FAQ City: Is It Sugaw Creek Or Sugar Creek?

Jul 31, 2018

The spelling and pronunciation of Little Sugar Creek, which flows into Sugar Creek (or is it Sugaw Creek?) have been a source of debate for well over 200 years. Which is right?

It turns out the road — now named Sugar Creek Road — was changed from Sugaw Creek Road in 1968, but that was just the most recent change. It’s actually gone back and forth several times.

One location of debate is Sugaw Creek Church, which used to be Sugar Creek with an "r." Unlike the road, we actually know why they changed the name.

The church is the oldest in Mecklenburg County, it’s just off North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road. It’s a brick building with a white steeple and has a big cemetery across the street.

Linda Dalton is the president of the Mecklenburg Historical Association, and a fifth-generation member of the church. The first record we have of the church is from a Presbyterian meeting in Pennsylvania in 1755, which spelled it "Sugar Creek." But in 1924, someone from the church made a resolution to spell it "Sugaw" — and it's been that way ever since. Dalton says it was because the Church wanted to be as accurate as possible, after all it's named after the indigenous people who lived there before .

Charlotte librarian Tom Cole

To find out if the church was right to change the name, we spoke to Tom Cole at the library in uptown Charlotte. But that just revealed more controversy — a map of North Carolina from 1770 spelled two parts of Sugar Creek differently. One was "Shugaw" and the other "Sugar." 

Brooke Bauer is a professor of Native American studies and U.S. History at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, and a member of the Catawba Indian Nation. 

"There was a small town along the Sugar Creek — what we think of today as the Sugar Creek — of Sugaree Indians," Bauer said. "I can’t remember the exact population count, but it was more like a hamlet than it was a town, so maybe a small village."

She said that naming the river would have been considering it property, which the Sugaree would not have done. The people who would have named the river would have been European colonists. Like how the Catawba River is named after the Catawba people who lived — and still live — near it, it seems more than likely that Sugar Creek is named for the Sugaree people.

Brooke Bauer, assistant professor of Native American Studies and U.S. History at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster
Credit Courtesy of USC-Lancaster

During the mid-1700s, a lot of Native American tribes in the Carolinas had to band together for survival — many of their people were killed by diseases European colonists brought, and others died from war and battle with colonists and other tribes. So, the Sugaree and some other tribes were kind of absorbed by the Catawba. Bauer is actually one of the few people who speak Catawba.

There is an idea in some history books saying it’s possible Sugar Creek was named after a Catawban word for house — suuk — but Bauer said that’s not likely.

"So I would go with Sugar, Sugar Creek," Bauer said. "Because in the Catawba language it would have been pronounced Sugaree — pronunciation in the throat."

"I don’t see any word really that ends with an 'A-W,' " she added. "That’s not to say it couldn’t — that maybe it sounded that way at one time — but that’s not the Catawba language that we know."

Bill Harris, chief of the Catawba Indian Nation

Bill Harris is the chief of the Catawba Indian Nation and said it's important that people think about the history of where they live in and the people who lived there before.

"I like the idea of someone asking the question, 'Where did the word Sugar Creek come from? Why is it called Sugar Creek?'" Harris said. "Well, it’s called for the native sons and daughters of the area — Sugaree."

Special thanks to Donna Fischer for asking this week's question.

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