The Winding River Home A Journey To find meaning

This is a digital edition of a story originally printed in Pellissippi State Community College's Connections magazine. To request a copy of the magazine, please email marketing [at]

They say there are two types of stories: a stranger comes to town, or a man sets out on a journey.

This story is of the second type.

This story is about a word, about how that word traveled throughout history, and about the journey to find that word’s meaning.

Let’s start with the word: Pellissippi.

It’s been part of Pellissippi State Community College’s name since 1988, and for all of that time, the general prevailing opinion has been that Pellissippi derives from the historic name for the Clinch River. The Clinch winds its way from southern Virginia through East Tennessee before emptying into the Tennessee River near Kingston, not far from our College’s Hardin Valley Campus.

Pellissippi was said to mean winding waters in Cherokee. For a long time, no one thought to question that.

But recently, we’ve learned that Pellissippi doesn’t mean winding waters after all. Nor is it Cherokee. And we’d like to set the record straight.

The journey to find out just what Pellissippi means begins in October 2014, when a librarian at Pellissippi State contacted the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina with a question: Is Pellissippi a Cherokee word? The answer to that question sparked an in-depth research project that culminated in an answer from the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology.

A 1744 map, by surveyor George Hunter, depicts the Mississippi and Hogohegee rivers and "a large branch called Pelisipi falling from behind Virginia."

The Email Trail

This story begins with an email that Pellissippi State librarian Karen Cornell sent to Cherokee tribal linguist Garfield Long Jr. in 2014. She asked him, Is Pellissippi a Cherokee word?

The answer was surprising. No.

Long explained that Pellissippi is not a Cherokee word at all. It couldn’t be. The Cherokee language does not contain any letters that allow for a “p” sound.

“Unfortunately, you have been given wrong information regarding the name,” Long says. “In Cherokee, ‘winding river’ would actually be spelled phonetically ‘adanuteyoha geyvi,’ which would sound like ‘Ah dah new tay yo ha Gey yuh ee.’”

Once someone tells you this, you can hear the difference between Pellissippi and words that actually are Cherokee, like Chilhowee or Hiwassee.

This 1754 map depicts the Pelesipi River joining the Cherakee River — now the Tennessee — near an English fort.

Cherokee and its place names belong to the Iroquoian family of languages. Pellissippi is not Iroquoian. Mistaking a word for the wrong Native American language family would be similar to mistaking a Germanic word as deriving from a Romance language. Perhaps like claiming auf wiedersehen to be Spanish.

Cornell forwarded her email and Long’s response to the Marketing and Communications Office, where writer Heather Beck took up the search. She started with Long once again. If Pellissippi wasn’t a Cherokee word, did he have an idea as to its origin?

“There were two tribes that lived around in that area back in the mid-1700s,” Long says. “Those were the Tuscarora and the Shawnee. So it’s possible that Pellissippi or something close to that maybe was heard or pronounced similarly and [the river’s name] became that. But without being able to pinpoint the origin, I can only speculate.”

A 1778 map shows early settlements in America, as well as major landmarks, including rivers and bodies of water.

Pellissippi has often been cited to mean ‘crooked river’ or ‘winding river’ in Cherokee or Yuchean, but this is simply wishful folk imagination, not an etymology,” says Yuchi tribal historian David Hackett, based in nearby Oak Ridge. The Yuchi were early settlers in East Tennessee.

“The problem, as is often the case, is that the word could have been from any of several languages, and further would have been Anglicized, perhaps even through another European language,” Hackett says.

This phenomenon is called transcription. It happens when a word is copied down after being heard; for example, when a Native American word is heard by early explorers and written, often phonetically, into Spanish, French or English. That same word may be passed around between languages again — from French to English, perhaps.

This 1684 Franquelin map is one of the earliest of North America, showing the journey of Sieur de la Salle.

