At the top of Alabama’s highest point is a brass marker placed in 1941 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. It notes the location as “Cheehahaw”.
If you look on any modern map of the state, you won’t find any mountain peak named “Cheehahaw”, but you will find Cheaha Mountain.
Cheaha Mountain (pronounced “chee-ah”) is located about 60 miles east of Birmingham, at the southernmost end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the ranges collectively called the Appalachians.
It rises 2,407 feet above sea level, but the view from Bunker Tower (a fortress-like stone building built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corp) at the mountain’s peak seems much higher. The surrounding farmland and distant forested ridges are fairly low-lying. (And despite a relatively low “highest point”, Alabama’s Mt. Cheaha comes in higher than the highest point in 15 other states.)
The name Cheeha is (according to the Cheeha State Park website) derives from the Creek Indian word “chaha”, meaning “high place”.
So how did we get from “cha-ha” to “chee-ha-ha” to “chee-ah”?
European explorers and their American descendants struggled with standardized spelling in general. Spelling for Native American words (which were generally spoken but had no written forms) varied considerably from writer to writer.
For example, the same Creek work is spelled “Chehaw” when referring to the state park near Albany, Georgia. Albany is barely above sea level, so it’s hardly a “high place”, but the Creek Indians who lived there were called “Chehaw” or “Chiha” people.
According to the Alabama State Department of Archives and History, the Alabama Indians (who lived in the center of the state that eventually bore their name) were called “Alba Amo” by the Choctaw, meaning “the thicket clearers”. The Alabamans practiced agricultural farming…without the benefit of plows or livestock to pull them. Early variations on spelling “Alabama” included almost anything that ended up sounding right.
Still, why the marker uses “Cheehahaw” to mark a place in Cheaha State Park (which was founded before the marker was placed) is still a mystery to me. If I find any more information, I’ll update this post.
Admission to Cheaha State Park is $3 (current as of 2014), and includes access to Bunker Tower. There are also hiking trails and a restaurant to visit, and cabins for rent.
Plan your trip!
Cheaha State Park at the Alabama State Parks website : alapark.com/cheaha-state-park