Chocowinity: What’s in a name?


In 1928, the Rev. N.C. Hughes, Jr., who had long admired and wondered about the meaning of the name “Chocowinity” engaged in a conversation with a “well-educated Indian” he met on the Edisto River in South Carolina. The Indian proceeded to tell Rev. Hughes that the word “Chocowinity” meant “fish from many waters.”

The Indian, not being from North Carolina and being unlikely to have any knowledge whatsoever about the Tuscarora language, was probably pulling Rev. Hughes’ leg about the word meaning.

Chocowinity does not mean “fish from many waters.” It comes from the Tuscarora word for “otter”, an animal that is found in abundance in North Carolina’s inland waterways.

by Sara Whitford
©2008 All Rights Reserved.

Although many of my ancestors over the last 300 years have come from the community of Chocowinity, I had never much concerned myself with what the meaning of the name was. I knew it was an Indian word, and assumed it was probably Tuscarora because of the town’s location.

It was quite by accident that I discovered what the word actually meant. I had been looking over John Lawson’s lists of Indian words from his book, A New Voyage to Carolina. In his lists, he notes the English, as well as Indian versions, of selected words. In some cases he gives the “Tuskeruro” (Tuscarora), “Pamticough” (refers to the Algonquian Indians who lived on the Pamlico river) and “Woccon” (Siouan language group from Wilmington and Cape Fear region) versions.  In other cases, he only notes the Tuscarora and Woccon words.

As I scanned down the list, I noticed a Tuscarora word that looked very familiar: “Chac-kauene” (Lawson 227)

Being a little familiar with the Tuscarora language, at least the pronunciation of words, I knew how the vowels in this word were to be pronounced. In Tuscarora, the letter “a”  sounds like “ah.” The addition of the “u” in the second syllable would make the dipthong “kau” sound like “cow.”  The “-ene” suffix at the end of the word would not sound like “-een”, but rather be two syllables that sound like “ehn-neh.”

I also took into account the fact that due to the limitations of the English alphabet, John Lawson would be incapable of phonetically describing this word with complete accuracy, as there are certain sounds in Tuscarora which are not found in the English language.

So that would mean the word, if pronounced correctly, would be something like, “Chah-kah-weh-neh” but with a little stop at the end of the final “-neh”, almost like a soft “t.”

I thought that sounded remarkably like “Chocowinity.”

The English word equivalent of Lawson’s “Chac-kauene” was “Min.” In another copy I had of Lawson’s book, it had been printed as “Minx”, which phonetically I figured between the two transcriptions was to mean “mink” or “minks.”

Lawson’s lists are useful, but not always completely accurate— which, of course, was not the fault of Mr. Lawson, but rather because he was attempting to phonetically record bits and pieces of languages to which he had very limited exposure. I decided the next necessary step was to look in the Tuscarora-English/English-Tuscarora Dictionary written by my late friend, Dr. Blair Rudes, indigenous languages expert and professor at UNC-Charlotte. In his dictionary, I looked up the word in the Tuscarora section. The entry is as follows (Rudes 116):

chakauene - Chocowinity

So, in Rudes’ dictionary, the word Lawson lists as “Chackauene” is actually the Tuscarora word for “otter”, but he also recognizes that Lawson had thought that “Chackauene” was the Tuscarora word for “Min(k).”

It should be noted that in Lawson’s list, the entry for “Min(k)” appeared just above the entry for “Otter” which was listed as “Chaunoc.” Fortunately, being familiar enough with some basics of Tuscarora, as well as the Coastal Algonquian languages, I realized that the “-oc” suffix at the end of a word is definitely not Tuscarora, but rather Algonquian. Lawson must have misunderstood the Tuscarora word for “Otter.” It should also be noted that phonetically, Lawson’s entry for the word for “Otter” as “Chaunoc” would sound remarkably like “Chowanoc”, which, of course, was the name given to Algonquian Indians who were at that time living along what is today called the “Chowan” River. Possibly Lawson misunderstood his translator, or misunderstood what the Indian speaker from whom he was getting the words was trying to say. Perhaps the person pointed to a small otter (which would look remarkably like a mink) and said, “Chackauene”, and then later pointed to a larger otter and was telling Lawson that another word was “Chaunoc.” The use of the “Chaunoc” word perhaps is an Algonquian derivative of the same word.

(As a side note: The actual Tuscarora word for “Mink” sounds nothing like “Chackauene,” the word for otter. In Tuscarora, the word “Mink” would be phonetically pronounced something like this: “Theh-nehn-koot.”)

The mink is, of course, an animal that is extremely similar to the otter, except that minks are generally much smaller. In fact, they’re from the same animal family, “Mustelidae.” They both thrive on river banks and in swamp territories. Otters have always been abundant in eastern North Carolina’s rivers. In fact, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores has two otters named Neuse and Pungo, after two North Carolina rivers.)

Mink River Otters
American Mink River Otter

When I looked into how the town of Chocowinity defines the meaning of the name, I found that since 1928, the meaning has been attributed as “fish from many waters.”

