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God willing and the creek don’t rise

QFrom Bob Scala: An item that has been floating around the internet claims that the expression God willing and the creek don’t rise referred to the Creek Indians, not a body of water. It mentions Benjamin Hawkins of the late 18th century, who was asked by the US president to go back to Washington. In his reply, he was said to have written, “God willing and the Creek don’t rise”. Because he capitalized Creek it’s asserted that he was referring to the Creek Indian tribe and not a body of water. Is this derivation correct?

A Quite certainly not. Every researcher who has investigated the expression has dismissed an Indian connection as untrue. The tale is widely reproduced and believed nevertheless. It’s worth looking into because of the way in which it has been elaborated in the version you quote.

Anecdotal evidence from people who have got in touch with me down the years suggests that it has been in regular use throughout the lifetimes of some elderly folk in parts of the US, either in the form you give or as the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. I’m told it was a sign-off tag line of the 1930s US radio broadcaster Bradley Kincaid.

If we relied on written sources it would be hard to believe in such continued use. The written record dates the saying from about the middle of the nineteenth century. But I know of just four instances from that century. Then there’s a long gap in the record before it began to appear again in the 1950s. It took a further decade for it to become popular as a supposedly hayseed utterance, sometimes as and the crick don’t rise to reflect a regional form.

The earliest example known is this mock rustic speech:

Feller-citizens — I’m not ’customed to public speakin’ before sich highfalutin’ audiences. ... Yet here I stand before you a speckled hermit, wrapt in the risen-sun counterpane of my popilarity, an’ intendin’, Providence permittin’, and the creek don’t rise, to “go it blind!”

Graham’s American Monthly Magazine, Jun. 1851.

And this is one appearance in a newspaper:

We are an American people, born under the flag of independence and if the Lord is willing and the creeks don’t rise, the American people who made this country will come pretty near controlling it.

The Lafayette gazette (Louisiana), 3 Nov. 1894.

You will have spotted that neither of these capitalises creek, which suggests they didn’t have the Creek people in mind. In fact, virtually all the examples that I’ve found in books and newspaper archives down to the present day are in lower-case.

That argues for a more mundane origin: the old-time difficulties of travelling on dirt roads that forded rivers and streams; a sudden storm could cause water levels to rise without warning and render the route impassable. If the creek don’t rise was a whimsical way of saying that the speaker would carry out some task provided that no figurative obstacle were put in his path. It can be summarised as “if all goes well”. It’s a more conditional statement of intent than come hell or high water.

The saying has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson among others, on the usual principle that attaching a famous name to a story validates it. Mentioning Benjamin Hawkins is a masterstroke, since he was the General Superintendent for Indian Affairs between 1796 and 1818 and was principal Indian agent to the Creek nation; he became so close to its people that he learned their language, was adopted by them and married a Creek woman. Who better to write about the risks of the Creek rising in revolt?

But if the supposed letter was ever written, it doesn’t now exist in any archive that any researcher has so far found (his letters have been published, if anybody would like to check). It must surely be the creation of a fertile modern mind desiring to put the flesh of evidence on the dry bones of outright invention. And even if it did, the initial capital letter would mean nothing, as at the time it was still common practice to capitalise all nouns.

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Page created 25 Feb 2012