Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?

Katie Crutchfield strums a guitar beside Waxahatchee Creek in this still from the music video of “Coast to Coast.”
Waxahatchee is a Brooklyn-based music project headed by Katie Crutchfield.

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.

Indian names

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. Continue reading “Where does the name Waxahatchee come from?”

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How Opa-locka got its name

View of a white building with a dome and tower, resembling a mosque, with palms and a live oak in the foreground.
Opa-locka City Hall. The Moorish architecture has been typical of the city since its founding by aviator Glenn Curtiss in 1926. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Locator map of Opa-locka, FloridaOpa-locka is a small city in the Miami metropolitan area of south Florida.

Its unusal name is supposed to have an Indian or “Native American” origin. But there is no documentation for the name before about 1926. That’s when the aviator Glenn Curtiss founded the city, during the 1920s craze for Florida real estate.1

When Curtiss first scouted the site, he was told that its “Indian name” was “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” He shortened this to “Opa Locka,” which sounded vaguely “Arabic-Persian” to him. This was the era of wildly popular “Arab” movies such as The Sheik and The Thief of Bagdad. So Curtiss dressed up Opa-locka in fanciful Moorish style to match the mood of the time.

The original name of the site almost certainly comes from the Creek/Seminole language. Most likely, it was Vpelofv rakko (“up-pee-LO-fa THLA-ko”), meaning “big hummock.” A hummock (or hammock) is an area of raised land within a swamp.2 Continue reading “How Opa-locka got its name”

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.” Continue reading “Sylacauga, or the Buzzard Roost”

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”

On Indian place names

I’ve been thinking lately about the petty crimes we Americans have performed on place names that come from Indian languages. There are a ton of them, from Massachusetts to Seattle, and from Alabama to Wyoming.

Confronted with these mysterious names (which we white folks made even more mysterious by corrupt pronunciation), some historians and other writers have indulged in making up stories about where the names came from. Continue reading “On Indian place names”