Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Florida’s Story as told by River Names

The names of rivers are like time capsules that preserve some pieces of their history. If we dig deeper into those stories and expand on them, we often find they add welcome color and context to stories we might know only superficially from dry history texts. The five rivers on which I guided tours last week offer a good case study

First up was “Waccasassa,” a river that’s name was given by the Seminoles and means, “Place with Cow Pens.” Dig deeper and you’ll learn about the remote, cow-tending operations that were generally called, “cow pens” among early settlers. William Bartram encountered several of these on his 1774 explorations of Florida and Georgia. In Travels, he says cow pens usually included “two or three acreas of ground, more or less, according to the stock, adjoining a rivulete or run of water….” He doesn’t elaborate on the housing situation other than to simply state there was a “habitation.” The residents, despite what one “might reasonably expect, from their occupation and remote situation (were) civil and courteous, and though educated as it were in the woods, no strangers to sensibility and those moral virtues which grace and ornament the most approved and admirable characters in civil society.” (Bonus trivia—“Waccahoota,” the similar sounding name of a relct community off Williston Road, means “Cow Pens,” and refers to a similar cow-tending operation that once stood there. That cow pen later became the home village of Bowlegs, brother of Paynes Prairie’s namesake Chief, King Payne. Those familiar with the Hawthorn area might now have a better sense of the name origin of Cowpen Lake)

Ichetucknee is another interesting Seminole name. I think it says good things about today’s Floridians that many people know this name means “Place where there are Beavers.” What is less known is that the Seminole name of manatees translates as “big beaver.” While I have no proof that the name alludes to a time when manatees were more common in this river, I can’t help but wonder.

Of all the names in last week’s name-rich line-up, “Withlacoochee” might be the least intriguing. Perhaps the most interesting (and telling) thing about this name is that there are two of them. Like Wekiva, it appears “Withlacoochee” was not a proper name for the river, but more of a descriptive that was elevated to proper name status by white settlers.

Ironically, the more modern sounding and clearly non-native name, “Santa Fe,” is actually the oldest name in the lineup. Like so many Florida place names that include “Santa” or “Saint,” this one refers to a Spanish Mission that stood alongside the upper river in the 1600’s; long before the Creeks (later called Seminoles) arrived. I sometimes wonder if any of the resident Timucuas ever asked the missionary about the real Santa Fe, for whom the mission was named. I like to picture the monk shifting nervously, with a deer-in-headlights expression on his face as he tried to explain that Fe was a fourteen year old girl who was brutally tortured and killed for holding fast to her beliefs and refusing to convert to the religion of her oppressors.

Silver River has is the newest name of all these five rivers. When the Seminole Agency was established at Ft. King (later Ocala) the new agent changed the river’s name from the Seminole, “Suailleaha,” which is said to have meant, “sun glistening water,” to Silver River. While there is no record of the circumstances, I wonder if he was attempting to give deference to the Seminoles by giving their name his best English translation. Though, as even the driest, most superficial historical texts make clear, giving the Indians deference was not high on the Indian Agencies “to do” list.