God willing and the creek don’t rise

With good luck and no major problems, we can be successful.

This phrase was supposedly created in the late 18th century by Benjamin Hawkins, a politician and Indian diplomat. While in the south, Hawkins was requested by the President of the US to return to Washington. In his response, he was said to write, “God willing and the Creek don’t rise.” Because he capitalized the word “Creek” it’s been assumed that he was referring to the Creek Indian tribe and not a body of water. 

This tale is widely reproduced and believed. However, every researcher that I’ve read has  investigated the expression and dismissed the Indian connection as untrue.

Benjamin Hawkins was the General Superintendent for Indian Affairs between 1796 and 1818 and 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. 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.

The capitalization of “Creek” may have nothing to do with the Creek Indian Nation. During the time this phrase was first recorded, English grammar followed the same rules as German grammar, in which all nouns are capitalized. 

The phrase “God willing and the creek don’t rise” appears to have become popular only relatively recently. It doesn’t appear in Google Books until the 1950s, where two works used it, and then four times in the 1960s.

Second, the phrase presently is understood as a cute folkism, using the incorrect plural verb “don’t” for the singular subject “creek” (stream), or even substituting “crick.” 

The formula of “Lord/God willing and X” (where X is not a non-religious contingency) seems to have a much older history than the expression itself. Here is a quote from 1873, Charles Warren Stoddard, In a Transport, Overland Monthly, page 275, writes: “We were bound for Tahiti, God willing and the winds favorable…”

And a quote from a little later: “As Mr. Morrison puts it, ‘If the Lord is willing and the creeks don’t rise,’ the tariff battle will begin in the House to-day.” The Daily News, Frederick Maryland, Dec. 18, 1886.

I like the “practical” explanation; when creeks and rivers rise during spring floods, they can cause a lot of disruption.

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