On the Name "Chickamauga"

  • Thursday, December 29, 2016
  • Chuck Hamilton

Chickamauga does not mean “river of death”, or “bloody river”, or “dwelling place of the chief”, or ‘the stagnant stream”.  It is definitely not Cherokee, even the Cherokee themselves have always said that, nor is it likely Muskogean.  It almost certainly came from the closest allies of the Cherokee in the wars of the later 18th century, the Shawnee.

The word “Chickamauga” has been given a variety of spellings such as “Chickamaugee” in the survey report of Col. Samuel Long to the Western & Atlantic Railroad on possible routes to connect with the Tennessee River beyond the Georgia state line.

Two other places in the Southeast have similar names.  The village of Chicamacomico now in Rodanthe, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks near Cape Hatteras, and the Chicamacomico River near Dorchester, Maryland, both lie in areas originally inhabited by peoples who spoke Algonquin languages like the Shawnee did.  In both cases, the name is translated as “dwelling place by the big water”, the suffix “mico” meaning “chief”, “great”, or “big”.  Without the suffix, it becomes Chicamaco, “dwelling place by the water”.

Among the Cherokee


The first appearance of the name Chickamauga (or a variety thereof) in the tristate area or even the trans-Blue Ridge region was in late 1776 at a spot on the east side of a tributary to what the Cherokee called Egwanimaya, or Great River (the Tennessee).  This settlement was later called Old Chickamauga Town by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which the Cherokee called “Tsikamagi”.

Since Chickamauga was Dragging Canoe’s dwelling place (though its headman was another man named Big Fool), the eleven Cherokee settlements in the region, four of them on Chickamauga River, or South Chickamauga Creek alone, became known as “Chickamauga Towns”.  These were abandoned in 1782 with the relocation of their people to the (new) Lower Towns area to the west, but reinhabited after the conclusion of the Cherokee-American Wars in 1795.

In addition, many writers at the time, and even more so in later decades, referred to the people of this Cherokee resistance as “the Chickamaugas” as if they were an entirely separate people, which is not accurate.  Some used the more precise term “Chickamauga Cherokee”, which gave way to “Lower Cherokee” after the relocation west from the Chickamauga Towns. 

To reseachers and historians this can sometimes be a bit confusing, since there had for decades been a division called “Lower Towns” on the Tugaloo, Chattooga, and Keowee Rivers in northwest South Carolina and northeast Georgia.  This original group of “Lower Cherokee” relocated west in 1777 to North Georgia above the Chattahoochee River and became known as the “Upper Cherokee” of the “Upper Towns”.

In 1820, the Cherokee divided their territory into eight districts for electoral, legislative, and judicial purposes, each of the districts being further divided into three precincts.  All of Hamilton County (and much further) south of the Tennessee and west of Ooltewah (Wolftever) Creek became part of Chickamauga District, which had its seat at Crawfish Springs in what’s now Georgia, which also served as the voting place for its first precinct.  Its second precinct, voting at the home of Hunter Langley in Lookout Valley, may have been in Hamilton County, or perhaps it was in Dade County, Georgia.  The rest of the county fell into Amohee District, which had its seat at Thompson Springs near Cleveland, Georgia; one of its precincts met at the home of Kalsowee in Long Savannah in the northern section of eastern Hamilton County.

Civil War


During the Civil War, for two-and-a-half days in September 1863, the Union and Confederate armies fought the bloodiest battle of the conflict in northern Walker County, Georgia, in a region the locals called Mud Flats, which gave its name for the battle to the Confederacy.  The Union, however, called it the Battle of the Chickamauga, referring to the West Chickamauga Creek, but by the end of the 19th century, it became simply the Battle of Chickamauga.

In honor and anticipation of the 1889 Blue and Gray Barbeque reunion of Union and veterans who fought at the Battle of the Chickamauga/Mud Flats and the Battles of Chattanooga, the State of Georgia set aside Chickamauga Battlefield Reservation, intended as a first step of establishing the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.  The larger park was chartered in 1890 and inaugurated in 1895.

Post-Cherokee Removal communities


Under John D. Gray, the Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&A) constructed its line south to Tunnel Hill, Georgia, from Chattanooga in the late 1840s.  Initially, its first stop east of South Chickamauga Creek was Campbell’s Station.  But when the post office of Chickamauga, Tennessee, began operating out of there, the depot became Chickamauga Station, and the community became Chickamauga, Tennessee.

At the same time (1850), residents of Poe’s Tavern, the first seat of Hamilton County abandoned in favor of Dallas (then Harrison in 1840, finally Chattanooga in 1870), voted to change their name to Chickamauga, Tennessee, but since they didn’t have mail service at the time there was no conflict with the other Chickamauga on the W&A.

