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Meaning of Watauga and Local History

The first settlement of Tennessee was planted on the green banks of the Watauga River where "the river emerges from the mountains" stated Tennessee Judge and author Oliver P. Temple in 1899, and I believe it is exactly at our rental cabins where the mouth of the Watauga River feeds into Watauga Reservoir at the far eastern tip of the Watauga River. This is very near the NC/TN state line, where the valley begins to widen between present day Draft Rd on one side of the river and Cowantown Rd on the other. Neither road could traverse further upstream as it is too mountainous and the rocky banks too steep. This is also where the Cherokee National Forest begins on both sides of the river... and although beautiful and full of waterfalls and rocky cliffs, no pioneer (let alone Indian) would have been fool enough to spend good money or set up camp on unusable land east of this point. Prior to dam construction and flooding of the river valley, this would have been fertile lands pioneers and natives coveted alike and would eventually clash over. Here there are several natural Artesian wells and springs (one originally supplied our lakeside cottages), caverns and rare flat lands in this rugged mountain terrain with an abundance of flora and fauna merging sustenance with rare beauty. In 1770 the first white pioneers settled on this stream, which was the cradle of Western civilization west of the eastern continental divide and Blue Ridge Mountains. A large part of the early settlers were Scotch-Irish who came from Pennsylvania through western Virginia and western North Carolina. There was no state protection of citizens in this region where neither settlers nor government had any idea if these pioneers were a citizen of Virginia, North Carolina or Tennessee and Indians were easily provoked for the cause of the English Loyalist Tories. The first pioneer settlement was know as the Watauga settlement and the surrounding area was called Watauga Country.

The first incursion of the white man into Cherokee territory west of the Appalachians took place when "Watauga Old Fields" were first explored by Daniel Boone and James Robertson in 1759. Daniel Boone's Trail reportedly passed through the intersection of the Watauga River and Roan Creek in 1759 or 1760. Two men who played a leading role in Tennessee history - James Robertson of North Carolina and John Sevier of Virginia - came to the Watauga settlement early and established "The Watauga Association", the first form of government of its kind in 1772, the written constitution unfortunately has been lost. In 1775 the Nolichucky settlement joined the Watauga Association. On March 19, 1775 the Watauga settlers bought all the land on the waters of the Watauga, Holston and New Rivers fee simple from the Cherokees beginning the official transition from native American Indian to white settler control. Fort Caswell (named after North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell) was built in 1775 further downstream near Sycamore Shoals river crossing in present day Elizabethton to defend against Indian attacks often instigated by the British. The Chickamagua were a faction of Cherokee angered by white encroachment, and attacked the fort and settlers repeatedly. The fort's name was soon changed names to the Watauga fort, or Fort Watauga. Much later Watauga County, North Carolina was formed in 1849 from Ashe, Wilkes, Caldwell and Yancey Counties, named after the Watauga River. This county is located in the northwestern section of North Carolina and surrounded by Johnson County, Tennessee and the NC counties of Ashe, Wilkes, Caldwell, and Avery.

The original settlers of Nashville, Tennessee set out from the "Watauga River area" led by James Robertson (but again I found three different references in conflict stating this was in present day Carter County or Johnson County, Tennessee vs. Watauga County, North Carolina). This occurred during the American Revolution when citizens realized that the British Proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement of its colonists west of the Blue Ridge Mountains was essentially now unenforceable. The first permanent community of pioneers, however, was not established until 1779 when a group of about two hundred settlers left the Watauga settlement in northeast Tennessee, traveled overland for two months, and arrived on the banks of the Cumberland River near the center of present downtown Nashville on Christmas Day, 1779. It was renamed Nashville in 1784 when it was incorporated as a town by the North Carolina legislature. Pioneers continued west and in 1843, hardy settlers from Tennessee first arrived in the Texas town that still bears its name. The early settlers organized the first Church in Watauga, the Willow Springs Presbyterian Church on December 14, 1867. In 1876, the railroad extended to Texas, linking the two coasts and the Texas City of Watauga boomed.

