East Tennessee History: What is in a name?

Published 9:25 am Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What is in a name? Throughout Carter County we have interesting names for communities, streets, roads, rivers and creeks.

We have the Nolichucky, the Watauga, and the Doe rivers. We have roads such as Bear Cage Road, Bluegrass Road, Blacksnake Hollow, Copperhead Road, Hawk Street, Lovers Lane, River Bottom Road and Unaka Drive to name just a few.

We have Unaka, Happy Valley, Hampton, Pogy, Simerly Creek, Gap Creek and Tiger Creek for communities.

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But have you ever wondered how these communities, rivers, lanes and roads got their names?

It is simple and easy to understand how some of these got their names, such as 1st Street or Spruce Lane. Others are named after people, such as Jenkins Hollow, Roy Garland Road or Norman Jones Road. But many of the others have an interesting story behind them.

For example, let’s look at a little road between Hampton and Roan Mountain called Bear Cage Road. The story goes that a man named Coon Miller owned a store at the intersection of this road and Highway 19E. The same building is now occupied by the Farmer’s Exchange farm and hardware store.

To draw in more customers, Miller put a live black bear in a cage on the front porch of the store as a tourist attraction. He even bottled a special drink that folks could give to the bear, and the bear would drink it.

It is said the bear would pick up the bottle with its paws and drink every drop of his special drink. Miller’s drink was nothing except Kool Aid with a lot of sugar in it, but the little gimmick worked and he made a small fortune off of the tourists and the locals who came to see and feed the bear. The road was later named after Coon Miller and his bear, and it became Bear Cage Road.

Other names, especially for rivers, came to us because of the Indians that lived here before us. For example, the Watauga River was named after an Indian word meaning “beautiful water” or another Indian phrase meaning “the land beyond.”

The Nolichucky River gets its name from a Cherokee word meaning “spruce tree place” or “rushing water.” We are not sure which meaning is correct.

Community names are interesting as well. Hampton, Tennessee, for example, was founded in the 1860s by Elijah Simerly, the same man who gave Simerly Creek its name. He named Hampton, Tennessee after his wife, Mary Hampton.

One curious fact about this is that Mary Hampton’s father was one of the first settlers to Roan Mountain and gave Hampton Creek, Sugar Hollow and Heaton Creek their names.

Finally, we have the community and mountains of the Unaka. Unaka is a Cherokee word for “white.”

It is said that before the American Chestnut trees died out in the great Chestnut Blight that one in four trees in the mountains of the Unaka was an American Chestnut tree. In the springtime, their white blooms turned the entire mountain white, and that is why the Cherokee called the area Unaka or “white.”

Names help identify us as a community and often are a source of pride. Research the name of your community, and you might find some surprises hidden in a name.