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The Origin of the Name "Sewickley"

Agnes L. Ellis’s local history, Lights and Shadows of Sewickley Life; or, Memories of Sweet Valley, was first published in 1891 and greatly expanded in 1893.

Her explanation for the origin of the Sewickley name has been cited by local historians ever since. On page 36 of the second edition she states, "I remember seeing a letter, that had travelled some hundreds of miles, directed to 'Sweet Valley or Switleyville.' It came all right with its queer directions, and 'Sweet Valley' has always seemed since then to tell the story of the place….."

On page 39 of the same edition she expands on this:

"The Indians called the water Seweekly that ran from the maple trees, meaning sweet water, and for a time the trees were called by the old residents 'Seweekly trees.' Gradually the streams were called Seweekly, and we now know them as Big Sewickley and Little Sewickley Creeks. The name 'Sewickleyville' was decided on in the autumn of 1840. Previously, 'Contention,' 'Fifetown,' and 'Bowling Green' were among the names by which it was called."

Although Ellis’s theories are picturesque, the village was probably named for a sub-tribe of the Shawnee Indians, the Asswikales. At least six other locations and streams in Western Pennsylvania had previously been named for these Native Americans, some of them well over a hundred years before the name “Sewickleyville” was adopted in 1840. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (Frederick Webb Hodges, editor, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30, 1910, vol. 2, p. 516) provides the most detailed information regarding the Asswikales tribe:

"Sewickley. A former village of the Shawnee, called by the early Indian traders Asswikales (see Hathawekela), later shortened to Swickleys, situated on the n. side of the Allegheny r., about 12 m. above Pittsburg, near the site of Springdale, Allegheny co., Pa. In the notes given in the table of distances by James Le Tort before the Pennsylvania Council (1731), he speaks of 50 families of these Asswikales “lately from Carolina to Potowmack, & from thence thither; making 100 men; Aqueloma, their Chief.” ... These Shawnee, a short time before, had settled on the w. branches of the Susquehanna, whence they moved to the Conemaugh, then down the Kiskiminetas to the Allegheny.... A number of these Shawnee were located along the streams in Westmoreland co., hence the name for Sewickley cr., Sewickley settlement, etc. The town on the Allegheny is noted on Bonnecamp’s map of 1749 as “Ancien Village des Chaouanons”, through which place Celeron de Bienville passed in that year.... Sewickly’s old T.—Evans map, 1755. Sewicklys Old Town.—Scull map, 1770; Pownall map, 1776. Village des Chaouanons.—Bonnecamp map, 1749." The “Hathawekela” reference appears in vol. 1, p. 536, of the same handbook:

"Hathawekela. A principal division of the Shawnee, the name of which is of uncertain etymology. They emigrated from the S. about 1697, together with other Shawnee bands, and settled with them, partly on Susquehanna and partly on Allegheny r., Pa., where they are mentioned in 1731. Sewickley, Pa., probably takes its name from them...."

A History of the Presbyterian Church of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, prepared by a Committee of the Congregation in 1914, contains a chapter by Franklin Taylor Nevin entitled “Sewickley: A Historical Sketch.” On page 80, he states:

"Charles A. Hanna, in his exhaustive study of the early history of this region, The Wilderness Trail (published in 1911), says (vol. i, page 298): 'The name of the Asswikales Indians who came from South Carolina has been preserved to the present day under the form of Sewickley, a name now applied to two creeks, forty miles apart, one on the east and the other on the west side of Pittsburgh.' Elsewhere, he gives the following variants of the tribal name, some of which result from differences in the native dialects: Assekales, Asswekalaes, Shaweygilas, and Shaweygiras. The oldest form, he says, appears to have been Sawakola or Sawolki, derived from [the] two Indian words sawi, raccoon, and ukli, town."

Nevin goes on to say:

"Be the derivation of the name as it may, the earliest mention of Sewickley as the name of a locality seems to have been in the form “Sewichly Old Town,” in a grant from the Six Nations to George Croghan, dated 1749....

"In an interesting letter, now in the possession of Mr. Gilbert A. Hays, which is dated at Pittsburgh, 31st December 1767, and written by one John Campbell, an Indian trader, reference is made for the first time, so far as is now known, to the Sewickley lying on the north bank of the Ohio River. He says: 'Four Men that I sent off in a Cannoe and who had gone but a short Distance below the Point had nearly been overset, and with great Difficulty returned without daring to attempt the Recovery of the Batteau. She was seen passing the Sewicly Bottom (a Place about 12 or 14 miles off,) that Night and was sound.'

"The locality is named again, as early as the year 1779, when the Delaware Indians, in gratitude for his treatment of them, offered to Colonel George Morgan, the first Indian agent at Fort Pitt, as a free gift, a strip of land extending roughly from what is now Haysville to Legionville and back to the tops of the highest hills, including the Sewickley Bottom, a tract possibly six miles long by three wide. This gift Colonel Morgan declined to accept in return for “merely doing his duty,” as he expressed it."

Another early reference to the immediate area appeared twenty years before the name “Sewickleyville” was adopted. The Blaine family had built a substantial home along Big Sewickley Creek, above the Ohio River. Gail Hamilton [Dodge] writes in her 1895 Biography of James G. Blaine:

"Here lived and prospered James Blaine and here his son Ephraim Lyon [Blaine] brought his bride. A letter of 1820 from one of his friends says playfully, if somewhat incoherently, 'The Duke of Sewickley, Late Middlesex, it is said, will take a wife from the backwoods, and has selected Maria Gillespie as the object.'"

James G[illespie] Blaine, son of Ephraim and Maria, was to become one of the most prominent politicians in America, serving as Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1869-75, as Secretary of State in 1881 and 1889-92, and as the Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1884.

From the best documented evidence, one must conclude that the name Sewickley was derived from an Indian word for a Native American tribe or the native raccoon. After 100 years, it may seem misguided to reject Agnes Ellis’s reference to Sewickley as “Sweetwater.” Today, however, many consider another of the early proposed names for the town — “Contention” — most appropriate of all.


Agnes Ellis’s Lights and Shadows of Sewickley Life and Franklin T. Nevin’s The Village of Sewickley (which also contains the historical sketch found in the church history) are available in $20.00 reprint editions from the Historical Society. See our web site, www.sewickleyhistory.org, email us at sewickleyhistory@verizon.net, or call 412-741-5315 for details.

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