For many decades, it has gone unquestioned that “Pellissippi” means “winding waters” in Cherokee, and that the word refers to the Clinch River that wends through East Tennessee and terminates near Pellissippi State Community College’s Hardin Valley Campus.
But in 2014, Pellissippi State discovered that this is not true.
Thus began a three-year journey, culminating in conversations with the Smithsonian Institution, to set the record straight.
“It is of extreme importance to us at Pellissippi State that we honor the diverse heritage of East Tennessee,” said Pellissippi State President L. Anthony Wise Jr. “It might be easy to say that a name is just a name, but to us at Pellissippi State, it’s crucial that we honor the truth about ‘Pellissippi’ and its importance in American history.”
At Pellissippi State, writer Heather Beck took up the search for just where “Pellissippi” came from and what the word might mean.
“Through this project, I learned that tracing the etymology of a Native American word isn’t simple, and it’s not always precise,” Beck said. “When Europeans traveled through North America, they encountered native languages that they transcribed — often inaccurately — based upon how the word sounded and how it might be spelled in their own native languages.”
In historical research, Beck discovered that the Pellissippi River features prominently in a 1784 proposal from President Thomas Jefferson for new state names west of the Appalachians. Among the President’s proposed names was “Pelisipia,” in what today would be parts of Eastern Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. But Jefferson’s proposed name wasn’t a reference to what is today the Clinch River.
It was a reference to the Ohio River.
In early maps, the name of the Pellissippi River was expressed in various ways — from “Polesipi” to “Peleson,” “Pele Sipi,” “Pere Sipi,” “Pelisipi” and finally “Pellissippi” — and it also frequently changed locations. For about a decade in the mid-1700s, the name “Pellissippi” was used as a reference to two rivers, back and forth: the Ohio and the Clinch.
This phenomenon of names changing, and even moving, was common in early mapmaking. Maps often were copied by hand and commonly transcribed from one language to another in that process.
It appears that the Ohio River held the name “Pellissippi” first.
“Historically it was ‘Mosopeleacipi,’ ‘river of the Mosopelea,’ the Illinois name that was learned by La Salle for the Ohio,” said linguist emeritus Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology.
The river took its name from a nearby tribe, the Mosopelea. When the Mosopolea migrated out of the Ohio River valley, Shawnee moved in. They seemed to have shortened the name of the river to “Peleewa-θiipi,” or perhaps “peleewa θiipiiki,” in which the symbol θ makes a -th sound.
Goddard suggests that, as the original name of the Ohio River evolved from “Mosopeleacipi” to a version of “Pellissippi,” it also was inadvertently moved or misattributed as the name of the smaller Clinch River to the south. For a while, the rivers swapped names back and forth.
The Ohio seems to have firmly settled on its modern name around the 1780s. The Clinch took its modern name in the mid-1800s.
“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,” Wise said. “Although its meaning will remain metaphorical, not literal, we must remember — it’s not every day that a word comes to us through history as a blank slate. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to craft what a word means.
“For those of us who work at the college, ‘Pellissippi’ means access, opportunity, hope and success. Knowing where our name comes from may not change the mission of the College or the day-to-day aspects of students’ education or our place in our community. But we are pleased that we have done our best to restore and memorialize a history that might have been forgotten.”
For more information, visit www.pstcc.edu/pellissippi or call 865-694-6400. Tell us what Pellissippi means to you on social media, using #pellissippimeans.