When out-of-town visitors call to inquire about rafting trips they occasionally ask why the river is called the French Broad. Often this question is followed by a giggle or a snicker. “Is that a person? Was it named after a French lady or something?” The French Broad is many things, but she is not actually a person, at least not a French one.
The French Broad is a free-flowing river with a wide variety of water levels. It is one of the oldest rivers in the world and has calm, shallow sections and steep, narrow rapids. The French Broad is also warm, meandering and majestic. But what earned this river its’ current name was the overall width and the direction of the river’s flow. The French Broad river was named by settlers centuries ago who were impressed by how wide it was, especially compared to many of the other small creeks and streams in the area. Another nearby river, now known simply as The Broad River was similar in size but not in direction. Unlike most rivers in the United States the French Broad River travels north. At the time it was originally named, the French owned the land north of the river. So the derivation of the name is literal – the river is a wide, or “broad” river that flowed into the “land of the French” – a French “broad” river.
Before the new settlers arrived here though, this area belonged to the Cherokee. They not only fished in the river and played in its’ waters, they considered it a meaningful part of their livelihood and religion. According to the book The French Broad, by Wilma Dykeman, the river was part of solemn rites of passage when boys entered into manhood. The Cherokee did personify the river, calling it “The Long Man”. They referred to the specific section we now call the French Broad as Agiqua. The section with rapids in Marshall was known as Tahkeyostee, meaning “where they race”. The Cherokee were perhaps closer to the truth, the “French Broad” has many different “moods” and needs several names to properly describe it.
So the next time someone asks “Who is the French Broad” you’ll know the answer: “she” is a beautiful woman with a rich history and a wealth of things to offer to all who visit.