Skip to main content

Place Names

Consider some key distinctions about place names. First and foremost, using terms from their own languages, Indigenous people have named important sites, landmarks, and other locations throughout the land since time immemorial. Second, non-Native settlers often took the liberty of borrowing names of tribes or Native language terms without regard for their (ir)relevance to place. For example, scattered throughout the country are numerous places called Cherokee, as well as one in the Bahamas
   Nothing was discovered / Everything was already loved
Karenne Wood, From the poem “Homeland”

Dr. Wood’s poem, “Homeland” highlights that the “new world” Europeans “discovered” was NOT new to the tens of millions of Indigenous people already living here. Full poem:

The First Peoples of the land now known as the United States named their towns, the waterways, forests, mountains, and other places using terms from hundreds of Indigenous languages.  Europeans claiming land in the Americas largely ignored these longstanding Indigenous names, often preferring to replicate place names from Europe, using names of Christian origin, and incorporating the names of European royalty, (Euro-)American founders, statesmen, et al. (ex., Morgantown, WV, Jamestown, VA, Charlottesville, NC, Columbus, OH). 

After the American Revolution, throughout the 1800s-era Westward expansion and beyond, Indian culture and place names were romanticized, perhaps weaving the evolving national identity to the land itself.  More than half of the state names and innumerable other U.S. place names come  from Indian languages (ex., Alabama, Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky, Manhattan, Chatanooga, Monongah (WV), etc.).

Education about traditional Indigenous place names can contribute to the general public’s greater awareness of Indigenous histories, languages, and cultures. The process of honoring traditional names is complex; this exhibit section attempts to create understanding.

Dark lake with trees on shore

A starting point involves how Appalachia, a region spanning from Canada to the northern part of Mississippi, came to have this name. The Appalachian region has a complex history that includes thousands of years of human presence, which included intertribal trade, social relations, diplomacy, agriculture, and conflict. The last 500 years have marked Indigenous resistance to European invasion and oppression, occupying colonial powers, and a multitude of federal actions that have affirmed, challenged, or ignored tribal sovereignty and Native rights. A significant part of U.S. history involves colonialism, war, land theft, dismantled economies, human rights violations, cultural oppression, forced relocation and assimilation, and other genocidal acts. Another part is the disruption of pre-existing social and political relationships within and between Native Nations. Indigenous people, nations, and communities have persisted to the present day, continuing to assert their identities and sovereignty, embrace their cultural heritage, and claim rights such as those spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). 

Multiple sources indicate “Apalchen” is the transcribed name of a Muscogee village near what is now Tallahassee, Florida.  Beginning with DeSoto, the term came to be used by Europeans to refer to the broader region and include tribes to the north, throughout the mountains. Eventually “Appalachia” came to refer to the entire geographic and cultural area. The boundaries of Appalachia are variously defined, depending on who’s drawing the map. Geologists, historians, cultural geographers, demographers and other population researchers, ethnographers, and organizations focused on economic development, dialect studies, agriculture, etc., each bring their unique perspectives to the debate. 

Narrowing the scope for this exhibit, a small sampling of Indigenous language place names for sites within present-day West Virginia are indicated on the accompanying map. 

Today, when you travel throughout West Virginia, make note of the place names connected with Indigenous peoples, such as Seneca Rocks and Seneca Caverns, Allegheny Mountain Range, Ohio River, Kanawha River, Monongalia County, Shawnee Lake, Miami, Powhatan, and so many more.

View maps