Tobesofkee, a Creek Indian place name in Georgia

Directional sign from a Lake Tobesofkee campgroundAs a boy I camped out a time or two at Lake Tobesofkee Recreation Area, a nice spot beside a reservoir near Macon, Georgia. The four-syllable name [to-bə-SAF-ki] is a corrupt form of something in the Muskogee (Creek Indian) language. Recently I’ve done some reading on what the original Muskogee name might have been.

(The Muskogee name applied to a creek, not to the lake. Lake Tobesofkee is one of a series of reservoirs created by damming Tobesofkee Creek in the 1960s.)

First we have variant spellings of the name to deal with. Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816) is our main authority for the name, but with his usual flexibility, he spelled it Tobosaufkee, Tobe saufe ke, and Tobesauke. In 1776 William Bartram thought the name sounded like Tobosochte. And the earliest map spells it Togosohatchee, where -hatchee is the well known Creek suffix meaning a creek or river.

So Tobesofkee may not even be very close to the name the Creeks actually used in the 1700s. But it’s all we have to work with, as no Creek speakers have lived in the neighborhood since the 1820s.

Now for the theories.

Historians have all zeroed in on the last two syllables, sofkee, which sounds like the name of a hominy gruel made by Creeks and Seminoles. (This dish is considered the ancestor of grits, although it’s made differently. The name’s usually spelled sofkey in English, and safke or osafke in Creek and Seminole.)

This is where things get a little silly. In 1905 a government-sponsored book of American place-names decreed that “Tobesofka” Creek got its name because “an Indian lost a dish of meal while crossing it.” 1

William A. Read suggested, more plausibly, that “Tobesofkee” comes from vtapv safke (sounds like “ataba sofkey”), a wooden paddle (vtapv) used to stir sofkey in a large pot. 2 There’s certainly a strong phonetic resemblance between “ataba sofkey” and “Tobesofkee.” And the words vtapv and safke seem to belong together.

But why would a stream be remembered as “Sofkey Stirrer Creek”? Maybe it refers to a forgotten story, or maybe there was a natural feature, in or near the creek, that reminded Creek Indians of an vtapv in a pot of osafke. (Much of the creek has been drowned for four decades, so even if the feature were not ephemeral, it might be impossible to find today.) Still, it seems a little excessive to use the expression vtapv ’safke instead of just vtapv. It’s sort of like saying “oatmeal cooking spoon” instead of just “cooking spoon.”

On the other hand, Alabama has a Burnt Corn Creek, probably from a translated Creek Indian name. Parched corn was a food the Creeks often relied on when traveling. To me, “Burnt Corn Creek” makes “Sofkey Stirrer Creek” seem a little more likely.

Georgia historian John Goff has warned us away from assuming we can ever solve the riddle of a place name like “Tobesofkee.” 3 Heeding his advice, I still think it could be useful to point to another possibility for deriving the name. Let’s suppose for a moment that “Tobesofkee” actually has nothing to do with hominy gruel.

The Creek word aksofkē (“aksofkee”) means a deep place, such as a hole in the ground. The adjective sofkē, which would sound just like safke to English ears, means “deep,” but does not apply to deep water. (A deep hole, bowl, or canyon, etc. is sofkē; a deep river or lake is lvokē.)

So it seems plausible that “Tobesofkee” is the English corruption of a Creek place name that ended in -sofkē, “deep,” or -aksofkē, “deep place.” I think this should be considered alongside Read’s “sofkey stirrer” theory. 4

1 Henry Gannett, The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States, United States Geological Survey Bulletin No. 258, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1905), 301. 
2 William A. Read, “Indian Stream-Names in Georgia,” International Journal of American Linguistics 15 (2) (1949): 128-132. 
3 John H. Goff, Placenames of Georgia: Essays of John H. Goff, ed. Francis Lee Utley and Marion R. Hemperley (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 38. 
4 I won’t venture a guess as to where the “Tob-” syllable comes from. Topv (“tobá”) is a wooden structure such as a bed, table, or platform, including any of the covered shelters around a town’s ceremonial ground. But this word doesn’t seem to belong in “Tobesofkee.” Probably the “Tob-” syllable is corrupted from a longer Creek word. 

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