The third month of the Mvskoke year is commonly translated as “Little Chestnut,” but there’s more to it than that.
In linguistic terms, this month’s name was formed by combining the noun oto, “chestnut,” with an inflection of the verb wvsketv, “to thrash,” producing the phrase otvwoskv, “chestnut-thrashing,” then adding the diminutive suffix –uce, “little.” So a literal translation of Otvwoskuce is “Little Chestnut-Thrashing.” Like other months in cokv-walv Mvskoke, it has a counterpart in the annual cycle—in this case, the month that follows: Otvwoskv-Rakko, “Big Chestnut-Thrashing.”
Why chestnut? Why thrashing? And why name two of the twelve Mvskoke months for a single use of a single tree?
The American chestnut was once the dominant hardwood in the eastern woodlands. This majestic tree could grow to over a hundred feet tall, with a massive trunk more than twenty feet in circumference at the base. One nineteenth-century writer called it “a very grandfather among trees.”
The bark is brown-gray and furrowed with age. The leaves are dark green, oblong and taper-pointed in shape, and edged with more and sharper teeth (dentata) than other chestnuts (castanea)—which accounts for the tree’s scientific name, Castanea dentata. American chestnuts bloom in the summer, later than other deciduous trees, producing clusters of small, cream-colored flowers on a pencil-sized spike. They bear fruit in the form of spiny husks containing one to three smooth, reddish-brown nuts.
The documentary record on this “king of the forest” goes back nearly half a millennium. A member of Hernando de Soto’s 1540 expedition through Mvskoke country noted that “wherever there are mountains, there are chestnuts.” In 1775, William Bartram observed a similar pattern south of the Alabama River, where “the highest hills near large creeks afford high forests with abundance of Chesnut trees.” The first catalog of North American trees, published in France in 1810, described the American chestnut as “most multiplied in the mountainous districts of the Carolinas and Georgia,” where “the coolness of the summer and the mildness of the winter in these regions are favorable.”
Oto loves mountains, especially the southern Appalachians, but its natural range extends from New England to southern Ontario to the lower Mississippi valley. Iroquois, Mohegan, Delaware, Cherokee, and other native peoples have used various parts of the tree for food, medicine, supplies, and building materials. Even the Natchez had a month named for the chestnut.
Their burs develop through the summer and begin to open around the time of first frost. The edible nuts are nutritious and surprisingly sweet.
Henry David Thoreau was fascinated by this bountiful tree, especially around harvest time; from October 1856: “It is a rich sight, that of a large chestnut tree with a dome-shaped top, where the yellowing leaves have become thin, . . . all richly rough with great brown burs, which are opened into several segments so as to show the wholesome-colored nuts peeping forth, ready to fall on the slightest jar.” He loved to go “a-chestnutting,” best pursued as a social activity.
How to get more of the precious fruit to drop from on high? There are several methods.
Thoreau admitted to heaving a big stone against the trunk of a chestnut to shake things loose, though he regretted the act: “The tree whose fruit we would obtain should not be too rudely shaken.”
Others tossed clubs into the crown of a tree to bring down the nuts. Tonawanda artist Ernest Smith’s painting “Gathering Chestnuts” shows a Seneca man clubbing a large chestnut while his wife and son gather the burs and nuts that have fallen. As a child, Jimmy Carter celebrated his October 1st birthday each year by clubbing chestnuts on the family farm near Plains, Georgia.
Perhaps the least invasive way to harvest chestnuts involves the use of a thrashing pole. A handbook for girls published in 1887, for example, describes “nutting-parties” where low-hanging fruit is “thrashed down from the branches by some of the party, who use long poles for the purpose.”
This was apparently the method preferred by Mvskokes before being forced to move west. There is evidence for this in the most recent dictionary of the Mvskoke language, where the full definition of wvsketv is “to thrash (pecans, fruit, etc. with a pole so as to knock them down).”
But when our Mvskoke ancestors arrived in Indian Territory, they found no oto—just its scrawny cousin, the chinquapin.
Several decades later, on the eve of the American Civil War, the authors of the first comprehensive grammar of the Mvskoke language translated Otvwoskuce as “Little Chestnut Gathering.” And then the collective memory of this vital activity faded with each passing generation, until the third month of the Mvskoke year was known only as “Little Chestnut.”