Jennifer Morse has yet to see the giant frog. Or the shimmering green army of frogs. Or any physical evidence why the place she lives was once called "Frogtown."
According to author Ken Krakow, the original Cherokee name for Neel's Gap in Union County, was "Walasi-Yi" or "the place of Walasi, the Great Frog."
Morse, who works at Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, a hiker lodge and store on the Appalachian Trail, knows the story of a huge frog carrying off the natives and rescuing them from battle. But the frogs she's seen have been few and unexceptional. Where are the frogs in a place that brags about them?
"We have wondered that ourselves," Morse said. "Like, dang, we've lived here for going on four years now. You don't see them. I mean every now and again you'll run into some frogs. But we wonder, are they out there and they're hiding?"
Morse’s experience is not uncommon for those questioning the meanings behind the area’s Native American names. History moves so quickly that trying to trace back to root causes usually becomes guesswork. When it involves a completely different culture and language as with the Cherokees, the game is that much more difficult.
"Any time you go back over a 100 years you’re in trouble," said Gates Scoville, a volunteer with the Northeast Georgia History Center who compiled a translation of American Indian names for the center’s docent handbook.
For example, Krakow said Chestnut Mountain in southern Hall County was originally known as "Price Mountain" and later renamed for the early settler J.T. Chestnut. But others don’t necessarily buy it.
Ben Emanuel, Oconee Projects Coordinator for Altamaha Riverkeeper Inc., suggested the topographical feature, like Hog Mountain in Gwinnett County, was an annual fall destination where natives and settlers would let their hogs fatten on chestnuts. Later, farmers drove their hogs to the mountain, which is called Chestnut Hill on early maps, as they marched them down the continental divide on their way to market in Augusta.
Just down the road, Flowery Branch possibly comes from one of two Cherokee words. Krakow said the town owes its name to the beautiful nearby stream, Nattagasska, which means "blossom creek." Scoville, on the other hand, says the town history cites "Anaguluskee" as the Cherokee original, meaning "flowers on the branch." Others think that the town’s name refers to a stream with many rivulets and not a tree limb at all.
"You go to Flowery Branch you’ll get different interpretations," Scoville said.
One of Scoville’s favorite stories about the confusing evolution of local place names involves Tray Mountain in Towns County.
"Tray Mountain was originally apparently Trail Mountain because the Indian trails intersected on the top of Tray Mountain on that plateau up there. Now that’s the story I’ve heard," he said. "It eventually ended up Tray Mountain because people misunderstood what people were saying."
Scoville hypothesizes that the change could be attributed to the recreational habits of the white settlers.
"My personal joke is somebody said how in the hell did they ever get it from Trail Mountain to Tray Mountain. I said well if you put a dip of snuff in your mouth put it behind your lower front lip and try to say ‘trail’ it comes out ‘tray.’"
Jokes aside, Scoville’s theory highlights the effect mispronunciation has on history, especially in places that sustain different cultures with different languages.
Yahoola Creek in Lumpkin County — which probably comes from the Cherokee "Yahula," meaning "doodle bug" — has been called "Uhoola," "Uhuler," "Yehola," "Yewhoola," "Yohooler," "Yoohoolah" and "Yuluher," according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Seeing the need to standardize the name before local dialect might alter it, that agency decided that "Yahoola" would be the Federally recognized usage in 1978.
Other Indian place names have only accidental ties to the area. "Chicopee," an Algonquian word for "swift water" or "birch-bark place," actually refers to Johnson & Johnson’s Chicopee Falls Manufacturing Corporation, which established the mill and village south of Gainesville. Chicopee, Krakow said, was a native American chief from western Massachusetts.
The Indian name of the Elachee Nature Science Center, however, is completely made up.
"It’s not an actual word," said Peter Gordon, the education director at the center. "I think the legend is over coffee one night, (the founders) came up with the word ‘Elachee,’ and our symbol is the white oak leaf. But ‘Elachee’ is really just a made-up Cherokee word, really the formation of two words meaning ‘new green earth.’"
Although it may be fabricated, "Elachee" at least seems to capture the spirit of most Cherokee names, which reflect the immediacy and permanence of the natural world.
At Neel’s Gap, Jennifer Morse said she doesn’t doubt "Walasi-Yi" embodies some truth about the place. Maybe, she said, the frogs blend in with the surrounding beauty so harmoniously that they’re invisible to the modern eye.
While disagreements about the correct translations and histories of Cherokee words continues, Morse implies their significance is not out of reach. The simple things that connected the Cherokees to North Georgia — the rivers, waterfalls and green meadows — still remain for those who have followed them.