Many native language words we still use today have been garbled through this transcription process into English, so that they only vaguely resemble the original native term. Tennessee is an example. Other familiar terms that began as Native American words include barbecue, caribou, caucus, chocolate, hammock, hickory, moose, persimmon, potato, squash and woodchuck, as well as Michigan, Illinois, California, Appalachia.

It’s an unfortunate but common reality that many of these words have been misremembered or garbled from their original native language context, or that the original language itself has become extinct. This is one reason that tracking down words that originated with a Native American language is difficult.

Another reason is that some native languages never had a written alphabet or syntax that could help preserve them. Add to that the fact that many native languages no longer have any native speakers. Today, the Cherokee language has one of the highest numbers of native speakers, with more than 10,000. By comparison, the Shawnee have less than 100 native speakers. Tuscarora has fewer than 10. Dozens of native languages are known today only in academic circles. Some are lost forever.

Simply put, tracing the etymology of a centuries-old Native American word isn’t precise or simple.

This 1795 map uses two names to refer to a river flowing through what is now East Tennessee: Pelesipi and Clinches.

The River's Path

The next step on this journey was to verify that Pellissippi referred to the Clinch River. Was that true after all, or would it also turn out to be false?

By the early 1700s, a river named Pellissippi had begun to appear on maps of southeastern North America.

The earliest reference seems to be a 1744 map by French cartographer Jacques Bellin. The “R. Polesipi selon les Anglois” (translated, this means “Polesipi River, according to the English”) flows into the “Riviere des Cheraquis” and then the Mississippi. North of these rivers is “l’Oyo ou la Belle Riviere,” what today we’d call the Ohio.

This 1744 map shows a river in what is now Tennessee called "Polesipi."

It’s important to remember that early maps were not known for accuracy. Cartographers were often artists, not surveyors. The location and length of rivers in early maps varies widely, as do surrounding landmarks. In these maps, it’s also common for spellings to change or even for names to move. Every time a map is redrawn, there is a chance for errors to be introduced.

On many early maps, for instance, the Ohio is shown as a tributary of a larger river called “Ouabache.” In later maps, the Ouabache is separated out as a small river north of the Ohio — today, we’d know it as the Wabash.

Historic maps aren’t the only mention of Pellissippi in American history. In 1784, President Thomas Jefferson proposed new state names for portions of land west of the Appalachians. Among those names was Pelisipia, in what today would be parts of eastern Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Jefferson spliced what was a known Native American word for a nearby river — Pelisipi — with a Latin suffix to generate a new, sophisticated name for his theoretical state.

In 1784, President Thomas Jefferson suggested state names for territory west of the Appalachian Mountains ... among them, Pelisipia (denoted by the numeral 10).

But the nearby Pelisipi River to which Jefferson referred does not appear to be the Clinch.

It seems to be the Ohio River.

Historically, then, Pellissippi refers to two American rivers: the 300-mile long Clinch and the nearly 1,000-mile long Ohio.

But … how? And why?

Franquelin's 1684 map of Sieur de La Salle's journey calls the Ohio River the "Mosopeleacipi" or "Olighin."

The Winding River Home

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in his explorations into America in the late 1600s, took down the historic name of the Ohio River as Mosopeleacipi, meaning the River of the Mosopelea.

The Mosopelea were a Siouan-speaking tribe that historically lived along the upper Ohio River and gradually migrated south, where they became known as the Ofo. After the Mosopelea migrated out of the Ohio River valley, the Shawnee — or possibly another Algonquian-speaking tribe — moved in.

The Shawnee reportedly called the Ohio River Peleewa-θiipi, or perhaps peleewa θiipiiki, in which the symbol θ makes a –th sound.

This 1755 map shows the Ohio River also called the "Palawa Thepiki."

Evidence of that is work by cartographer Lewis Evans in 1755, who took down the name of the Ohio River as Palawa Thepiki. This is the first known map reference to the Ohio bearing a seemingly-shortened version of Mosopeleacipi. Another 1755 map, by John Mitchell, shows the Clinch River being called Pelisipi while the Ohio goes by the very garbled Splawacipiki. In 1756, a French mapmaker showed a river called Polisipi flowing through what is now Tennessee, south of the river now called, simply, Ohio.

