Sylacauga, or the Buzzard Roost

Comrade Kevin mentioned (here) that the name Sylacauga (a city in Alabama) is often translated as “Buzzard Roost.” That reminded me of a historical tradition in Atlanta that the city occupies the site of “Indian towns” called Buzzard Roost and Standing Peachtree.

For now I’ll ignore Standing Peachtree and concentrate on Buzzard Roost.1

A historical marker near Atlanta spells the Muskogee (Creek Indian) name for Buzzard Roost as Sulacauga. That suggests a close tie between Atlanta’s Buzzard Roost and Alabama’s Sylacauga (pronounced “sil-la-caw-ga”).

And sure enough, a Creek-English dictionary derives the place name Sylacauga from the Creek sule-kake (sounds like “so-lée-gáh-kee”), “two buzzards sitting.”

American Indian languages are more verb-centered than Indo-European languages like English, so instead of a noun like “roost,” the Creek language describes the action of sitting, or being in a place. The verb is also used to indicate number (singular and plural), so you choose a different “to sit” verb depending on how many objects or beings are sitting. If one buzzard had been sitting there, the name would have been sule-like (“so-lée-láy-kee”); if three or more, sule-vpoke (“so-lée-a-pó-gee”). But there were two buzzards, so it’s sule-kake (“so-lée-gáh-kee”). 2

Patsaliga Creek in Crenshaw County, Alabama has a similar name. It comes from the Creek pvce-like (“pa-jee-láy-kee”), “one pigeon sitting” (meaning the now-extinct passenger pigeon). I believe Alabamians pronounce it “pat-sa-LAG-gee.”

From GA to AL

Creek towns were defined by their people rather than by their geographic location, so if the people of a town migrated, the name of their town moved with them. (Note the number of “Indian names” from the Southeast that are reproduced in Oklahoma, where the southern Indians were forced to relocate in the 1820s-1840s.) The Buzzard Roost on the Chattahoochee River, in what is now the Atlanta metropolis, stood on land that the Creeks surrendered to Georgia in an 1821 treaty. Buzzard Roost is even defined in the treaty as one of the boundary marks of the ceded land. It was located on the Chattahoochee riverbank, across from the mouth of Sweetwater Creek, most likely with cornfields and houses scattered along the bank for a few miles.

So I’m speculating that the people of Sule-kake on the Chattahoochee, squeezed out by the 1821 cession and the advance of American settlers, moved west into Alabama and re-established their town on the Coosa River. We can’t be sure their new town was located precisely at present-day Sylacauga; the odds are that it was not. Other Alabama towns that took over Creek town names (Cusseta, Talladega, Tuskegee, etc.) tend to be located on a different site, sometimes many miles from the namesake Creek town site.

Buzzard Roost was a border town, close to the Cherokees (on the Chattahoochee headwaters) and the Georgians. Its name may have something to do with the proximity of the Cherokees, as I’ve found two dead towns called “Buzzard’s Roost” in what was once Cherokee country. One was in Colbert County, Alabama, and the other was in Whitfield County, Georgia. It would be interesting to know whether a Cherokee form of the names has been preserved. 3

‘Chalaka-ge’?

Wikipedia’s article on Sylacauga gives equal time to a theory that the town name comes from Chalaka-ge, which is said to mean “place of the Chalaka tribe.” This seems far-fetched, and would depend on the name being derived from a language unrelated to Creek (or Hitchiti, Alabama, or any other Muskogean language, if I’m any judge).

I once heard a rumor that the name “Chalaka” might be associated with some Shawnees, but can’t say whether the Shawnee language, from the Algonquian family, has a -ge locative ending. And while some Shawnee and Piankeshaw people are known to have lived at the Creek town of Tukabatchee, it does not follow that another Shawnee-related group settled down on the Coosa River. Given that Sylacauga in Alabama so closely resembles Sulacauga in Georgia, and that the latter was translated into English as “Buzzard Roost,” I have to go with the same derivation for the Alabama town.

“Chalaka-ge” seems to be like one of those “Welsh Indian” theories, where an imagined resemblance between syllables in two different languages leads someone to infer that they’ve discovered a derivation. All they’ve really demonstrated is that the human voice can only produce a finite number of sounds, and similar sequences of sounds are bound to recur in unrelated words and names.


