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This lesson contrasts and compares the names that Native Americans living in North Carolina gave to their villages and places with the names that European and other settlers gave to theirs. In a study of North Carolina place and village names, students will use a state map to:

  • discover the heritage left by Native Americans and settlers in the names of places;
  • differentiate the cultural values expressed in names.



Echoes of North Carolina’s past peoples linger today in a place’s name. Whether towns, rivers, meadows, or mountains, the names given to locations in North Carolina are derived from a variety of sources. Some come from Indian words, which usually describe the landscape or qualities of the area, such as Nantahala, meaning “land of the noonday sun,” or Cullowhee, meaning “place of the lilies.” Others are taken from commodities or natural resources that were produced by the settlers, such as Sapphire or Cranberry. Still other names are derived from the influence of the English, European, and African settlers, such as Jefferson and Jackson Springs, or from military and religious history.

A name is a word or group of words by which a person, thing, or place is known. Everything has a name which identifies it to others, and it is through names that people can communicate with and understand one another. Names help people tell stories about the past. For example, the town of Silk Hope in Chatham County was probably named before the Civil War, when there was an interest in producing home-grown silk. Sometimes, however, the original meanings of names have been lost. Some Indian place names continued to be used by European settlers, but over time people forgot what the words originally meant. For example, Chockoyotte Creek, which flows into the Roanoke River, is believed to be a Tuscarora word, but its meaning is no longer known.

Setting the stage

Show students the names and origins of two towns. For example, Jugtown, a small community in Moore County, was named for the hand-turned pottery that has been produced in that area for several centuries. Tuckasegee—the name of a river, a lake, and a community in western North Carolina—is the Cherokee word meaning “crawling terrapin.” What differences, if any, do students notice about the names?


  1. Give each group of 4 to 5 students a state road map, dots or stars, and a copy of “Native American Place Names” and “Settler Place Names.” Show students how to find a particular place by looking up the name and coordinates on the map index. Depending upon the amount of time you wish to spend on the exercise, you may wish to assign each group only three or four names from each of the two lists.
  2. Working cooperatively, students place a star or dot on the map next to each listed place they find. Native American place names should be marked with stars or dots of one color, while European settler place names should be marked with stars of another color.
  3. Display a large state map, and ask each group to share two or three places they have found. As the students call out the names and their meanings, place a star on the map.


In class discussion or in quiz form, ask students to contrast and compare place names derived from Native American culture and those derived from European or other settlers.

  • For what kinds of things was each place named?
  • What can be learned about past cultures from place names?
  • Did Native Americans and settlers tend to live in the same places? What observations support the student’s conclusion?


Have students turn in their maps for evaluation.

North Carolina curriculum alignment


Grade 8

  • Goal 1: The learner will analyze important geographic, political, economic, and social aspects of life in the region prior to the Revolutionary Period.
    • Objective 1.02: Identify and describe American Indians who inhabited the regions that became Carolina and assess their impact on the colony.
    • Objective 1.07: Describe the roles and contributions of diverse groups, such as American Indians, African Americans, European immigrants, landed gentry, tradesmen, and small farmers to everyday life in colonial North Carolina, and compare them to the other colonies.

North Carolina Essential Standards



Grade 4

  • 4.H.2 Understand how notable structures, symbols and place names are significant to North Carolina. 4.H.2.1 Explain why important buildings, statues, monuments and place names are associated with the state’s history. 4.H.2.2 Explain the historical significance…

Grade 8

  • 8.C.1 Understand how different cultures influenced North Carolina and the United States. 8.C.1.1 Explain how exploration and colonization influenced Africa, Europe and the Americas (e.g. Columbian exchange, slavery and the decline of the American Indian populations)….