Wacahoota: Florida signs and what they mean

If you’ve ever been to Florida then you should know that a lot of place names are hard to pronounce. And they mean nothing to any tourist since different groups, speaking several languages over the centuries, mixed along the way and gave their unique meaning to a place. This brief starter guide will help you with the current pronunciation of a few place names as generally used by natives or those who’ve been here awhile plus the meaning of the word.  A little knowledge on this topic can be a conversation starter.

It appears that a lot of place names result from something that occurs over time at a place or an incident took place there or something was seen there or grown there. Some of the words are mixtures of words from two Indian languages or Spanish/Indian or English/Indian, etc.

I live near a few well-known Indian place names on the western part of Florida called the Nature Coast where, in the summer of 1983, I came within 10 feet of a full-grown panther on a road through Sugarmill Woods. I stood outside of my car and we checked each other out. The big cat looked tired and I could see its ribs. And there was that kink at the end of its tail, a result of inbreeding. Another downside is  they are prone to have heart problems. It slowly wandered to the other side of the road and down into a gully, probably heading for the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Preserve. The cat stopped, turned its head toward me for a few seconds and casually walked away. Click to enlarge image.

This was an unforgetable moment for me. Panthers are rare in Florida, almost extinct. So this encounter was equivalent to winning the lottery twice in two weeks.

Chassahowitzka is an Indian name for “a short, broad stream in the extreme southwestern corner of Citrus Country and also a swamp in Hernando County. This is a Seminole word that means “hanging pumpkins.” This word is constructed from “pumpkins” chasi, and wiski, “hanging loose.”

Most people pronounce the word Chasawitzka so you should be close with that. Some words used here were borrowed from “Florida Place Names of Indian Origin and Seminole Personal Names.” William A. Read, University of Alabama Press.

These pumpkins grew on vines that meandered through the tree branches and were a favorite of the Seminoles.

My brother and I took a canoe down the Chassahowitzka River and visited all of the spring-fed creeks that empty into it. And you can see a penny on the river bottom. That also makes it easy to see where the fish and blue crabs are. The wildlife is plentiful and includes fish hawks, turtles, manatees, otters and gators up close plus a variety of migrating birds in season.

A few miles north on Hwy 19 is Homosassa Springs. The name, from Seminole-Creek, is made from the word homo, meaning “pepper” and sasi, meaning “is there.” The translation: “A place where wild pepper grows.” One source said that modern Seminoles call it the place where “whiskey-drinking is done.” (William Read)

A ten minute drive further north brings you to Crystal River, a place that takes its name from the Seminole-Creek name Weewahiiaca. The words are derived from wiwa “water” and haiyayaki “clear or shining,” which became Crystal River.  If you get the chance, visit the Crystal River Archeological State Park, including the temple mound and the museum.

A 30 minute drive  north of Crystal River is the Wacasassa River, which flows south in Levy County and empties in Wacasassa Bay. The name is from Spanish vaca, and Seminole Waca, meaning “cow or cattle,” and that word again, sasi, meaning “there.” The English meaning would be “cattle range.” That would make it the Cattle Range River. Wacasassa sounds more like a Japanese hot sauce. Which is OK.

Although Wacahoota is on the map, I can’t find it. It’s shown to be a few miles west of I-75 in Alachua County on County Road 121 but when you go online, all you see is that little marker and nothing else. Wacahoota is a station on the Jacksonville and Gulf Railroad. The name means “cow barn” and derives from the Spanish vaca, and Seminole waka, meaning “cow” and Creek huti which means “home. ”  Thus you have cow home or cow barn. I did find one building along the highway. It’s the Wacahoota United Methodist Church which meets once a year. Its cemetery has 224 graves.

Here is a list of names in the Central Florida area where most of the attractions are located. Driving around you are sure to see signs with unusual names. The sounds may not always be the same as pronounced originally so use that of the locals:

Narcoossee is probably a corruption of the Seminole nokusi, bear. The letters oo have the sound of crew. You can find this town of several hundred south of Orlando.

Kissimmee is a lake in Oceola County, a river, and a town just south of Disney World. The origin is unknown but the accent is on the second syllable sim. And it’s not pronounced Kiss a me, a “mistake”  tourists make all the time, including me once.

Chuluota is a community east of Orlando. The word chula means fox in both Seminole and Choctaw and means either fox den or foxes are seen here often.

Bithlo is a small community just east of Orlando on Hwy 50. Bithlo is of Seminole-Creek origin and the word pilo  means “dugout canoe”.

Apopka is a town and a lake in Orange County. The word is from the Creek aha, meaning  “potato,” and papka, meaning “eating place.” So Apopka is a potato-eating place but verify that with residents first. Habits change when a new group moves into the neighborhood.

Okeechobee is from the Hitchiti. The word oki means “water,” and chobi means “big.” This lake is the biggest body of water in the state of Florida. I had some extremely exhilarating times there and I wouldn’t want to do it ever again.

Now you known more about these place names than most Floridians.  Use that knowledge wisely.

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