Sewickley History

The Sewickley Valley

The Sewickley Valley is beautiful in situation and rich in history.  Because the Valley is in a major corridor that led westward, the area was witness to momentous events in the last half of the 18th century: the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion and the American Revolution.

After the Revolution, the American Indians’ title to the land north of the Ohio River (including the Sewickley Valley) was extinguished by treaties and appropriated for the redemption of depreciation certificates, given to Pennsylvania veterans in lieu of money for services during the war.  Surveys were conducted in 1785, and the land was offered for sale, most of which was snapped up by speculators.  Not until the last Indian resistance was crushed by General Anthony Wayne and his Legion at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 was it safe to settle in the Sewickley Valley.

The first settlers arrived here in the late 1790s.  Most of the early residents were farmers, but inns and taverns soon sprang up to accommodate increasing traffic heading westward.  Flatboats and keelboats, and after 1811, steamboats, crowded the Ohio River. In time, daily stagecoach service was added on the already busy Beaver Road between Pittsburgh and Beaver.

Respectability and a sense of community came to the Valley in 1837, when James and Mary Olver moved their school for young ladies from Pittsburgh to what was known as Sewickley Bottom, naming it the Edgeworth Female Seminary; and in 1838, when John B. Champ and William M. Nevin  founded an academy for boys, today the coeducational Sewickley Academy.  Students from up and down the river were soon seeking a genteel education in Sewickleyville, as the residents decided to call their settlement in 1840.

The pace quickened with the arrival of the railroad in 1851, transforming what was a sparsely settled rural community into a very desirable suburb of the City of Pittsburgh.  Eventually there were stations at Haysville, Glen Osborne, Sewickley, Roseburg, Quaker Valley, Edgeworth, Shields and Leetsdale.  By 1910 there were fifty commuter trains a day, one leaving about every ten minutes.

On July 6, 1853, the Borough of Sewickley was incorporated.  Osborne Borough followed in 1883, and Edgeworth and Leetsdale in 1904. 

The heights above Sewickley remained undeveloped. Cochran Fleming purchased much of this land in 1881,  attempting to develop a dairy farm, but the operation went bankrupt.  Fleming’s 2200 acres were purchased for $38 an acre by four Pittsburgh businessmen, who retained acreage for themselves and sold some to carefully chosen men of wealth.  Before long, magnificent houses and attendant farms covered the hilltops, tenanted by some of America’s wealthiest families.  The Heights became even more attractive when Allegheny Country Club moved to the Heights in 1902.  As roads were improved and the automobile made access more convenient, some of the great houses were converted to year-round use, and a permanent community grew with the country club as its focus.  In 1935, Sewickley Heights Borough was formed.

In 1911, the Sewickley-Coraopolis Bridge was completed, uniting the north and south banks of the Ohio River and rendering the three local ferries obsolete.  A second bridge replaced the original in 1981.  In 1929, the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad were moved closer to the river, making way for the construction of Ohio River Boulevard, completed as far as Sewickley in 1934.  Increased reliance on the automobile eventually spelled the end for passenger rail service, which ended in 1989.  Sewickley was conveniently near the Pittsburgh Airport when it was constructed after World War II, ensuring a bright future. 

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call 412-741-5315 for details.

Depreciation Lands

You may have noticed that the Sewickley Valley Historical Society has recently installed blue and yellow signs in a number of Sewickley Valley boroughs to show the location of a north south line that runs through our lives. This was the first mark placed upon these lands by the Europeans, two hundred and twenty-five years ago in 1785. Here is the story.

Read more: Depreciation Lands

Sewickley in a Hurry

Sewickley Valley:

Traditional name for land extending from Glenfield to Beaver County line at Big Sewickley Creek.

 

Quaker Valley:

A designation that arose during the 1960s when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania mandated larger school districts. The name is a compromise that harks back to the Quaker roots of one of the pioneer families - the Ways - and the fact that there was at one time a railroad station called Quaker Valley. Quaker Valley station was located at the foot of Academy Avenue on the property of the Way Family.

 

The Name Sewickley:

Citizens of the town met to consider a name for their town in 1840, choosing the name Sewickleyville over Fifetown, Contention, Devil's Race Track and Dogtown. The town was incorporated as Sewickley in 1853.

 

Name Origin:

History records a tribe of Indians called Assiwikales. Popular version is that Seweekly is an Indian name for the sap of the maple trees that were abundant in the rich virgin forest - thus, Sweetwater.

 

Influences On History:

  • The Great Beaver Road - Conestoga wagons, etc.
  • The Ohio River - Steamboats and river captains
  • The Railroad - Pennsylvania R. R.'s main line west, July 4, 1851
  • Migration of iron and steel families from Pittsburgh
  • Sewickley Bridge, 1911
  • Ohio River Boulevard - Opened December 15, 1934
  • Greater Pittsburgh Airport after World War II

 

Visitors & Residents

  • George Washington, 1753
  • Col. Bouquet, 1764
  • Gen. Anthony Wayne, 1792
  • Gen. Zachary Taylor, 1848
  • Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1901) - Native Son
  • Willa Cather - Visitor, 1900
  • William Howard Taft - Visitor
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) - Resident
  • Estate Families - Jones, Laughlin, Byers, Oliver, Boggs, Buhl

 

Prepared by Sewickley Valley Historical Society, 2001

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