1 Atlantans may remember that a corner of Six Flags over Georgia, the amusement park west of town, was dubbed “Buzzard’s Roost.” A wise-cracking puppet called Buford Buzzard used to hold court there. (Buford is a town northeast of Atlanta that was considered rural until Gwinnett County exploded in the ’80s.) 
2 The infinitive verbs meaning “to sit, to be situated, to exist” are liketv (of one), kaketv (of two), and vpoketv (of three or more). Note that the letter v is a vowel (ə) in Creek. I’m using A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee by Jack B. Martin & Margaret McKane Mauldin (U. of Nebraska Press, 2000). If you really want to try for a Creek accent, avoid rounded vowels (o not owe), don’t aspirate consonants (no “puffing” on p or k), and pronounce the stressed syllables with raised pitch instead of English-style stress. The length of vowels is also much more meaningful than in English. 
3 I find no reference to “Buzzard’s Roost” in James Mooney’s classic Myths of the Cherokee. It is interesting, though, that the Cherokee word ᏑᎵ or sulí, “buzzard,” so closely resembles Creek sole, “buzzard.” I haven’t noticed any other close resemblances between animal names in the two languages, but that may just reflect the baby state of my knowledge. (Both languages borrowed their words for “cow,” from Spanish vaca, and for “house cat,” from English puss.) 

7 thoughts on “Sylacauga, or the Buzzard Roost

  1. I am with the local Historical Society in East Point, Ga. I have never been able to find out about the towns relation to the Creek Indians. I found a fact sheet hidden in a file that referred to what is now the City of East Point as “Buzzards Roost.” I took that with a grain of salt. From your description and others, it does seem to fall withing those boundaries. Would you happen to be able to tell me anything you may have found about Indian population in the area of East Point which is the next town south of Atlanta, in between what is now Atlanta and College Park Georgia?

  2. Didn’t the Creeks take theier place names with them when they moved? After the Treaty of Indian Creek and lot of them had to move on over into AL — don’t you think that’s what happened in this case, maybe?
    Does anyone know where the Creek settlement called Horse Path Town was located in the 1830′s?

    • I noted in this post that “if the people of a town migrated, the name of their town moved with them.” So it seems likely that the name Sule-kake moved from Georgia to Alabama after the 1825 and ’26 treaties that ceded all the Creek land in Georgia.

      An 1832 census identifies a settlement called Chelucco-ninny (Cerakko-nene, “horse trail”). Albert Gatschet guessed that it was an alternate name for Akfaski-nene, “Okfuskee Road,” a settlement on the headwaters of the Chattahoochee. I can’t be more precise than that. See Albert S. Gatschet, A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: D.G. Brinton, 1884), p. 129.

  3. Forgive me if I am stating the obvious, but I’ve just developed a passion for such history especially considering that it’s literally “right down the road” from where I grew up and have always lived. (Cliftondale) But its also of note that Buzzard’s Roost in Fulton County is the only natural island in the state of Georgia. I have never been there and just found out of its existence but I can’t imagine the “island” is much bigger than a school lunchroom? (but again, I don’t know)

    Once again, I’m sorry if this is common knowledge as well but it was actually called “Standing Pitch Tree” not “Peachtree.” Meaning, yes, the whole “Peach State” crap was corporate greed without bothering to fact check. The Creeks would use the “pitch” (or “sap”) from pine trees in documents and such.

    Just stumbled across this tonight too and makes for some good reading!

    http://www.fold3.com/page/283935146_sandtown_on_the_chattahoochee_river/

  4. Thanks for the link, Matthew.

    Regarding “pitch tree,” Franklin M. Garrett, in Atlanta and Environs, finds that there is insufficient evidence to favor either alternative (“peach” or “pitch”) over the other.

    For my own part, I don’t find the “pitch tree” derivation credible, for several reasons. For one thing, despite Garrett’s evenhandedness, he shows that “Standing Peach Tree” is attested in documents since 1782. “Pitch Tree” only appears in 20th-century oral history. True, some of the tellers claim longstanding family tradition, but there is no trace of that tradition before the 1920s.

    My guess is that “pitch tree” arose in oral tradition among Georgians who assumed that the Creeks could not have known peach trees. But we have evidence that the Creeks grew peaches for centuries, presumably obtaining them from the Spanish. One of the noted towns in the Creek Nation is called Pakana, the Creek word for peach. By the 1800s it was called Pakan-tallahassee, “the old peach town.”

    Standing Peachtree in the upper Chattahoochee valley may have had a connection to Pakana. Or it may have gotten its name from a local feature, a peach tree that one early settler claimed to have seen growing on top of a mound at the town site.

    For the relevant section in Garrett’s book: http://books.google.com/books?id=fl6xNpS6qUUC&lpg=PA750&pg=PA8

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s