Must be something in the water

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As part of my run through the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域) of Pennsylvania, I wrote to Ed Shaughnessy asking him which town he was from, since I knew he came from somewhere around Pittsburgh, and it might be nice to be aware of where he grew up if I happened to run through that town.  Ed wrote back that he came from Sewickley, which lies 12 miles to the northwest of Pittsburgh along the Ohio River. 

Ed himself is a distinguished Sinologist, so it is remarkable that a little river town with less than four thousand population would also be home to other well-known China specialists, including J. Stapleton Roy (former US ambassador to China [1991-1995]) and his brother David Tod Roy (former professor of Chinese literature at the University of Chicago, where he was Ed's colleague [b. 1933-d. 2016]), Catherine Swatek (professor emerita of Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia), and Jon von Kowallis (professor of Chinese Studies at the University of New South Wales in Australia).

As Ed says, "There must have been something in the water (for your Language Log people, Sewickley is said to mean Sweet Water in one or another Indian language; I presume they were the ones who inhabited Mingo)".

I replied:

I'm glad I asked about which place you came from, because now I learn all of that fascinating stuff about the Sinological associations of this small Ohio River town.  I see that it has its own bridge across the Ohio River, and that to the northeast there are Sewickley Heights and Sewickley Hills.

Being the inveterate etymologist that I am, I could not help but look into the origins of the name Sewickley.

Historian Charles A. Hanna suggested "Sewickley" came from Creek words for "raccoon" (sawi) and "town" (ukli). According to Hanna, the Asswikale branch of the Shawnee probably borrowed their name from the neighboring Sawokli Muscogee before the former's migration from present-day South Carolina to Pennsylvania. Contemporary accounts from noted anthropologist Frederick Webb Hodge and the Sewickley Presbyterian Church, as well as the current Sewickley Valley Historical Society concur to varying degrees with Hanna's etymology. Some locals alternatively consider Sewickley to be a Native American word meaning "sweet water."


Ed's comment that the speakers of one or another Indian language for whom Sewickley is said to have meant Sweet Water may have been "the ones who inhabited Mingo)" sent me running off in another direction, since we have a Mingo at the eastern end of the state in Montgomery County.  There's a story behind how that transpired.

The Mingo people are an Iroquoian-speaking group of Native Americans made up of peoples who migrated west to the Ohio Country in the mid-18th century, primarily Seneca and Cayuga. Anglo-Americans called these migrants mingos, a corruption of mingwe, an Eastern Algonquian name for Iroquoian-language groups in general. Mingos have also been called "Ohio Iroquois" and "Ohio Seneca".

The etymology of the name Mingo derives from the Delaware word, mingwe or Minque as transliterated from their Algonquian language, meaning treacherous or stealthy. In the 17th century, the terms Minqua or Minquaa were used interchangeably to refer to the Iroquois and to the Susquehannock, both Iroquoian-speaking tribes.

The Mingo had a bad reputation and were sometimes called "Blue Mingo" or "Black Mingo" for their misdeeds. The people who became known as Mingo migrated to the Ohio Country in the mid-eighteenth century, part of a movement of various Native American tribes away from European pressures to a region that had been sparsely populated for decades but controlled as a hunting ground by the Iroquois. The "Mingo dialect" that dominated the Ohio valley from the late 17th to early 18th centuries is considered a variant most similar to the Seneca language.


Ed's further remarks tie a lot of loose ends together:

I didn't know about the town of Mingo on your side of the state. I knew of Mingo as a general term for the Indians living in the upper Ohio valley in the mid-18th c., and as the name of a major Indian settlement then and there (probably not their own name, but that given by the first white explorers of the area). I think it was located near Beaver, PA [pop. 4,531], but I'm not sure. I recall reading that, in 1750, it had about 15,000 inhabitants, making it probably the third or fourth largest city in eastern North America, after New York and Philadelphia and maybe Charleston, SC. Perhaps of interest to Language Log readers, I remember reading too that speakers of something like eight different languages were living there then.

It's been a long time since I lived in Sewickley, but I still think very fondly of it. Sewickley does indeed have a bridge (appropriately named the Sewickley bridge, but I suspect the people of Coraopolis on the other side of the river look on it differently), and the Sewickley Heights at least used to be one of the wealthiest regions in the country. A run through those hills will keep you young.

Whether "sweet water" is the true etymology of Sewickley or not, there seems to be something about the environment there that fosters Sinophilia.


Selected readings


  1. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 17, 2021 @ 8:46 am

    "As part of my run through the Western Regions (Xīyù 西域) of Pennsylvania"

    I've always felt there was something vaguely Parthian about the foothills of the Appalachians…

    "Some locals alternatively consider Sewickley to be a Native American word meaning 'sweet water.'"

    That had always been what we were told at Sewickley Academy ('85-'97), and darned near every fourth business establishment there is called "Sweetwater [something-or-other]". I fell into Little Sewickley Creek once, though — what's the Algonquin word for "brackish"?

    "Sewickley Heights at least used to be one of the wealthiest regions in the country."

    Still is. My bus route used to take me down avenues with great stone walls on either side, bordering the vast estates beyond. Now, those walls make sense to me — how else would Chinggis Hillman and Shah Mellon keep their war horses from wandering?

  2. rpsms said,

    June 17, 2021 @ 10:23 am

    I always thought "sweet water" referred to the sewickley tree (sugar maple), i.e. maple sugar.

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