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. Continue reading “Tobesofkee, a Creek Indian place name in Georgia”

Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)

A boy plays Indian on a valentine from the 1950s. (Credit:
A boy plays Indian on a valentine from the 1950s. (Credit:

While making my case for a Creek/Muskogee origin of “how,” I also mentioned that an 1872 document uses the stereotypical “ugh” to represent speech at a Creek Indian council. (See here.) But this witness (Michael Johnston Kenan) was describing events that occurred almost half a century before he wrote them down in 1872. So it seems likely that the omnipresent “ugh” had distorted Kenan’s memory of the actual Creek expressions.

Where did this odd little syllable come from? Was it an attempt to represent an actual word from a specific Indian language?

My working hypothesis is that “ugh” sprang from the fertile imagination of James Fenimore Cooper, who used it in his fiction to signal an essential difference between Indians and non-Indians. The popularity of Cooper’s tales helped make “ugh” the most widely recognized (and most demeaning) marker of “Indian” speech. Continue reading “Why Indians say ‘ugh’ (part 2)”

Why Indians say ‘how’ (part 2)

A 1950s valentine derives humor from Indian stereotypes. (Credit:
A 1950s valentine derives humor from Indian stereotypes. (Credit:

In a previous post about the stereotyped Indian utterances “how” and “ugh,” I noted that “how” appears to be derived from the Muskogee Creek word hvo (pronounced “haw”).

I could be wrong. Back in 1986, Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope argued for another group of American Indian languages. Someone had asked Adams whether Indians ever really used “how” as a greeting. He replied that no, they didn’t, but that in several Siouan languages of the Great Plains (Lakota, Dakota, and Omaha), there is a word that serves as “a sort of all-purpose introductory adverb or interjection.” That word is variously spelled ho, hao, hau, or howo.

The resemblance to Creek hvo, another multi-purpose affirmative interjection, is striking. Even though the Creek language is only distantly related to the Siouan languages, much like English is related to Persian.

But wait a minute, I hear you saying. Cecil Adams is just this guy who churns out snarky columns for “alternative” newspapers. A self-appointed know-it-all. Why are you taking him seriously? Continue reading “Why Indians say ‘how’ (part 2)”

Creek War symposium live online

From the Auburn University press people: The College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University invites the public to dialogue with scholars from around the nation during a two-day symposium on the Creek War and the War of 1812 [dead link] on May 22-23, 2009 at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in Auburn. […]

Symposium on the Creek War

I’m doing a talk at Auburn University’s symposium “The Creek War and War of 1812 in the South,” May 22-23 in Auburn and at the Horseshoe Bend battlefield park. The website is at Some widely read historians will be taking part, including Gregory Dowd (A Spirited Resistance), John Grenier (The First Way of War), […]

Why Indians say “how” and “ugh”

Generations of white people have imagined and written about Indians who say “how” or “ugh.” These are the two syllables that represent “Indian language” to many if not most of us. It’s still commonplace for Americans today to think of “Indian” as if it were a single language, spoken from sea to shining sea — […]