In 1888, the Chattanooga, Rome, & Columbus Railroad (CR&C) built a depot at Crawfish Springs, Georgia, former seat of the Chickamauga District of the Cherokee Nation.  The CR&C changed the name of its depot to Chickamauga in 1891, and the community incorporated as the Town of Chickamauga, Georgia, in 1892 (and as the City of Chickamauga in 1913).

The Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway retained the name Chickamauga for its Tennessee depot there until the 1930s, when it finally changed to match the name of its post office, Shepherd.  After that, the name Shepherd came into common local usage.  Partly because of this, some have an understandably mistaken impression that Chickamauga and Shepherd refer to two different communities, but that is not the case.

After the Cherokee Land Lottery in Georgia, settlers in one section of Walker County adopted the name East Chickamauga, doubtlessly named for that branch of the greater river.  The name appears on the census in 1840 and 1850.  The area became part of Catoosa County in 1853, and the name East Chickamauga ceased to appear in records.

Post offices


In 1850, the post office of Chickamauga, Tennessee, was established in the Campbell’s Station depot, which soon also adopted the name Chickamauga Station.

Civilian postal service was disrupted during the war, at least at Chickamauga Station.  When the opportunity arose in 1866 to get their own post office under the community’s name, the residents of the northern Chickamauga (the former Poe’s Tavern) grabbed it to become Chickamauga, Tennessee.  When service was restored at the “original” southern Chickamauga on the W&A the next year (1867), its post office became Chickamauga Station, Tennessee.

With the coming of the Cincinnati Southern Railway through the northern community of Chickamauga, a citizen named Mel Adams offered land for a depot provided the post office there adopt his name.  Thus, Chickamauga became Melville in 1878.  The southern Chickamauga Station post office eventually returned the name of its post office back to Chickamauga (sans “Station”) in 1882.

In 1890, the post office of Crawfish Springs in Walker County became Chickamauga.

Due to confusion in mail with the post office of Chickamauga, Georgia, the post office of Chickamauga, Tennessee, changed its name to Shepherd, Tennessee, in 1898 (although I’ve known that for years, it only just now occurred to me to wonder why they didn’t simply change it back to “Chickamauga Station, Tennessee”).

When the Louisville & Nashville Railroad ceased operations at Shepherd depot in 1955, the post office of Shepherd, Tennessee, necessarily closed along with it.  To replace it, Chattanooga postmaster Frank Moore located a satellite office in Brainerd Hills Shopping Center and named it Chickamauga Station.  In 1984, it moved a few miles down East Brainerd Road next to where the old Rains place once stood, retaining its name.

A couple of decades before the railroad depot, the patriarch of the extensive Hixson clan in the area, Ephraim Hixson, operated the North Chickamauga, Tennessee post office 1833-1839.

Meanwhile, in Walker County, Georgia, the community of East Chickamauga hosted the first post office of Chickamauga, Georgia, 1836-1837.

Religious institutions


When the American Board of Missioners established Brainerd Mission in 1817 on the left bank of the South Chickamauga Creek across from the reoccupied Cherokee town, its missionaries named its body of worship the Church of Christ at Chickamauga.

After the Cherokee Removal, settlers in the Ocoee District (all the county south of the Tennessee River; the county north of the river was part of the Hiwassee District) established Chickamauga Camp Ground at the later Ryall Springs for religious camp meetings, used even before the Removal.  Camp meetings there begat Blackwell’s Chapel (now Graysville) Methodist Church and West View (now Cornerstone Community) Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  It also served the Baptists who regularly met at a local schoolhouse at the crossroads of the former Brainerd’s Road with the old stage road from Harrison; they formally organized the “Baptist Church of Christ at Concord” in 1848.  It was still being used at the time of the Civil War.

Chickamauga Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded in 1839 at Cumberland Camp Ground at Silverdale Spring.  In 1876, it became Pleasant Grove Cumberland Presbyterian, then Silverdale Cumberland Presbyterian in 1930.  The first Baptist church in the Ocoee District, Good Spring (later Tyner, now Heritage) Baptist, was organized at the camp as well in 1838, along with House’s Chapel (now Tyner) Methodist Church in 1844.

Chickamauga Baptist Church, the second Baptist church in the Ocoee District, was incorporated at Sivley, later Taliaferro, Spring, in the King’s Point area in 1838, a few months after Good Spring.  The spring is reportedly located on TVA’s public recreation property south of the river on the lake.  In 1927, the congregation changed its name to Oakwood Baptist.

In the southern Chickamauga, Tennessee, residents organized Chickamauga Chapel Baptist Church in 1867.  The congregation became Chickamauga Station Baptist in 1902, then Shepherd Baptist in 1908.