Meanwhile back east, settlers along the Watauga River felt the government of North Carolina (which at the time extended to the Mississippi River) was not paying attention to their needs, particularly defense. This unrest was exacerbated when in the state of North Carolina voted, in April 1784, "to give Congress the 29,000,000 acres lying between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi river. This angered Watauga settlers who had gained a good foothold on the Cumberland River at Fort Nashborough, fearing Congress might sell the territory to France, Spain or other foreign power in desperation due to war debt. A few months later the legislature of North Carolina withdrew its gift, and again took charge of its western land because it feared the land would not be used to pay the debts of Congress and to appease its citizens. These North Carolina law makers also "ordered judges to hold court in the western counties, arranged to enroll a brigade of soldiers, and appointed John Sevier to command it" according to John P. Arthur in The History of Western North Carolina in 1914.On August 23, 1784, delegates from the North Carolina counties of Washington, Sullivan, Spencer (now Hawkins) and Greene - all counties in present-day Tennessee - convened in the town of Jonesborough and declared the lands independent of North Carolina. On May 16, 1785, a delegation from these counties submitted a petition for statehood to the United States Congress. Seven states voted to admit the tiny state under the proposed name Frankland. Though a majority, the number of states voting in favor fell short of the two-thirds majority required to admit a territory to statehood under the Articles of Confederation. In an attempt to curry favor for their cause, leaders changed the name to "Franklin" after Benjamin Franklin, and even initiated a correspondence with the patriot to sway him to support them. Franklin politely refused. Locally, a constitution that disallowed lawyers, doctors and preachers from election to the legislature was rejected by plebiscite. Thereafter, a constitution modeled on that of North Carolina was adopted with few changes, and the state was called Franklin. A temporary government was assembled at Greeneville. After a swift election, John Sevier became governor.

Many years prior to the white man, Cherokee and other native Americans first settled in the Watauga River region. Until about 1700, the Creek Indians held much of the land in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina then the Cherokee applied ruthless pressure forcing them south and west to their strongholds in Georgia and Alabama. The Yuchi and other tribes occupied east Tennessee even earlier until overrun by the Cherokee so they migrated south, then west from pressure from the whites causing them to merge with the Creeks. They were in search of the bountiful game, fertile fields, and clear spring waters. The word "Watauga" is reported to come from the Cherokee, who apparently had several towns so named, including one at present-day Elizabethton, which itself became known as "Watauga Old Fields". A larger Cherokee town called Watauga was located on the Little Tennessee River near Franklin, North Carolina. As earlier inhabitants were pushed out, each succession of conquerors took the existing towns and kept the names the best they could in their own tongue. William Bartram, an 18th Century botanist and writer passed through this Cherokee country in May of 1775, in his diary he wrote of many Cherokee towns, one with the name "Whatoga". Author Vicki Rozema in Footsteps of the Cherokees 1995 states Watauga comes "from the Creek word wetoga". So it's quite possible that Watauga (or earlier variation) could be the name of a Cherokee, Creek, Yuchi or much earlier tribe's village, and this as well as the name of an actual Indian tribe, has been speculated as original meanings or origins for this unusual word. Even today, despite the identical spelling, the two groups of Southerners in Texas and Tennessee pronounce their respective Wataugas quite differently.

The Cherokee word is more accurately written Watâ'gi but other common historical spellings include Wata'gi, Watagi, Watoga, Watogi, Wetoga, Wotoga, Wattoogee, Whattoogee and Whatoga; more recent common misspellings include Wataga, Watuga, Watoda and Watuaga. A North Carolina State University web page states that the word "Watauga" is a Native-American word meaning "the land beyond", however local reference to the name origin is more commonly associate the meaning with river, water or waters. Other interpretations I came across in local folklore, literature and internet search include beautiful water, beautiful river, shimmering waters, shining waters, sparkling waters, still waters, clear waters, running water, flowing water, falling water, waterfalls, whitewater, foaming at the mouth, broken waters, whispering waters, river shoals, river of islands and river of plenty. Interestingly, folks in the Texas town with this namesake are more likely to site its meaning as place or "village of many springs", while North Carolina and Tennessee folks are most likely to attribute its meaning to "beautiful waters" or similar derivative as the most common definition.

Authors John P. Arthur The History of Watauga County 1915 and Martin V. Moore The Rhyme of Southern Waters a couple decades earlier note a likeness between Watauga and the Latin word root "agua" meaning water, which they speculate calls into question the origins of the native peoples possibly being Eurasian decent from ancient land bridges and continental drift, but I think more probably shows an assimilation of native language into our own Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Latin origins. After all, history is written by the victors. Case in point, the word "Cherokee" has no meaning in their own language, as they call themselves Ani-Kituhwagi and Yunwiga, or "real people" similar to present day native South Americans like the Yanomamo tribe. But I would have to agree that contrary to popular belief, many reputedly Indian words, or at least those attributed to have Indian origin, actually have roots in European and even Asian languages.

Although all of the above interpretations may apply, the exact definition of Watauga appears to have been lost over the years as the famed American Anthropologist James Moody stated in several of his publications at the turn of last century. At the end of the second millennium, Ken and Allison Curtis followed the pioneers' path westward heading northwest on Hwy 321 on their steel pony from Rock Hill, SC to discover this promised land. They set out to find a Utopia, found it here in the east Tennessee mountains and the rest is history.

- Dr. Ken Curtis