Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise

Bud Sherman raised an interesting question today, one that I hadn’t thought about before, but one that deserves thought and research.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, there was a conditional phrase, ‘if the creeks don’t rise.’ I always assumed it was about flood waters. An on-line friend in the South said that it had to do with the Creek Indians.”

This phrase is the first part of the caveat, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”, the title of Spike Lee’s documentary on the results of Hurricane Katrina. Down South in North Carolina, where I grew up, I always heard, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” or “God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise.”

What is suggestive is that the phrase is wide-spread throughout the South, where the Creeks (actually Muskogees) lived and often came in conflict with Southerners. The Spanish tried to enslave them but the English set up trading posts to trade with them. Since the Creeks often had nothing to trade, periodically they would raid trading posts, resulting in conflicts. There was also the occasional out-and-out war.

Another bit of evidence is that I am very uncomfortable saying “if the creek doesn’t rise”. Everyone says, “The good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” I am just as uncomfortable with your version, “the creeks don’t rise.” The interesting thing about this fact is that, while substituting don’t for doesn’t is not uncommon in many English dialects, Indian names were generally treated like the null-plural animals: deer : deer, fish : fish, Creek : Creek. Settlers all over the US at the time spoke of one Creek and many Creek.

Finally, a flooding creek doesn’t present any danger. What don’t we say, “God willing and the river don’t rise”?

Now Susanne Williams has brought Benjamin Hawkins to my attention. Apparently, he had good reason to refer to the Creeks and may have even written the phrase with Creek capitalized. If this is so, we need only track down the letter in which Hawkins used this phrase for the first time, and we will have settled the issue.

14 Responses to “God Willing and the Creek don’t Rise”

  1. Perry Lassiter Says:

    When I was a kid, we played in Forest Park in Ft. Worth. A branch of the Trinity River ran through that was more a creek than a river. But one day after some heavy rains, we approached where we usually jumped over the creek. Whoa! One big time river. Impassable without a boat. I always took the expression about the creek rising literally, meaning it blocked the fords, and one couldn’t get through.

  2. KellyK Says:

    I’ve actually heard it as “God willing and the river don’t rise.” In fact, that’s the only way I’ve heard it. (I’ve heard it from all of two people, one of whom picked it up from the other, so my experience isn’t even remotely representative.)

    I can easily picture someone hearing the “creek” version and modifying it for just the reason you suggest–a river flooding is a much bigger deal than a creek flooding. (The river version even gets 6000 Google hits, but nowhere near the 194,000 of “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

  3. Jack Says:

    My family (parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and great grandparents), always said “The good lord willin’ and the river don’t rise.” They lived from the irish logging camps of northern wisconson to eastern south dakota, settled here in the 1800s and now mostly have passed away. I still live in Minneapolis and hear this phrase occasionally.

  4. Mike Says:

    The exact wording isn’t as important as the implied meaning. As long as the people understand.

  5. Larry Thornton Says:

    The saying for me has always been “The good lord willing and the creek’s don’t rise.” If the water is up in the creeks, then yer a not a goin’ to get thar.

  6. Kay Green Says:

    I thought the same as Perry Lassiter, that it meant a creek which was forded to get out to a main road from one’s home. Settlers always had to build near a source of water, which was usually a creek or a spring. There is an area of the county where I live that can’t be reached if Lookout Creek floods. If the creek rises, yay! A day off from school!

  7. Kay Green Says:

    P.S. In our part of the south, the Cherokee had pushed the Creeks out long before white settlers moved in, so logically we should be saying, “Good lord willing and the Cherokee don’t rise.”

  8. Chelle Says:

    Actually, snopes has debunked the origin of this quote to Benjamin Hawkins, claiming he actually didn’t say it, and that it doesn’t refer to the Creek tribe. If that is the case, then where – exactly – did the quote originate and from what reason/event?

  9. CC Says:

    Colonel Benjamin Hawkins, (b 1754 – d 1816) is credited with the phrase, correctly written as ‘God willing and the Creek don’t rise’. He wrote it in response to a request from President Washington to return to our Nation’s Capital and the reference is to The Creek Indian Nation. If the Creek “rose”, Hawkins would have to be present to quell the rebellion. The phrase is preserved in his writings. The Creek Indian wars here in Gerogia lasted from about 1700 to 1836 when the last rise (raid) occurred outside of Waycross Ga, the raid was led by a Creek Indian Chief named Billy Bow Legs. He killed most of a family including there small children. He then fled into the Okefenokee Swamp where he was captured and later hung along with several members of his raiding party. Don’t believer everything Snopes says they are wrong as often as they are right.

