On the naming of Appalachia


“The circumstances surrounding the naming of Appalachia are as hazy as a mid-summer’s day in the Blue Ridge.”

So begins a 15-page article titled “On the Naming of Appalachia” written by David Walls and published by the Appalachian State University Press in 1977.

At the time, Walls wrote the essay he was a professor at the University of Kentucky and the administrator of the Appalachian Center there. In 1982 he moved to Sonoma State University, located about 50 miles north of San Francisco, from where he is now retired.

Walls’ article can be readily found online and represents as good an assessment of how Appalachia got its name as we are ever likely to get.

It is said that Appalachia is the fourth oldest surviving European place-name in the US with only Florida, the Dry Tortuga Islands, and Cape Canaveral taking precedence.

The name Appalachia and its variants apparently derive from three different possible sources: 1. The name of a village or geographic region. 2. The name of an Indian tribe. 3. The name of a mountain range.

The disastrous expedition of the Spaniard Pánfilo de Narváez, landed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay in April 1528. Alvar Núnez Cabeza de Vaca, who was only one of four survivors of the expedition who got back to Spain, later wrote that when asked within a few days of landing, by means of sign language, where the small amounts of gold the Spaniards saw came from, the Indians replied that far away there was “a province called Apalachen, where was much gold.”

Two months later the Narváez expedition reached Apalachen (probably a village near present-day Lake Miccosukee about 20 miles east of Tallahassee) where the Spaniards found no gold or other treasure and were attacked by the Native Americans. The Spaniards abandoned their search for wealth and returned to the coast, where the expedition party slowly fell apart. Nonetheless, the myth of the riches of Apalachen lived on.

A decade later, the 1539 expedition of Hernando de Soto wintered at Apalachen, which they called Anhaica. Subsequently, the Spanish adapted the tribal Native American name to Apalachee and applied it to the coastal region of the Florida panhandle and the Indian tribe that lived there.

De Soto had been one of the first Spaniards to enter the incredibly rich city of Cuzco in Peru, so he knew from personal experience that rich cities on the American continent were high in the mountains. Hearing that there were mountains to the north of Apalachen, in March of 1540 he led his expedition north through modern-day Georgia and reached modern-day eastern Tennessee in May.

It is sometimes said that it was de Soto who gave the Appalachian mountains their name; however there is no documentary evidence to prove this conjecture. Surviving de Soto documents label the mountains as the provinces of Chalaque and Qualla.

The name Apalchen appears on a map for the first time in Diego Gutiérrez’ Amsterdam-published 1562 map of South America, Central America, and the east coast of North America. Walls speculates that this map may have been drafted a decade or more earlier and that the account of Cabeza de Vaca was the source of the name Apalchen.

Gutiérrez’s map shows the Amazon River system, Peru and its capital Cuzco, and names hundreds of other places including the Bay of Santa Maria (the future Chesapeake Bay). The map’s many sketches depict parrots, monkeys, and Brazilian cannibals, along with mythical creatures such as mermaids, sea monsters, and Patagonian giants. In addition to printing Apalchan for the first time, this was also the first map to print the place name “California,” located at the cape at the end of the Gulf of California.

Walls gives credit for naming the Appalachian mountain range to the French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues. Le Moyne traveled in 1564 with a French Huguenot expedition that constructed the short-lived Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. John’s River in present-day Jacksonville, Florida.

Le Moyne drafted a map detailing the Florida peninsula and Carolina coast in 1565, although it was not published until 1591 by Theodore de Bry. Along its top edge the map bears the Latin inscription “Montes Apalatchi, in quibus aurum argentum & aes invenitur” or “The Apalachian Mountains in which gold, silver and copper are found.”

In sum, while the precise origins of the words Appalachia and Appalachian remain somewhat obscure, we can be certain that they derive from American Indian, Spanish, and French sources. We can also be certain that they do not derive from any English roots. Spaniards were exploring North America long before any Englishman landed there.

Virginia was Florida before it was Virginia and Appalachia was Spanish before it was English.