Inquiring minds: Where did the saying “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” come from?

Each week the staff at the Roseville Library answers more than 2,500 questions on every subject under the sun. Here are some of the most interesting ones they’ve gotten lately.

Q. Where did the saying “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” come from?

A.  There is a lot of speculation on the Internet about the origins of this expression, and much of it is pretty fanciful. The earliest recorded use of the expression comes from an 1851 story entitled “The Doolittle Delegation” in a magazine called Graham’s American Monthly. The author puts the phrase in the mouth of a rustic dimwit who is determined to address a convention to her fellow “wimmin” on the hilariously far-fetched topic of rights for women — “Providence permittin’ and the creek don’t rise.”

Far-fetched commentators of our own time have suggested that the “creek” in the saying refers — not to a small stream that might prevent travel by overflowing its banks — but to the possibility of the Creek Indian nation going on the warpath. These latter-day linguists have even put the words in the mouth of a real person, Benjamin Hawkins, a U.S. Senator and the General Superintendent for Indian affairs from 1796 to 1818. Thanks to the magic of Google Books search engine, however, it is possible to search The Collected Works of Benjamin Hawkins online. There’s no mention of either Indians or brooks rising in his work. 

So, unless some long-lost letter of Hawkins surfaces to prove otherwise, we’re going to have to assume that the expression was an invented piece of “down home” speech that was later adopted as a genuine popular saying.

The phrase may have gotten a twentieth century boost in popularity when legendary country singer Johnny Cash recorded a song by that name in the late 1950s.

(Internet resources)

Do you have a question for the staff at the Roseville Library? You can call them at 628-6803 or ask your question in person at the Information Desk, Roseville Library, 2180 Hamline Ave. Library hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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