  10. PAUL KAY Says:

    Well CC, the credit for the phrase is given to Mr. Hawkins, but so far as I know no one has ever come across anything in Hawkins’ writing where is actually appears. Perhaps you can provide the chapter and verse in his letters, journals, etc., or even of a contemporary quoting Colonel Ben as actually saying it.

  11. Bette Says:

    Well, I enjoy what I would consider idiomatic expressions, and ‘The good Lord willin’, and the creek don’t rise…’ is melodic and quite fittin’ for many ‘o occasion.

  12. Chuck S. Says:

    That foolishness about Hawkins is nonsense. IF he had ever said or written it (and no one has ever been able to find it in any of his writings, all of which are published and preserved), IF he ever said or wrote it, it is very unlikely that anyone ever heard or read it except the one or two people he wrote or said it to. It is not possible that it could have become a common expression all over the country, among people none of whom ever heard of Hawkins.
    All over this country, up until quite recent times, travel was by horseback or horse-drawn wagon, over dirt roads and barely-passable trails. No bridges, the many creeks were dry beds in the summer that could be crossed with care. In the winter many of the creeks could be forded if the water wasn’t too high. So going anywhere in the winter was always conditioned on how high the water was in the creeks. An unpredictable rainstorm (remember they didn’t have TV weathermen) could quickly raise the water level in the creeks and make them impassable. So “The Lord Willing and the creeks don’t rise” meant exactly what it says. Trying to make it mean something else is ridiculous. Winter wet-weather creeks were everywhere, the expression was appropriate everywhere, and it was in common use everywhere. It came to be used to refer to any and all unpredictable events that could spoil your plans.
    I have heard the expression used by many people all my life. There is no way some guy (Hawkins) that no one ever heard of, and an Indian tribe that few ever heard of, could have had anything to do with this good old saying. How implausible is the Hawkins fable, anyway? Would he ever have said “if the creek (Creek, Creeks, creeks) don’t rise”? He was intelligent and educated and was able to express himself so people could understand him. Anyone getting that alleged message from him would have had a hard time trying to figure out what he meant.

  13. ScarletRose Says:

    This is no doubt the source of it, and BTW, the argument about rivers and creeks is specious as anyone living near rivers which can get as low as creeks and either when flooded can be very very deadly in their impassibility:

    American Minute with Bill Federer:
    On January 17, 1781, George Washington’s southern army defeated the British troops at Cowpens.
    In hot pursuit, Lord Cornwallis reached the Catawba River just two hours after the American troops had crossed, but a storm made the river impassable.
    He nearly overtook the Americans again at the Yadkin River, just as they were getting out on the other side, but a torrential rain flooded the river.
    This happened a third time at the Dan River.
    British Commander Henry Clinton wrote: “Here the royal army was again stopped by a sudden rise of the waters, which had only just fallen (almost miraculously) to let the enemy over.”
    General George Washington had previously written to Brigadier General Thomas Nelson of Virginia, August 1778: “The Hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this (the course of the war) that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more wicked that has not gratitude to acknowledge his obligations; but it will be time enough for me to turn Preacher when my present appointment ceases.”

  14. ScarletRose Says:

    I grew up among people who still today use this phrase ALL the time. I live in such an area – It is a Daily FACT where I live and half the population lives on the other side of at least one creek or river crossing. We flooded good this month and a few of the folks didn’t get out of their home place for over 2 weeks.
    The river is a small one but a river, but also has endless creek tributaries and thousands of springs in our area. This is hill country and when it rains good, hundreds of small dry creek beds in canyons get flooded and all hit the river at the same time, so then on top of that, as the upriver draws empty out and add up, flow downriver and add to more and then more and more… we usually get a big huge wall come down, further downriver. We’ve lost people in the small canyon creeks, and lost people in the lower river, from many causes, some from sheer pig-headedness, God forgive me saying it that way, and others because they were already midstream on a clear sunny day when the wall from nowhere hit them, washing vehicles and people trees and animals all miles downriver – regardless of whether they were hit by a flooded dry creek or the flooded river.
    Yet our river almost NEVER gets out of bounds, off its “bed”.
    Still, when we make our plans… we remember Who disposes…

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