John Mitchell's 1755 map calls the Ohio "Splawacipiki," likely a garbled version of Mosopeleacipi.

Over the next decade, the name of the Appalachian Pellissippi River evolved as maps were drawn and redrawn — Polesipi, Peleson, Pelisipi, Pele Sipi, Pere Sipi and eventually Pellissippi. The names even moved back and forth a bit, from the Ohio to the Clinch, and likely included the Cumberland River at least once.

But a 1776 map seems to be the last in which the Ohio is called Palawa Thepiki or something similar. After that, the name moves south and stays there.

One of the last references to the Clinch as "Pellissippi" is in an 1886 map of Tennessee.

It’s reasonable to theorize this: The ancient name of the Ohio River, Mosopeleacipi, was at some point shortened or mangled by other residents or explorers of the Ohio River valley into a form of Pellissippi. Cartographers then likely misattributed this name to a smaller river south of the Ohio, the Clinch. For a while, the rivers swapped names back and forth, until the Ohio firmly settled on its modern name around the 1780s. Clinch became the favored name for the Appalachian river after about 1795; the last map reference to the Clinch being called Pellissippi is around 1886.

So if we know Pellissippi’s history, do we know what Pellissippi means?

If this story has been any indication thus far, this is a very difficult question to answer.

Mosopeleacipi, the original root word from which Pellissippi seems to derive, took its name from a tribe. Aside from being the tribe’s name, the word had no other meaning that researchers currently know.

That being said, if you asked a Shawnee speaker today what Pellissippi means, he might tell you that it sounds like the combination of two stem words in Shawnee: peleewa, which means turkey, and sipi, which means river. In the 18th century, Algonquian speakers seemed to have related this meaning of the word when asked by early explorers and settlers.

“You could say that the name meant “turkey river” in Shawnee, but we know from the earlier, longer form of the name that this reshaping is due to a folk-etymology, imposing meaning on a foreign word,” says linguist emeritus Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology. “Historically it was Mosopeleacipi, ‘river of the Mosopelea,’ the Illinois name that was learned by La Salle for the Ohio.”

In other words, asking a Shawnee speaker to translate a garbled word isn’t an accurate way to find meaning. Here’s another example of a possible folk-etymology: to hear someone say the name Greece and suppose that this translated to mean grease. So it is with Pellissippi.

As you see, discovering the meaning of a word is not always simple, nor even possible.

Pellissippi has a long history in America, sharing a connection with a U.S. president, early explorers and Native American tribes and, not least, the Ohio River. But its meaning will remain metaphorical, not literal.

Yet, it’s not every day that someone has the opportunity to craft what a word means. Not many words come to us through history as blank slates.

For us at Pellissippi State, Pellissippi means education, accessibility, opportunity, hope.

Knowing where our name comes from may not change the mission of the College, or students’ education, or our place in our community. But knowing that we have done our best to restore a legacy that had been forgotten and to memorialize a history that we will cherish, may change everything.

What does Pellissippi mean?

Perhaps the better question is, what does Pellissippi mean to you?

Information in this story came from dozens of sources, including academic research papers, presentations and books; historical maps, and native language experts and linguists. Our deepest gratitude is owed to the expertise and advice of Ives Goddard, Garfield Long Jr. and David Hackett.

Additional resources include the Library of Congress’s collection of historical maps, the “Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 14;” “The Wilderness Trail: Or the Ventures and Adventures of the Pennsylvania Traders on the Allegheny Path” by Charles A. Hanna; “Native American Place Names of Indiana” by Michael McCafferty; and “Shawnee Stems and the Jacob P. Dunn Miami Dictionary” by Jacob Dunn.

The photographs of the Clinch River used in this story were taken by Gary Grubb, Pellissippi State Community College.

Created By
Heather Beck

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