The history of the area surrounding the Robert S. Kerr Lake may be read in the local place names of Choctaw, Cherokee, and French origin. The stretch of the Arkansas River within the lake is the boundary line between the Cherokee and Choctaw Indian Nations. On the right side (facing downstream) the Choctaws left their imprints on such communities as Keota, which may be translated as "fire gone out" and is related to the circumstance that 176 newly arrived Choctaws had died from pneumonia and the entire clan became extinct; Kanima, meaning "somewhere;" and Tamaha, meaning "town." The latter, once a steamboat landing, was the site of the capture by the Confederates, on June 15, 1864, of an armed steamboat, the "J.R. Williams."
Across the river in the Cherokee Nation lived Sequoyah, Cherokee Indian scholar who won the acclaim of the world for inventing a written language for his people. Sequoyah's log cabin, which he built himself, is enshrined within a protective structure at its original site in a quiet and beautiful setting northeast of Sallisaw.
Early French explorers and traders mingled freely with both the Cherokees and the Choctaws, leaving behind their own names for creeks and mountains and even some of the settlements. The word "Sallisaw" is from the French "salaison," meaning "salt meat" or "salt provisions," and "Vian" is a corruption of the French word, "viande," meaning "meat." Sequoyah County, created at statehood, took its name from the Sequoyah District of the Cherokee Nation, formerly Skin Bayou District, and renamed for the alphabet inventor who moved to this area of eastern Oklahoma in 1829.