Oostanaula, Oothlooga, Etowah, Chattooga, Nottely, Yahoola, Enota, Tesnatee, Soque, Nacoochee, Tallulah, etc. are Cherokee words. The myths can all be traced to the presumptions made by the first white settlers to enter the region.
That’s right . . . the main river on the North Carolina Cherokee Reservation is an Itsate Creek word meaning “Okonee People – isolated.” The name has no meaning in Cherokee. The Okonee were major players in the mound-building business, who eventually joined the Creek Confederacy. They were mainly located in northeastern Georgia and the Okefenokee Swamp basin in southeast Georgia.
One of the current myths that resulted from this obsession is that the Cherokees occupied all of northern Georgia until 1838. This myth even permeated the archaeology profession until the late 20th century. Prehistoric artifacts were being classified as Cherokee, when they couldn’t have possibly been so. The fact is that by the time the Cherokees arrived in the Georgia Mountains, they were using muskets and cooking in iron pots. Approximately 85% of the Native American place names in both the Georgia and North Carolina Mountains are either Muskogean or Maya Indian words.
This obsession is ironic for many reasons. There were only a handful of Cherokees in the extreme northeastern tip of Georgia prior to the American Revolution. It was primarily used for hunting. In 1780 the British Army counted only 25 Cherokee warriors living in the entire province of Georgia. The Cherokees occupied this small region in 1715 after inviting all the Creek leaders in northern Georgia and western North Carolina to a diplomatic conference, then murdering them in their sleep. This precipitated the 40 year long Creek-Cherokee War.
In 1785 the United States gave the Cherokees the lands of the Upper Creeks in north-central and northwestern Georgia that lay west of Brasstown Bald. In return, the federal government gave the Creek Nation most of what was to become the State of Alabama.
The State of Georgia never liked having the Cherokee Nation within its boundaries. They were considered squatters, who sneaked into the state during the last years of the Revolution. When the Mississippi Territory was cut off from Georgia in 1798, Georgia officials obtained a written promise from the federal government that the Cherokees would be soon removed from their state. Georgia politicians and economic leaders increasingly lobbied federal officials for their removal until 1838 when the remaining Cherokees were forcibly relocated to the Indian Territory. Without the constant political pressure from Georgia, it is unlikely that the bulk of the Cherokee and Creek Nations would have been deported to what was to become Oklahoma.