Stories Abound About How City, Mountain Got Their Name
Why do we call our city Kennesaw? Our community officially was named Kennesaw when it was incorporated in September 1887. We were named after the nearby mountain, which, since 1864, had been nationally famous for its role in the Civil War. Where, then, did our mountain get its name?
In the past, the National Park Service has claimed the mountain’s name originated with the Cherokee word “gah-nee-sah,” meaning “cemetery or burial ground” — a fitting name for the site of a bloody battle. More recently, park rangers have discovered no word similar to “gah-nee-sah” with that meaning exists in the Cherokee language, so this possible origin can be ruled out.
In his book “Ancient Roots,” historian Richard Thornton mentioned Kennesaw might be a Muskogee word meaning “raccoon people,” but no similar historical claims have been found. In 1916, author R.F. Jarrett mentioned the name might be related to Gansagi or Canasoga, a town visited by Hernando de Soto that was believed to have been in our area. But more recent research by the University of Georgia’s Charles M. Hudson revealed Canasoga, also called Conasauga, probably was in North Carolina or Tennessee. Finally, the Sept. 3, 1891, edition of the Marietta Journal featured a trite poem titled “Two Lovers: Marietta and Kennesaw,” which tells a “Romeo and Juliet”-type story of two Native American lovers named Marietta and Kennesaw. No similar historical account has been found, and by the poem’s own admission, “to prove this legend, there is no evidence conclusive/And the evidence to some may seem very elusive.”
Many hard-to-prove theories about the origin of the mountain’s name have been proposed over the years, but the oldest documents all have a single answer. The 1849 book Statistics of the State of Georgia by George White mentions the name originated with a Cherokee chief “accidentally shot by a white man, while on a hunting excursion.” Five years later, White wrote a second book titled “Historical Collections of Georgia,” which says a chief named Kenesaw led a village of 300. It is believed to have been located near the corner of Old 41 and Barrett Parkway. White also gives an “Indian name” for the mountain, Chuquetah.
Amazingly, there are records of a Chief Kenesaw. The Treaty of Holston, signed by Cherokee and U.S. representatives in 1791, had a signer named Chief Kinnesah, also called Cabin. The Cherokees lived in parts of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas, so it is possible that Kinnesah did not live in our area. During the Creek Wars, which took place at the time of the War of 1812, U.S. Army records mention a Kinnessaw or Kennesaw who was in a Cherokee regiment. He was a private who served on horseback. Once again, it is not known where this individual lived.
In 1849, legends started being created around the Kenesaw mentioned by George White. On Sept. 26, a poem titled “The Legend of Kenesaw” was published in the Charleston Courier. The poem tells of a man named Kenesaw who was hunting on the mountain, killed a deer and put the antlers on his head in celebration. One of his followers saw the antlers moving, thought it was a deer and shot and killed Kenesaw. The poet included an introduction that said these details were fact, but the additional parts of the story — such as Kenesaw’s wife and child jumping into the creek in despair and his ghost haunting the mountain — were “inventions of the Muse.” Interestingly, he is described in the poem as Creek (or Muskogee) instead of Cherokee, which is how he is described in other sources.
In 1870, Robert Francis Goulding of Roswell wrote the book “Sal-O-Quah,” which is part novel, part memoir. In 1822, Kennesaw was a chief “of good heart and great courage,” according to the book. Several years before, Kennesaw had too much to drink, destroyed the village of Suwanee and, as punishment, was exiled to Kennesaw Mountain. According to Goulding, Kennesaw was part of the Trail of Tears and was not accidentally killed on the mountain. Additionally, Goulding noted, “Some of the old white settlers still speak of Kennesaw’s drunken frolic in burning Suwannee.” Because it is unclear which parts of “Sal-O-Quah” are fact and which are fiction, it is hard to tell which parts of Kennesaw’s tale are true.
Later newspaper articles contain stories from people who claimed to have met Kennesaw, while other articles give accounts of his death on Kennesaw Mountain. Based on the wide range of historical sources that mention a Native American named Kennesaw, we can conclude our mountain and city most likely were named for a long-forgotten Cherokee chief.
– Andrew Bramlett is vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society and an honorary member of the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission