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‘Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise!’ But do creeks rise? Ah, wordplay.

Native Americans were long ignored for their important roles in early America, possibly even for the expression ‘Creek don't rise.’ Their likeness on postage stamps is another example. Not until 1898 were Indians uniquely portrayed on a U.S. postage stamp.
Native Americans were long ignored for their important roles in early America, possibly even for the expression ‘Creek don't rise.’ Their likeness on postage stamps is another example. Not until 1898 were Indians uniquely portrayed on a U.S. postage stamp. U.S. Postal Service

How many times before leaving the newsroom for the night did I first turn to my editor Scott Hawkins and half-jokingly say, “See ya tomorrow morning, Lord willin’ and creek don’t rise!”

My answer is lots and lots of times, especially in the years following Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that swept through my house and a goodly number of others working at this Mississippi Coast newspaper. Quite a few of us saw water literally and figuratively rise in our lives.

“Lord willin’ and creek don’t rise!”

Many Americans grew up with this or similar expressions, such as “God willing and the creek (or ‘crick’ or river) don’t rise.” A common interpretation is “If the Lord wants me to, I will do what is asked/needed/desired of me.”

Not long ago I repeated the phrase to a historian friend who needed research from me by a certain time. My quip, “Lord willin’ and creek don’t rise, I’ll get it to you in time!” received a startling reply.

“You do realize that the reference to ‘creek’ is not to a rising body of water, don’t you?” he said professorially. “It’s a reference to the Creek Indians of Alabama.”

Huh? News to me.

I pulled out the half dozen phrase origins books I collected in the good ole days of hold-in-your-hands reference books. Oddly, none of these from the 1970s to 1990s make reference to the phrase. It was so commonplace and so definitive as to meaning that earlier etymologist didn’t include it.

The Internet has changed that. Today, you can easily waste hours going through websites that give opinions on “Lord willin’ and creek don’t rise” and its similarly phrased brethren.

As happens on the Web with all its sites, blogs and social media offerings, you will find conflicting, debatable and differing opinions. Some are based on historical research, some on academic reasoning and some on Biblical interpretations, and some are off-the-top-of-the-head reasoning.

In generations past, the phrase’s origin was often attributed to the difficulties of traveling on unpaved roads that forded creeks and rivers without benefit of bridges. When the waters rose from storm or flood, the roads were impassible. The task could not be completed because “the creek rose.”

The Bible, as expected, plays a role in etymology discussions of the phrase’s origin. James 4:15 is sometimes cited with its various wordings and interpretations based on different versions of the Bible. They have in common the acceptance of God’s will.

The Internet is both a boon and a bust in trying to get to the truth of the phrase. Not wanting to get riled up in the debates myself, I’m focusing on the Creek Native American possibilities of this phrase because the Creeks also are of regional interest.

In the early 1800s, 19 tribal groups created the Creek Confederacy to combat land grabs by white settlers. Descendants of these tribes had lived on the lands for generations, some descending from the mound builders of the Mississippi River Valley.

What is known as the Creek Wars started Aug. 30, 1813, when a Creek Confederacy faction known as the Red Sticks attacked settlers north of Mobile. Among the 400-plus white setters killed in the Fort Mims Massacre were mixed-blood Creeks and white frontier settlers, among them women and children.

Such deaths became a rallying call for the American militia, and soon Andrew Jackson, an Army major general and future seventh president, entered the picture. Death and destruction reigned.

Almost two years after Mims, the Treaty of Fort Jackson was signed in Alabama. The entire Creek Nation, of which only a fraction had rebelled, were crushed and forced to cede two-thirds of their lands, about half of present-day Alabama and a chunk of southern Georgia.

The “creek don’t rise” phrase is now sometimes credited to this time of unrest and displacement.

Origin debaters point to Col. Benjamin Hawkins of North Carolina, a Continental Congress senator and general superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1796 to 1818. When he was summoned to the nation’s capital, he reportedly once responded, “If God is willing and the Creek don’t rise.”

Poor grammar (“creek don’t rise”) and the common use of lower case “c” for creek instead of uppercase “C” for Creek natives obviously enter the debate. It’s all etymology food for thought.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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