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] pstcc.edu.
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 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.