Appalachia is an incredibly distinct yet diverse word, everyone has his or her own opinion of what it represents. It conjures up such images of everything from majestic mountaintop sunsets, deep forest glens, and cozy little cabins to trailer parks, meth labs, and extreme xenophobia. The fact that one word can elicit such a varied response is indicative of its far-reaching influence in society. While many of us continue to fiercely debate the correct pronunciation of the word Appalachia (ahem, Appa-latch-uh), its linguistic origin isn’t so clearly defined. When we think of word origins, the two most frequent questions are: where does it come from and what does it mean? Unfortunately for us, it can be said with great certainty that the origin of the word remains murky and it meaning will likely remain a mystery.
The most readily available and well-researched scholarly manuscript on this subject that I have encountered came from David Walls, who, in 1977, wrote “On the Naming of Appalachia” in An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. (Forgive me for being a little lazy with my research, this guy pretty much has it covered.) In his research, Walls dove into the legend surrounding the naming and discovery of the Appalachian region to uncover any truth about the story. The legend follows that it was Hernando De Soto who first learned of Appalachia and trekked into the mainland to claim it for Spain. While the storyline of this legend can vary, it generally follows that the root word itself came from a Native American word that holds either a directional, geographical, or tribal meaning.
As explained in his paper, Walls found no correlation between De Soto and the first mention of the word Appalachia in any related documents. He did, however, discover that the first mention of a word related to Appalachia occurred in the 1528 expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez. Upon reaching Florida near present-day Tampa Bay, Narvaez and his men inquired with the local inhabitants as to where the gold and riches were located. Possibly eager to rid themselves of the Spaniards, the natives told them of a place far to the north that possessed great riches, explained Walls. Walls reported that the name of this location was Apalachen, though we do not know if that word originated from a Native American language or if it was an inaccurate Spanish pronunciation of a similar word.
With this information, Narvaez and his men traveled up to Lake Miccosukee in northern Florida to find their destination. Discovering nothing but harassment from the locals, the Spaniards returned south. But word spread fast of this illustrious location full of riches. From then on, the mysterious Apalachen continued to plague the Conquistadors. De Soto unknowingly spent the winter of 1539 in the same village as Narvaez, but left in early Spring in search of the wealth of Apalachen in the mountains to the north.
It took almost 30 years for the word Apalachen, or some derivation of the word, to be recorded on a map. Because many of these European cartographers had never actually traveled along with the explorers to see the geographic locations of the New World, maps were initially drawn from hearsay and expedition records. So, as the cartographers relied on other existing maps and written accounts, Apalachen slowly evolved from being somewhere inside the mountains above Florida to actually being the entire mountainous region that runs parallel to the East Coast. Regardless of whether or not Apalachen was a real location or a fictional destination created by the South Florida natives to rid themselves of the Spanish, the name stuck; and Apalachen eventually became the Appalachia we know today.
©K. Martin-Gross 2017