The story on the Chocowinity town website goes like this:

On the South side of the Pamlico River, in Beaufort County, at the cross roads of U.S. Highway 17 and North Carolina Highway 33, is a small community rich in history, agriculture, and industry. According to historians, the name is derived from the Tuscaroran Indians who lived here several hundred years ago. The place was once known as Godley’s Cross Roads, but the name was changed to CHOCAWANATETH some time before the Revolutinary period. Rev. N.C. Hughes, Jr. traced a reference to Chocawanateth Creek which was later spelled as Chocowinity Creek.

Soon after the end of the Civil War an effort was made to change the name of the town from Chocowinity to Belvue. However, Rev. N.C. Hughes, D.D., thought so highly of this unique name that he succeeded in persuading those who wanted the name changed to cease their efforts. Consequently, the old name CHOCOWINITY has remained through the years.

The exact meaning of the word “Chocowinity” had been a mystery for many years. In 1928, Mr. Hughes met a well-educated Indian encamped on the banks of the Edisto River in South Carolina. While talking with the Indian, Mr. Hughes mentioned he lived in a small village with an Indian name. Mr. Hughes pronounced the name “Chocowinity” and also spelled its former name of “Chocawanateth.” The Indian thought for a moment and finally responded, “Oh yes, I have it now. That word means FISH FROM MANY WATERS.” Mr. Hughes was instantly reminded of the many waters associated with the Chocowinity Creek and Chocowinity Bay as well as the Pamlico River. He was also reminded of the Shad, perch, red breast, black fish, pike pickerel, jack, rock, bass, trout, and sturgeon which had been caught in the waters. It was immediately apparent that the bay and creek bearing the name of Chocowinity, were a spawning and feeding grounds of “fish from many waters.”
Text from THE STATE Magazine article by N.C. Huges, Jr. 1/14/50.


Based on what the town of Chocowinity had on their website, I knew they acknowledged that the town had a Tuscarora name. Based on Lawson’s word list, as well as the work of the esteemed Prof. Blair Rudes, it appeared the name most likely did not mean “fish from many waters.”

(I will not go into the phonetic pronunciations of the Tuscarora words for “fish” or “water” here, but be assured that they do not sound even remotely like Chocowinity, in whole or in part.)

I decided it was time to contact my friend, Dr. Rudes, via e-mail. I told him I thought I had determined that the place name “Chocowinity” might actually be an English corruption of the Tuscarora word for “otter,” based both on Lawson’s word list, as well as his own Tuscarora dictionary. He responded as follows:

The only problem with deriving this name from the Tuscarora word for ‘otter’ is that it leaves the ending, “-ity”, unexplained. The only possible source for it in Tuscarora is the diminutive plural ending –eNtih. I have never heard the word [Chocowinity] said, but ča’kawi:neNhe:Ntih  ‘little otters’ is a possible Tuscarora word.

I followed up his message with a phone call to him so that I could pronounce the place name of Chocowinity for him and discuss it a little further. Once he heard me say the word, he said he agreed that Chocowinity was most likely an English corruption of the word for “otter” or perhaps “little otters.”

The diminutive plural ending that Rudes suggested in his e-mail could mean that Chocowinity actually means “little otters,” but I found another clue just recently in the early records of Bath County (now Beaufort County, the county in which Chocowinity resides.)

In 1719 in land transaction between Thomas Worsley, Esq. and his son, Thomas Worsley, Jr., the word Chocowinath appears.

Indenture 25 Jul 1719 AD, 5 King George, between Thomas Worsley Esq and Thomas Worsley Jr, eldest son of aforesd Thomas Worsley, both of Bath Co. Thomas for paternal love & affection for his son gives him 200 acres on upper side of creek called Herring Run on S side Pamptico River, part of larger tract which he bought of Joshua Porter by deed 13 Aug 1718 AD, and by him bought of his brother John Porter who bought it from the Lords Proprietors; called Chocowinath. Also, 640 acres likewise on S side Pamptico River adjoining land formerly belonging to John Porter; beg at sd John’s corner oak by head of the bay, running N68°W440p up the swamp to hickory, S26°W300p to pine, S60°E320p to sd John’s corner oak by the great swamp, N26°E320p to another corner hickory of sd Johns, to 1st; bought of Joshua Porter by deed 13 Aug 1718 AD and by sd John bought of the Lords Proprietors by patent dated 10 Nov 1713 AD. Thomas (TW) Worsley. Wit: James Linton, Thos Boyd, John (J) Worsley. (Norris 99)

The pronunciation of Chocowinath as it appears in this deed is phonetically virtually identical to the pronunciation given above for Lawson’s description of the word “Chackauene” and Rudes’ entry for the Tuscarora word for “otter.”

So, it appears we can conclude that the “well-educated” Indian to whom Rev. Hughes spoke on the Edisto River in South Carolina in 1928 was most likely pulling the good Reverend’s leg when he told him that Chocowinity meant “fish from many waters.”

The mystery is now truly solved. The name Chocowinity comes from the Tuscarora word for “otter.”


Works Cited

  • Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina. London, 1709.
  • Norris, Allen Hart. Beaufort County, North Carolina Deed Book I, 1696-1729: Records of Bath County, North Carolina. Washington, N.C., The Beaufort County Genealogical Society, 2003.
  • Rudes, Dr. Blair A.. Tuscarora-English/English-Tuscarora Dictionary. Canada. University of Toronto Press, 1999.