I really did like that coffee cup. It was a gift from my mother some years ago, with a hand-made fired clay look to it, all gnarled and dark brown and it had the word "Chickamauga" on it, and an image of some cannons and a stack of cannonballs. Best of all, it was the right size for the amount of coffee I wanted. Too many cups are barely thimbles for containing coffee, and some are like small buckets which hold too much. This one was "just right".
The name Chickamauga was most familiar to me - both my parents were from the Chattanooga area, and many summer days were spent at the TVA-created Nickajack and Chickamauga lakes with relatives, and often we would watch the operations of the massive river lock at the Nickajack Dam. The night-time operations were completely fascinating feats to witness.
Chickamauga also lends its name to a brutal, bloody Civil War with casualties second only to the battle of Gettysburg. Many of those youthful summers also brought chances to tour the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park which were created by acts of the Congress beginning back in 1890 to preserve the site of the deadly warfare - tens of thousands killed, injured and missing.
I'm not one of the Men of the South who act as some historical custodian of that war. But living in East Tennessee, one cannot escape awareness - on any casual summer day one could easily probe the landscape and find bullets or buttons or other remnants of the soldiers who roamed here with great purpose in mind, and there are also those grim, grey historical markers dotting the landscape wherever one travels here. I do have a more sympathetic affiliation, as I know the words Chickamauga and Nickajack were names of the Cherokee. I was always told our family had some distant genetic ties to those native Americans, so in my youthful imaginings, the untamed and wise way of those people seemed far more appealing than tattered and torn soldiers dying by the thousands.
I also read a most stunning short story growing up titled "Chickamauga" by Ambrose Bierce. It remains a vivid, powerful tale of a young boy out playing one day who gets lost amid the battle of Chickamauga. The story scared the bejesus out of me and it still has to power to conjure the most powerful emotions. You can read the tale here, and it won't take long to read but it will take your breath away.
But today, my favorite coffee cup, which had a word that held some imaginations for me, that cup is in two pieces. Searching for another to use today instead, I had to settle for a cup with a Santa picture on it and a handle shaped like a candy cane. I feel utterly ridiculous using it, even if it is seasonably appropriate.
So as I sip from my Santa cup (no dignity there), I decided to noodle about the Internet and see if I could find what definition the word Chickamauga had for the Cherokee. Apparently, there is no consensus, and much confusion. WikiPedia says at one time, folks thought it meant River of Death:
"In popular histories, it is often said that Chickamauga is a Cherokee word meaning "river of death". Peter Cozzens, who has written arguably the most definitive book on the battle, This Terrible Sound, wrote that this is the "loose translation". Glenn Tucker presents the translations of "stagnant water" (from the "lower Cherokee tongue"), "good country" (from the Chickasaw) and, "river of death" (dialect of the "upcountry Cherokee"). Tucker claims that the "river of death" came by its name not from early warfare, but from the location that the Cherokee contracted smallpox. James Mooney, in Myths of the Cherokee, wrote that Chickamauga is the more common spelling for Tsïkäma'gï, a name that has "lost any meaning in Cherokee and appears to be of foreign origin."
Another collection of Tennessee tales offers the following:
"CHICKAMAUGA: The name of two creeks in Hamilton county, entering Tennessee river from opposite sides a few miles above Chattanooga. A creek of the same name is one of the head-streams of Chattahoochee river, in White county, Georgia. The Cherokee pronounce, it Tsïkäma'gï, applying the name in Tennessee to the territory about the mouth of the southern, or principal, stream, where they formerly had a town, from which they removed in 1782. They state, however, that it is not a Cherokee word and has no meaning in their language. Filson, in 1793, erroneously states that it is from the Cherokee language and signifies "Boiling pot," referring to a dangerous whirlpool in the river near by, and later writers have improved upon this by translating it to mean "Whirlpool." The error arises from confounding this place with The Suck, a whirlpool in Tennessee river 15 miles farther down and known to the Cherokee as Ûñtiguhï', "Pot in the water" (see number 63, "Ûñtsaiyï', the Gambler"). On account of the hard fighting in the neighborhood during the Civil war, the stream was sometimes called, poetically, "The River of Death," the term being frequently given as a translation of the Indian word. It has been suggested that the name is derived from an Algonquian word referring to a fishing or fish-spearing place, in which case it may have originated with the Shawano, who formerly occupied middle Tennessee, and some of whom at a later period resided jointly with the Cherokee in the settlements along this part of the river. If not Shawano it is probably from the Creek or Chickasaw.
Concerning "Chickamauga gulch," a canyon on the northern stream of that name, a newspaper writer gives the following so-called legend, which it is hardly necessary to say is not genuine:
The Cherokees were a tribe singularly rich in tradition, and of course so wild, gloomy, and remarkable a spot was not without its legend. The descendants of the expatriated semi-barbarians believe to this day that in ages gone a great serpent made its den in the gulch, and that yearly he demanded of the red men ten of their most beautiful maidens as a sacrificial offering. Fearful of extermination, the demand was always complied with by the tribe, amid weeping and wailing by the women. On the day before the tribute was due the serpent announced its presence by a demoniacal hiss, and the next morning the fair ones who had been chosen to save the tribe were taken to the summit of a cliff and left to be swallowed by the scaly Moloch."
Yes, that last bit sounds like a crazy white man invention to cast harsh cruelties on the Cherokee.
And yes, you may be wondering why I would exert my efforts today to write about a broken cup. I simply really liked it, it was my companion as I wrote - and now it is gone. I'm not going to try and SuperGlue the pieces together, because a paranoid portion of my mind would always assume I was drinking some globs of glue with my coffee. So farewell to my favorite coffee cup. It once held the deep, dark marks of thousands of servings of coffee like geologic strata, etched with a name whose true meaning has been lost in time, and a name which holds many meanings.
For now, it's me and the Santa cup.