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What's in A Name?: North Carolina Geography

For centuries North Carolinians have maintained a sense of place—a belief that where one is from influences behavior and even fosters worldviews.  Even with increasing urbanization and suburbanization, native North Carolinians still commonly and thankfully ask, “Where are you from?”, before asking, “So, what do you do”?

Think I’m writing nonsense?  Ask someone from Eastern North Carolina, the Piedmont, or Western North Carolina to describe someone from the other regions.  Then listen to their descriptions of others’ accents, local culture, heritage, occupations, and perhaps religious (more than likely, denominational) doctrines and practices and their political beliefs.

Here are some randomly selected North Carolina places and their histories:

1)    Oconalulftee River: This Great Smoky Mountain river at one point is the county line between Swain and Jackson counties and eventually flows into the Tuckaseegee River.  “Ocona” and “luftee” derive from the Cherokee “egwani” (river) and “nulati” (near or beside).  Explorers during the late 1700s called a town on the river “Oconaluftee” (likely, present-day Birdtown).  

2)    Deep River:  forms in Guilford County and flows southward and eastward through Randolph, Moore, and Chatham counties, where in the latter it connects with the Haw River to form the Cape Fear River.  Crossing a fall line, the river and its banks are, well you guessed it, deep.

3)    Cape Fear River: flows 202 miles from Chatham County until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean (the only river in North Carolina to do so).  Sailing under the auspices of the French government in 1524, Giovanni Da Verrazano of Italy was the first European explorer to see the river.  The river had several names, including Rio Jordan, before becoming known during the 1720s as the Cape Fear River; for many English navigators narrowly avoided shipwreck at its mouth and frequently called the area “The Cape of Fear.”

4)    Hatteras: a popular vacation and fishing town, located at the southern end of Hatteras Island, where the Hatteras tribe lived and fished.  “Hatteras” is the Anglicization of an Algonquian phrase for “there is less vegetation.”  

5)    Greensboro: established in 1808 and serves as the county seat of Guilford County.  Its namesake was General Nathaniel Greene, who led American Patriots at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781).  

6)    Hickory: named after a log cabin built in the 1790s and commonly called Hickory Tavern by the 1850s.  This Catawba County town became known as Hickory in 1873.  

7)    Murphy: first named Christie Ford and later known as Huntersville.  In 1851 the town was named for Archibald DeBow Murphey, who championed internal improvements and public school legislation.  As one can tell, the founders of the Cherokee County seat misspelled its namesake’s last name.  


The North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Places by William S. Powell offers many leads for those curious about the history of their town or county or a nearby body of water.  Here are a few more of its interesting place name entries: Hanging Dog Creek (in Cherokee County); Dirty-Britches Creek (a euphemism now more frequently used for this Buncombe County creek’s original and more offensive name); Teaches Hole (an inlet in Hyde County); Tories Den (a cave in Stokes County); All Healing Springs (a community in Gaston County); Little Tomahawk Creek (in Sampson County); and Lizard Lick (a community in Wake County).

Every place’s name has a history.  So, notice signs in your community and search for the nearby community’s or creek’s name either first online or in Powell’s Gazetteer.  The result may be an interesting story and might help you understand better the place in which you live and, possibly, who you are.


By Troy L. Kickler, founding director of the North Carolina History Project


See Also:

Related Categories: Places
Region: Statewide

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