Periodically the origin of the word Pellissippi and the name for the Clinch River that flows along the east, south and west border of Oak Ridge comes to my attention. Here are two documents where I researched those two things some years ago:
The origin and meaning of the word “Pellissippi” is a subject that has occupied my research periodically since the 1970’s. In the mid-1970’s Cub Scout Pack 220 was formed in Oak Ridge, TN. I was honored to be the first Cubmaster and continued in that capacity for the next 16 years. Cub Scout Pack 220 was in the Pellissippi District of the Great Smoky Mountain Council, Boy Scouts of America. My first interest in the word “Pellissippi” came from this connection and I wrote to the National Geographic Society, The Museum of the American Indian in New York and The American Association for State and Local History asking for information.
In May of 1976, The Oak Ridger’s “Ask Inky” column contained a question regarding the origin of the word “Pellissippi.” Pellissippi was commonly known to have been on early maps as the name for the river currently known as the Clinch River. This question also came at about the time the Pellissippi Parkway was being developed and was also in the name of Camp Pellissippi, a Boy Scout Camp in north Anderson County. As I was already involved in researching the origin of the word, I provided the following answer that was published on May 31, 1976 in the Oak Ridger’s Ask Inky column:
“The Cherokee have no ‘P’ sound in their syllabary. The Choctaw Indian Agency says the work is not Choctaw. National Geographic published an article on Thomas Jefferson where he used ‘Pelisipia’ as a suggested place name for use in the western lands. George R. Stewart in ‘Names on the Land’ says these place names of Jefferson’s were Greek, Latin, Iroquoian, Algonquian and patriotic in origin.
“The Museum of the American Indian states that in the Smithsonian Institute Bureau of American Ethnology a ‘Circular of Information Regarding Indian Proper Names,’ 1926, says on page five that ‘Sipsis’ meant ‘little river’ or ‘brook.’ ‘American Place Names’ by George R. Stewart gives the following for Mississippi – the ‘Algonquian – Mesipi – big river.’ The museum concludes that the word seems to be ‘Pelli’ or ‘Peli’ with ‘river’ or ‘brook.’
Periodically over the past several years, the same question has been raised…”What is the origin and meaning of the word – Pellissippi?” No one has presented any research to definitively answer the question and I have found no better answer than my original research in the 1970’s.
D. Ray Smith
July 12, 2004
Pellissippi or Clinch River
Information taken from Dr. Thomas Walker’s 1750 Journal and notes
In my research to locate the origin of the name “Clinch” River, I have found the following reference, which seems to confirm that the Clinch River is named for a Long Hunter named “Clinch” who evidently was in the area prior to 1750 when Dr. Thomas Walker made his travels.
The following is quoted from Walker’s Journal:
April 9th, We travelled to a river, which I suppose to be that which the Hunters call Clinches River from one Clinch a Hunter, who first found it. (23) we marked several Beeches on the East Side. we could not find a ford Shallow eneugh to carry our Baggage over on our Horses. Ambrose Powell Forded over on one horse and we drove the others after him. We then made a raft and carried over one load of Baggage, but when the raft was brought back, it was so heavy that it would not carry anything more dry.
April 10th. we waded and carried the remainder of our Baggage on our shoulders at two turns over the River, which is about one hundred and thirty yards wide, we went on about five miles and Camped on a Small Branch.
The following are the notes on the above section of Walker’s Journal:
23 The 1751- Fry-Jefferson map lists this river as the "Pelesippi or Clinches River," and Williams identifies the location as "Clinch River, crossed near Sneedville, the county seat of Hancock County, Tenn." Summers describes the Clinch as "A tributary of the Tenn. running paralell with the Clinch Mountain, rising in Tazewell and Bland Cos. Va. and interlocking with the Bluestone River and Wolf Creek, tributaries of New River."
Both Williams and Summers comment on the fact that Haywood's Civil History of Tennessee mistakenly states that the Clinch wasn't so named until 1761, Haywood having ascribed its naming to a tradition that the river was named by a party of hunters: "They named Clinch River and Clinch Mountain from the following circumstance. An Irishman was one of the company; in crossing the river he fell from the raft into it, and cried out clinch me, clinch me; meaning lay hold of me. The rest of the company unused to the phrase amused themselves at the expense of the Irishman and called the river Clinch."
Williams adds that "Notwithstanding the fact that Walker describes the river as being one hundred and thirty yards wide at the place of crossing, Justin Winsor has him crossing "to the head of Clinch River and entering Cumberland Gap." The Mississippi Basin, 277," and Summers notes that Walker's "correct nomenclature of the River indicates that he had received information concerning the route travelled from Stalnaker or other source."
Compiled by David Ray Smith