“Chickamauga” and “Chattanooga," Legacies of the Shawnee

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 - by Chuck Hamilton

According to premier ethnographer James Mooney of the Bureau of American Ethnology, the word “Chickamauga” (pronounced Tsi-ka-ma-gi in Cherokee) was the name of at least two places within the Cherokee Nation East: a headwater creek of the Chattahoochee River in Georgia, and a river and Cherokee town near Chattanooga, but the word is not Cherokee. 

While many historians, ethnologists, and archaeologists (but strangely no linguists) since the mid-20th century have speculated that the word Chickamauga, along with the word Chattanooga as well, is derived from western Muscogean, Mooney believed the word Chickamauga was derived from Shawnee, and I agree, on both linguistic and historical grounds.


For instance, there is, or at least was, a small town in North Carolina near Cape Hatteras noted for a small battle early in the Civil War called Chicamacomico (meaning “dwelling place by the big water”), which is also the name of a river in Maryland.  Both these areas were originally inhabited by tribes speaking variations of the Algonquian family of languages, of which Shawnee is one example.

A sign of Shawnee connection to Southeast Tennessee that remains to the present day is the crossing of the Hiwassee River near Hiwassee Old Town in Polk County, Tennessee, known as Savannah Ford.  “Savannah” was a common corruption of “Shawnee”, as in the name on period maps of the Shawnee village on the Savannah River from which that river, as well as the city of Savannah, Georgia, gets its name.

When John McDonald, then British Assistant Superintendent for Southern Indian Affairs, chose what later became site of Brainerd Mission for his base in support of his militant Cherokee allies during the American Revolution because the Shawnee suggested that site.  Those Cherokee themselves relocated to the Chattanooga area in late 1776, with the town of Dragging Canoe on the opposite side of the Chickamauga River from McDonald’s post, also did so at the suggestion of the Shawnee.

The location had likely served as a forward post of the Shawnee-allied French based on Long-Island-on-the-Tennessee in support of their Muscogee allies at the reoccupied Coosawattee and pro-French Cherokee in Tellico and Chattooga during the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The site of the mission, where Philemon Bird later built his mill, was where one of four or five major branches of the Great Indian Warpath crossed the Chickamauga River.  The northermost forded the Chickamauga at the place where Chattanooga-Cleveland Pike (now Bonny Oaks Drive) later crossed.  Another was at the later site of Old Boyce-Kings Point on what became Harrison Pike.  In between this and the one at McDonald’s post/Brainerd Mission/Bird’s Mill, another branch of the Warpath gave the name of Shallow Ford to its crossing.

 The name Chickamauga came to the region with the Shawnee’s name for the river.  Dragging Canoe’s town (the town where he lived; the actual town headman was Big Foot) was named for the river, which also gave its name to the general region and to those Cherokee who followed the great warrior until they migrated westward and began to be known as the Lower Cherokee (not the same as the previous “Lower Cherokee”). 

 The Chickamauga Cherokee, by the way, were no more a separate tribe than were the Overhill Cherokee of the Little Tennessee, Tellico, and Hiwassee Valleys from the Hill Cherokee of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Valley Cherokee of southwest North Carolina, and those afore-mentioned Lower Cherokee in western South Carolina and northeast Georgia.

 The local congregation which met at the mission, the missionaries plus Cherokee believers, was called the Church of Christ at Chickamauga.

 South Chickamauga Creek was known as Chickamauga River until sometime in the 20th century, perhaps when TVA built its dam.  The federal agency constructed the dam across the Tennessee River where Chickamauga Island used to sit in the middle of the stream.  North Chickamauga Creek, which flows through Soddy-Daisy and Hixson, was once known as Laurel Creek.

 When the Cherokee Nation divided itself into eight legislative and judicial districts, one of the eight which extended south and east from the Tennessee River and Ooltewah Creek was named the Chickamauga District.  Its seat was at Crawfish Springs, Georgia, which became the town of Chickamauga when the park was opened and a rail station placed there in 1891.  Until then the only town of Chickamauga was that which grew up around the Western & Atlantic Railroad’s Chickamauga Station.

 Chickamauga Station stood until the mid-20th century across what is now Airport Road from the air terminal.  The community’s elementary school was, until it was closed in 1987, still known as Chickamauga Elementary School even though the community and its post office had been renamed Shepherd in the very early 20th century.  When the station was closed and the post office relocated to Brainerd Hills Shopping Center, its name was changed to Chickamauga Station.  Chickamauga Station now operates on East Brainerd Road.

 From 1838 to 1927, what’s now called Oakwood Baptist Church was known as Chickamauga Baptist Church.  It is the second-oldest Baptist congregation in Hamilton County.

 Around Silverdale Springs, a religious campground grew up that was called Chickamauga Camp Ground.  A local congregation organized there became Chickamauga Cumberland Presbyterian Church from 1839 until 1876, when it changed its name to Pleasant Grove (and is now Silverdale Cumberland Presbyterian).

 Former slaves living in the vicinity of Chickamauga Station organized Chickamauga Chapel Baptist Church in 1867.  It became Chickamauga Station Baptist in 1902 and Shepherd Baptist, the name by which it is now known, in 1908.

 They received a school in 1871 called Chickamauga School which operated until its descendant, the afore-mentioned Chickamauga Elementary School, closed its doors in 1987.  At the time, it was the second-oldest public school in the county, second to Howard School.

 Chickamauga Quarry and Construction operated from 1889 until it was bought by Vulcan Materials in 1956.

 The name Chattanooga appeared in our area at the same time as Chickamauga, with the establishment of a small village along the Chattanooga Creek, one of the eleven militant Cherokee towns in the region from 1777 to 1782.  It was later reoccupied after the war until the Removal, as was the main Old Chickamauga Town.

 In addition to our Tennessee city of Chattanooga, a community named Chattanooga Valley in Georgia lies just south of the Tennessee city.  

 There is also community of Chattanooga in Mercer County, Ohio, possibly a legacy of the Cherokee who lived there and fought alongside the Shawnee, but more likely a legacy of the Lenape who lived much longer in that area or perhaps Shawnee who lived there much later.

 True, there is also a town called Chattanooga in the former territory of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, not surprising since southeast Tennessee was the last home of the Cherokee in the East.  But there is also a town called Chattanooga in Colorado, a legacy of the Silver Rush, which has no connection to the Cherokee but does lie in the later territory of the Cheyenne confederacy of three Algonquin-speaking tribes.

 A logical conclusion from all the above is that both place-names in Hamilton County, Tennessee—Chickamauga and Chattanooga—derive from the Algonquin language of the Shawnee and are the legacy of that tribe to our local area.

 As a final word, I should point out that none of the above necessarily suggests any long-term occupation in the immediate vicinity by the Shawnee.  They could have become familiar with the area as a fruitful hunting ground and camping area.


Chuck Hamilton


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