Schools and other institutions


In 1871, the Chickamauga School for black students opened its doors on Chickamauga Road a little south of the railroad village.  It continued as Chickamauga Elementary School until its closing in 1987, by which time it had long been integrated.  Under segregation, its students matriculated to Booker T. Washington High School in the nearby Shot Hollow community.

There was also a Chickamauga School for white students across the railroad tracks from the village and depot.  Its date of establishment is unclear, but it was operating by the 1904-1905 school year.  The school year 1935-1936 was its last, and given its location its safe to suggest that it fell to the expansion of Lovell Field, which it bordered to its immediate north on what used to be the Dr. J.B. Haskins farm.  Its students were probably diverted to Tyner Elementary or  East Brainerd, or both.

The General Assembly of the State of Georgia chartered the Chickamauga School System in 1905, including Chickamauga Elementary School and Gordon-Lee High School.  Gordon-Lee Middle School was added in 1991.

Physical geography


Hamilton County’s Chickamauga Lake is the reservoir created by the eponymous dam.

The Chickamauga Hills lie immediately east of Peavine Ridge in Catoosa County, Georgia, stretching north well into Hamilton County, Tennessee.  In the latter, the chain includes such heights as Bermuda Hill (overlooking Graysville, Georgia), Scrapeshin Ridge, Fuller Ridge, Julian Ridge, and several unnamed (or forgotten name) ridges, hills, and knobs.  As a matter of fact, northern Catoosa County residents in this area refer to them simply as “the ridges”.  In addition, a couple of official after-action reports on the events of 26 November 1863 use the term Pigeon Hills in reference to them.

In the survey report to the Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&A) Company in Georgia on possible routes for extension of the line to the Tennessee River from Lot 5, District 28, Section 3 of the Cherokee Land Lottery in Murray (later Walker, then Catoosa) County, Col. Long uses as a reference point the narrow opening between the northern end of Boynton Ridge to the south and the southern end of Concord Ridge to the north, now occupied by Audubon Acres, referring to it as Chickamauga Gap.

Before the gates of the eponymous dam closed, Chickamauga Island rose above the Tennessee River with its foot where the dam and Wilkes T. Thrasher Bridge now cross.  On some maps it is erroneous called Friar’s Island, but Friar’s Towhead (or Island) is the much smalled islet just below the larger island.  Friar’s Ford crossed the river over the towhead, and Rogers’ Ferry, dating to Cherokee times, also ran here.

Chickamauga Gulch is a ravine in the eastern escarpment of Walden’s Ridge through which North Chickamauga Creek flows.  Its mouth opens a couple of miles south of Daisy at the community of Mile Straight between Flipper Bend on the plateau to the south and Montlake and Grasshopper Hill on the plateau to the north.

Speaking of North Chickamauga Creek, its headwaters flow from the geographical feature known as the Double Bridges on the plateau of Walden’s Ridge.

Several streams flowing through Walker and Catoosa Counties, Georgia, into Hamilton County, Tennessee bear also Chickamauga as part of their name.

According to the lastest nomenclature, South Chickamauga Creek, which flows into the Tennessee River between Amnicola and Toqua communities in Chattanooga, begins at the confluence of East Chickamauga Creek and Tiger Creek two-tenths of a mile west of the Old Stone Church just outside Ringgold, Georgia.

The headwaters of East Chickamauga Creek spring forth between Dick Ridge and Taylor’s Ridge in Whitfield County.

The headwaters of Little Chickamauga Creek issue a couple of miles south of the community of Catlett in Walker County, Georgia.  The Little Chickamauga meets the South Chickamauga just south of Ringgold, near where Richard Taylor had his farm trading post on the Federal Road that gave the surrounding community the name Taylor’s Place.

The West Chickamauga Creek, along which the Battle of the Chickamauga/Mud Flats was fought in September 1863, rises in upper McLemore Cove in Walker County, Georgia.  The West Chickamauga meets South Chickamauga Creek in the middle of the north side of Camp Jordan Park.

Historically speaking, the name South Chickamauga Creek is rather late.  Certainly through the 19th, and probably well into the 20th, century, it was more commonly called the Chickamauga River.  That was definitely the case in pioneer annals and in official reports from both sides on the Civil War.  Just where the Chickamauga River actually began was in some dispute, however, with some carrying it as far upstream as the headwaters of what is now Tiger Creek.  Others began it at the same confluence of East Chickamauga and Tiger Creeks as today. 

Still others did not count it as the Chickamauga River until after the confluence of the West Chickamauga with the East Chickamauga just north of Camp Jordan Park.  For these, the East Chickamauga extended all the way from its Whitfield County, Georgia, headwaters to the confluence with the West Chickamauga. 

Also, the Little Chickamauga Creek used to be known as the Middle Chickamauga Creek, and the North Chickamauga Creek until well into the 20th century was more often called the Little Chickamauga Creek.

Chuck Hamilton


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