How Did Sequatchie Valley Get Its Name?

Please note:  The following entry is highly tentative and is subject to substantial revision as more research is completed.  After it was written, I have discovered a very old map which shows a town “Sequache.” [John Herbert’s map of 1744] [A new mapp of his maiestys flourishing province of South Carolina : shewing ye settlements of y[e] English, French and Indian nation / Jn. Herbert]  Here below is that map, and following the map is an enlarged section of the map showing Sequache a little to the right and slightly below the center.  [Enlarge either map for better viewing by left-clicking on it.]

Herbert Map 1744 Full

Herbert Map1744 enlarged

Google Earth reveals a remarkable and prominently visible valley, some 150 miles long, almost unnaturally straight, only three to five miles wide, extending from west of Knoxville southwestward to Blount County, Alabama.  The part in Tennessee is called the Sequatchie Valley; the Alabama portion is known as Brown’s Valley.  The satellite photo here is one made by NASA.


The Sequatchie River originates in southern Cumberland County, Tennessee, and meanders from side to side within the valley for a good part of the valley’s length, until it empties into the Tennessee River just west of Chattanooga.  Were the river stretched out straight, it would likely extend for well over 200 miles, but, because of its tortuosities, it traverses not quite the entire Valley within Tennessee and none at all in Alabama, of course.  Officially, it is reported to be 116 miles long, but even that figure incorporates most of the major meanders in its determination.

Before the Valley had been studied more authoritatively, it was believed to be a rift valley, which would have made it all the more remarkable.  Geologists have long since determined that it is actually an eroded anticline.  Either case would have explained the sometimes very steep escarpments on either side of the Valley.  As so often happens with other errors in every field, the designation as a rift valley [“one of only two on the planet”] has been copied into succeeding works and is still found in many references today.

Our interest lies in the word Sequatchie.  How came the Valley and the River to have this name?   And, therein we find other problems.

Mooney declares that the River—and therefore, the Valley—takes its name from a traditional Cherokee settlement on the south bank of the French Broad River, near the point at which the French Broad joins the Holston to form the Tennessee River.  In this case, I think by “traditional” he means that there must have been some memories of stories of such a place among older Cherokee people in the late 19th Century.  To this date, I have not been able to find any old maps or other historical sources to verify its precise location, and I have examined dozens of them.  He says that the name of the ancient town was Sigwetsi.  A map showing Frankliniana [eastern Tennessee] in 1813 shows no sign of the settlement or even of the large Valley.  An 1814 map has at least some hints of the Valley, but no name is applied to it, and a 1756 map seems to show it, also without a name.  One 1775 map shows a river corresponding to the location of the Sequatchie River; it is labeled the “Salecook” River.  [Salecook is probably an English attempt at “saligugi,” the Cherokee word for the common snapping turtle and the alligator snapping turtle of the Southeastern US.]

Chambers of commerce and historical sites in the region say the Valley was named for the Cherokee “chief” Sequachee or Sequatchie, who “signed the Turkeytown Treaty” of 1817, or who “signed a treaty with colonial South Carolina.”  I have found no such signer for any treaty involving the Cherokee.  If he signed any treaty, it must have been a very obscure one; however, I am continuing the research, and I will report the error if I am wrong.  Personally, I doubt that there was ever a “Chief Sequachee” who signed any treaty.  If I prove to be wrong, I will own up to it.

In the 1835 Henderson Roll, the last census of the Cherokee in the East before the Trail of Tears, there does appear one Sequahchee, who lived in Georgia.  He had no traceable connection with the Valley, and I feel quite sure that it was not named for him or his family.  He probably was removed to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

[On that same roll, we find the name Sequegee, at least some of whose family survived the Trail of Tears, and whose modern descendants are the Sequichie family of Oklahoma.  Joyce Sequichie Hifler is a well-known author and columnist who has written nine inspirational books with Cherokee themes.]

Let’s see if I can assemble what I have learned from some intensive research into a plausible whole.  The following is much more speculative than is my usual practice, and it is subject to argument and correction if later research proves it highly unlikely.

The Knoxville area was first settled by whites in the 1780s.  Cherokee people living there knew about the old village of Sigwetsi, and perhaps some of it even remained intact.  I suspect that the town did not come into being until after the Spanish explorers passed through.  I will explain that reasoning shortly.

From the vicinity of old Sigwetsi, a trail developed to the west through what is now Kingston to the head of Sequatchie Valley.  The route came to be called informally “the Sequatchie road.”  English speakers spelled it more or less that way in letters and documents, some written in the early 1800s.  Because the Sequatchie road led to the Valley, it was only natural for the Valley to become the Sequatchie Valley.  I can’t prove all of this, but there are enough indications from old letters and documents to provide some support for my conclusions.

Now, having settled that, let us see what the meaning of Sigwetsi was likely to have been.

The Cherokee had never seen hogs before the Spanish explorers came, so they used the word for opossum (si’qua) as a name for them. That left them with the necessity to distinguish ‘possums from pigs, so the ‘possum came to be called “siqua utsetsidi,” the “grinning pig,” a short form of which is “siqua-utsets.” Nowadays, only the grin is left, and the possum is just “utsetsidi” [pronounced roughly “oo-chets’-dee,” depending on the dialect].  Sigwetsi is merely a shortened form of “siqua utsetsidi.”  Such shortenings are common in Cherokee.  The shortened form would have been accented on the –qua- element, becoming roughly “siQUAchets.”   And that became Sequatchie in the white man’s pronunciation.

Sigwetsi, then, was Mooney’s best approximation of the name of the settlement, and the village name is likely to have meant “Opossum Place” to the Cherokee who lived there.  That’s ” ‘Possum Town” to you and me.

You may be sure that my research into the origin of Sequatchie will continue.

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