In Search of the “Welaunee” (South River, Georgia)

Rev. Avis Williams and I recently published an essay an contested Afro-indigenous and white historical narratives of the watercourse known as “Dried Indian Creek,” which runs through Newton County, Georgia. In local African American memory, this disturbing term was derived from the early lynching of a Native American leader by white settlers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries (See:
“Along the Ulcofauhatche: Of Sorrow Songs and ‘Dried Indian Creek.’“ Southern Spaces. February 18, 2022. (Mark Auslander and Avis Wiliams)
In recent months, we have become increasingly fascinated by the Afro-Indigenous histories of the South River Forest, a zone of about 3.500 acres in South Atlanta (within unceded Muscogee homelands) that has the potential to become the nation’s largest urban forested conservation area. The forest is being re-visited by Muscogee community members in April 2022, who are committed to helping safeguard and remediate the river system and the lands, plants, and animals it nurtures. (See a fundraising drive for these visits of return and reconnection.)

This imperiled ecosystem has a history that spans thousands of years of indigenous presence, up until the 1821 Creek cession, after which Muscogee (Creek) were forced westwards into Alabama and then into Indian Territory (subsequently known as Oklahoma). Following the 1821 Georgia Land Lottery, these confiscated indigenous lands were divided into lots of 202.5 acres each and acquired by white settlers, in what was then Dooly, Fayette, Henry, Houston, and Monroe counties. (DeKalb County, created out of part of Henry County, was established the next year, in 1822.) Many of these settlers established farms worked by enslaved people, whom Rev. Avis and I are working to identify and whose descendants we hope in time to trace.

We have been curious about the earlier, indigenous term or terms used for the South River, from which the South River Forest takes its name. Originating out of underground springs in the heart of what is now Atlanta, the river’s initial stretch is confined nowadays to piping and culverts. The watercourse emerges above ground at Norman Berry Drive, in East Point, north of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and flows about sixty miles southeast to its confluence with the Alcovy and Yellow rivers (now inundated under Jackson Lake), forming the Ocmulgee River, the major western tributary of the Altamaha River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

The authoritative Georgia Place Names, by Kenneth K. Krakow (3rd Edition, 1999) asserts that, “In early days [the river] was known as South Branch, Ocmulgee River, before the name was shortened to “South River.” Krakow does not list an indigenous term for the watercourse, yet several sources identify the South River as having born the name, “Welaunee” or “Weelaunee.” According to Martin and Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, “welawnee” means “green/brown/yellow” water.” RaeLynn Butler, Manager of the Historic and Cultural Preservation Department of the the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, explains (personal communication) that the term “Lane’ (law-nee) is Mvskoke for the color green, brown, or yellow, She also notes that the Mvskoke term, ‘Ue’ meaning water. is rendered n English as ‘we’

The U.S. Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816), who lived and worked extensively among the Muscogee Creek in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, identifies the indigenous settlement of Big Sawokli as being on the “Welaaunee Creek,” in what is now eastern Alabama (see Hawkins, Benjamin, A Sketch of the Creek Country in the Years 1798 and 1799. [The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, S.C 1982; Originally published in 1848 as vol. 3, part 1 of the Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah.] Several sites in eastern Alabama and northern Florida bear the name. Wylaunee Creek in far eastern Barbour County, Alabama flows into Lake Eufala. A northern Florida slave-based cotton plantation, known as “Welaunee,” was established in 1826 by the Gamble family in Jefferson County, Florida; a modern quail hunting establishment, Welaunee Plantation, is located in Leon County, Florida.

Principal Sources on the Weelaunee in Georgia

According to Vivian Price (1997). The History of DeKalb County, Georgia 1822-1900. Wolfe Publishing Company. (p. 36) the term “Weelaunee” was the indigenous term used for Georgia’s South River.

Detail showing “Weelaunee” River in Henry County, Henry Shenck Tanner, Map of Georgia and Alabama, 1823.

Price’s assertion is supported by several sources. Henry Schenk Tanner’s 1823 “Map of Georgia and Alabama” (from his New American Atlas project, often considered the pinnacle of antebellum American cartography) depicts the eastern extension of what is now the South River, forming the boundary between Newton County and Henry County, as the “Weelaunee R.” Tanner’s map does not depict the headwaters or western course of the river, within DeKalb County or what was then Gwinnett County (before the establishment of Rockdale County); these sections had presumably not been charted at the time of the map’s publication. The map does depict in detail indigenous communities then under the governance of Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw nations, primarily to the west of the Flint and Chatahoochee rivers. (At the time of the map’s publication, DeKalb County, bordered to the west by the Chataahoochee, was the westernmost extension of the white-governed state of Georgia.)

This same map is perhaps referenced in an 1884 entry in the Covington Enterprise [Newton County, GA): “The Georgia Railroad, desiring to name some palace cars after the, Indian names of our three rivers, asked Judge T. M. Meriwether to get them up. After diligent search the Judge found an old map and the following names were given: Yellow river—Coo-lau-poo-chee; South river— We-lau-nee; Alcova river— Ulco-fau hatchee.” (Reprinted in the Savannah morning news. (Savannah, Ga.), March 22, 1884, p. 1, column 3.)

Fifteen years later, in 1899, several Georgia newspapers published an elegiac commentary on the South River by Lynda (or Linda) Lee, entitled “Welaunee; Indian Legend of the South River, on whose banks several notable Georgians were born. ” She writes, “South River, the pale face called it, but the red man, with poetic tongue, gave to it the melody of music, the beauty of legend, when he whispered lovingly, “Welaunee.” (see The Sunny South. (Atlanta, Ga.) 1875-1907, April 22, 1899, p.3, column 1; also see The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia). 26 Mar 1899, Page 5, column 4.)

“Welaunee” was also adopted around 1920 as the name of a mill in Porterdale, Newton County, Georgia, along the south bank of the Yellow River, replacing the older Phillips Mill.

The only current Georgia location I know of that bears the name is “Weelaunee Road” in Ellenwood, Georgia (south DeKalb County) which extends south from the South River about a half mile, due south of the Snapfinger Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

We are eager to learn if any Muscogee (Creek) documentary sources from the late 18th or early 19th centuries reference the rivercourse now known as the South River as the Welauneee or Weelaunee. We appreciate that in indigenous usage waterways may not have been known by a singular, fixed term and that the concept of “yellow, green or brown water” may have applied, at various times, to multiple rivers and riparian landscapes. Perhaps future collaborative inquires will cast more light on saliet toponymic practices in the region.

Acknowledgments: We are grateful to Hendry Miller, Georgia State Archives. for guidance on early uses of the term “Welaunee” in Georgia.

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