The music press tell us that Waxahatchee is the name of a creek in Alabama. In January 2011 Crutchfield “was living at her parents’ house on Waxahatchee Creek, nursing the bruises of a few bad relationships and wondering what to do with her adulthood.” A severe snowstorm, unusual for Alabama, confined her to the house, and she started writing music: “song after song about loneliness, ambivalence and relationships failing to last or fulfill.” 1
Now there are two albums, American Weekend and Cerulean Salt. She’s playing tonight at Bottletree Café here in Birmingham. So this seems like a perfect time for me to geek out about exactly where the name Waxahatchee comes from, and what it meant.
The name contains a mystery.
If you’re one of those people who’s satisfied to hear that Waxahatchee is “an Indian word,” you can stop reading. Go sit under your nylon-stringed dream catcher. If you care to know which Indians, what language they spoke, and so on, then read on.
Which Indians? Creek Indians. The Creek Nation, in what’s now Georgia and Alabama, was once the largest Indian political grouping within the United States. Two hundred years ago, the Creeks suffered a series of American invasions. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend (March 28, 1814), in which Andrew Jackson’s army slaughtered Creek men, women, and children, is believed to have killed more native people than any other single day in the history of U.S. wars against Indians.
This battle is usually described as if it were the end of the Creek Nation. But Creek people held onto their territory for another two decades until Jackson, their worst enemy, became president and placed “Indian removal” at the head of his agenda. Even then, many Creek people fled to Florida where they joined their Seminole relatives in continuing to resist the U.S. Most modern Creek people live in Oklahoma, and an unknown but growing number still speak their own language as well as English.
What language? Waxahatachee comes from the Muskogee (or Muscogee) language, the most widely used of a half dozen or more languages spoken in the Creek Nation. Seminole is a dialect of Muskogee. Related languages include Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama, and Koasati. (For more, see the excellent Creek Language Project online.)
What does it mean? Waxahatchee translates as “Wakse Creek.” The -hatchee part is from the Muskogee word hvcce (sounds like “hutchee”), which means “creek,” “stream,” or “river.”
Now for the mystery.
The Waxa- part of “Waxahatchee” probably comes from Muskogee wakse (sounds like “wocksy”), a very old word that is both a clan name and an element in some personal names.2 (Creek people each belong to a matrilineal clan, although not all modern Creek people are aware of their clan lineage.) Clans were usually named after animals or plants (especially food plants). Two exceptions are the Wind Clan and Salt Clan.
The Wakse clan (Waksvlke in Muskogee) belong to a small set of clans with names that have lost their meanings. This decay was brought about by removal to a very different natural environment, where the plants or animals associated with the clan no longer existed; by loss of traditional knowledge as U.S. bureaucrats broke up traditional institutions and schooled children to forget their heritage; and by drastically reduced use of the Muskogee language.
My guess is that the word wakse refers to a plant that bore some kind of edible fruit. There is a clue in the name of an old Creek town, recorded as “Waksoyochees” on a U.S. tribal census from 1832. The actual Creek name may well have been Waksvyoce (sounds like “Woksa-’yo-chee”), meaning “wakse picking place.” But this is only a guess.3
Where is Waxahatchee Creek? It’s a tributary of the Coosa River, which starts in northwest Georgia and flows southwest to central Alabama, where it merges with the Tallapoosa to become the Alabama River. Waxahatchee Creek flows into the Coosa’s right bank in Chilton County (coords. 33.0222, -86.5208°).
Since 1914 the creek’s lower reaches have been flooded by Lay Dam, forming a part of the Lay Lake reservoir. It’s one of the many ways that Alabama Power Company transformed much of the state’s topography in the 20th century.
If you drive Interstate 65 between the small cities of Calera and Jemison, you’ll speed over some bridges that cross tributaries of Waxahatchee Creek. One of these tributaries originates near Calera.
The Texas Waxahachie
Just to complicate things, there is a Waxahachie Creek in Texas, where a city of Waxahachie was founded in 1850. Today it’s part of the Dallas metropolis. No Creek Indians ever lived in the area, as best we can tell.
There is a distant connection, however. For one thing, an Alabama native named Emory W. Rogers is usually credited with founding the town of Waxahachie. But this is probably a red herring, for two reasons. First, Rogers came from Lawrence County in north Alabama, a long way from the Coosa River and Waxahatchee Creek. Second, the city in Texas gets its name from a creek that was, apparently, already named before white settlers arrived.
So who named a stream in Texas Waxahachie? According to a diligent Wikipedia contributor, the name is probably from the Alabama language, related to Muskogee. This is plausible because many members of the Alabama and Koasati tribes, which had been part of the Creek Nation, migrated to Texas before the rest of the Nation was forced to Oklahoma in the 1830s. (The tribal name Koasati is also spelled Kowassati or, in Texas, Coushatta.)
So if the languages are related, the meaning of the name should be similar, right? Wrong. In Alabama, the common word for “creek” or “stream” is pahnosi. The word hachi means tail — more literally, a thing that sticks out or stands up. So our anonymous Wikipedian concludes that Waxahachie Creek is “Calf’s Tail Creek.”4
Seems like a stretch to me. But if you want to see for yourself, there’s a pretty good Alabama-English Dictionary online. (It won’t work on a small screen.)
The Wichita connection
It may be that the resemblance between Waxahatchee, in Alabama, and Waxahachie, in Texas, is just a coincidence. It may be that the Texas name was distorted beyond recognition by English speakers. As many 19th-century “Gone to Texas” migrants were from Alabama, they might easily have assumed that “Indian names” in Texas ought to sound like the ones back home. And back home, just about every other creek has a name ending in “-hatchee.”
Fat Wildcat Creek? Maybe. There have been other names just as strange.
Anyway the word Wichita gives me a way to tie this essay back to its beginning. As Katie Crutchfield fans will already know, the Waxahatchee warbler recently signed a contract with an indie label out of London. Its name? Wichita.
A few links
2 William A. Read was the first to suggest that Waxahatchee translates as “wakse creek.” Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin, authors of the definitive Muskogee-English dictionary, agree he’s probably right. See Read, Indian place names in Alabama (1984), p. 75; Martin & Mauldin, “English place-names of Creek origin,” in A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee (2000), p. 181. ↩
3 See Martin & Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee. Most of the fruits native to the Southeast (grapes, muscadines, pawpaws, persimmons) have names that survive in modern Muskogee. A notable exception is the Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), which ranges throughout the Southeast and up to Kansas, but is absent from eastern Oklahoma where the Creeks were forced to relocate. In modern Creek a plum is pvkanuce, “little peach,” or pvkanv-catuce, “little red peach,” and the peach is an adopted non-native fruit. ↩
5 This theory is attributed to linguist David S. Rood, a scholar of the Wichita language. I get the sense that a Wikipedia contributor either lost track of the article Rood published this in or else got the information from personal communication with Rood. Either way, the information is not well sourced. It could even be an elaborate hoax. Caveat lector. ↩