Appalachian Language: “Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise”

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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Fourth Avenue in Huntington, WV during the Great Flood of 1937.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo of Fourth Avenue in Huntington, WV during the Great Flood of 1937.

My grandmother was a five-foot nothing tower of a mountain woman whose tenacious spirit was seconded only by her faith in the Divine and commitment to His holy book.

On far more than one occasion, I had the good pleasure of having my sentence extended by her, as she would add “If the Lord wills.”  Looking back, it’s clear that granny knew something it has taken me decades to realize: the best made plans of mice and men often stay as just that – plans.

Her almost obsessive desire to add “if the Lord wills” to the end of anyone’s plan came from the fourth chapter of the New Testament book of James:

“Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” — James 4.14-15

Though you will be hard pressed to find anyone who was as faithful to this Christian commandment or took it as literal as she did, if you spend any length of time at all in Appalachia, you will probably hear someone state, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

Or is it “Lord willing and the Creeks don’t rise”?

Now that’s the true question!

There are multiple flood warnings and watches throughout nearly of Appalachia tonight and as I continue to monitor the creek just outside my window, I’m reminded of my grandmother and this timeless idiom.

According to one writer, the expression “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” is “an American slang expression implying strong intentions subject to complete frustration by uncommon but not unforeseeable events. It presumably evokes occasional and unpredictably extreme rainfall in Appalachia, that has historically isolated one rural neighborhood or another temporarily inaccessible on several or many occasions” and when most folks in the mountains use this term, that is exactly what they mean.

Classic versions of its use tend to be along the lines of “The good Lord willing, and creek doesn’t rise”—i.e. “If God so wills, and as long as intense rain does not wash away bridges or parts of dirt roads, or cover roads too deeply for safely following them.” It may take the form of real or mock dialect, in variations like “… Lor’ willin’ an’ th’ crick don’ rise.”

Interestingly, there are some linguists who have argued that the “C” in creek should actually be capitalized and that the original saying was intended to mean if the “Creek” Indian tribe didn’t rise up.

Some historians attribute Benjamin Hawkins as having been the first person to ever say these words and he did so in a letter to the President of the United States.

Hawkins served under George Washington as General Superintendent for Indian Affairs (1796–1818) and had responsibility for the Native American tribes south of the Ohio River, and was principal Indian agent to the Creek Indians.

In a letter to the Commander in Chief, Hawkins stated that he would return to the nation’s capital, “God willing and the Creek don’t rise.”

“Hawkins, college-educated and a well-written man would never have made a grammatical error, so the capitalization of Creek is the only way the phrase could make sense… and the reference is not to a creek, but The Creek Indian Nation. If the Creek ‘rose’, Hawkins would have to be present to quell the rebellion.” writes one commentator.

However the belief that this universally used mountain saying is not in reference to rising water is not universally accepted by those who have studied the history of this phrase.

Another commentator was rather blunt in his assessment of the above theory:

“The idea, espoused below, that the remark should be attributed to Benjamin Hawkins is patently ridiculous. If you read the history attached to the citation, you’ll see that Hawkins was devoted to the Creek. He married his common-law Creek wife on his death bed. The Creek were at peace during most of Hawkins’ tenure as Superintendent of the Tribes of the Ohio River. Although there was an uprising by the Red Sticks, part of the Creek nation, Hawkins would not have referred to them generically as Creek because he was trying to protect the Creek nation from being penalized for the actions of the Red Sticks.”

Regardless of what served as the inspiration to this timeless phrase, the reality is that it has caught on and in today’s world, there is very little chance of a Creek uprising; however, as streams and rivers are rising across the region with these late-April showers, the creeks are bound to rise!

As most water deaths occur in vehicles, perhaps this old saying can take on new meaning — turn around, don’t drown… and get there only if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise!

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3 COMMENTS

  1. In many places people used to drive through or walk through the creek in order to cross due to the fact there was no bridge. If the creek rose then you were stranded.

  2. Related to the capitalization of “Creek”, it was common practice at the time to capitalize all nouns in English. So even if the attribution is true, this capital letter is not all that telling.

  3. Lord willing and the Cree don’t rise. Perhaps this was used as either the creek/rain swollen creek or Cree/ American Indian raiding party.

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