Why do they call it that? History of Sweetwater in Monroe County


The revitalized downtown district in Sweetwater overflows with antique shops and restaurants.  When it comes to the origins of the name Sweetwater, this historic city is full of deep springs and tall tales about the Cherokee.

Ask around town about the history of Sweetwater and it will not take long for someone to direct you to Joe Sherlin.  The lifelong resident taught history at the Tennessee Military Academy in Sweetwater and later served as superintendent of the city school system.

"I have lived here all of my life.  That's almost 85 years," said Sherlin.  "I taught history and thought it would be interesting to do a little research on the town where I live.  Sweetwater has a rich history."

Sweetwater's foundation was built along with the railroad that rolled through Monroe County in the early 1850s.  The city officially incorporated in 1875. 

The confusion about the origin of the name began in the 1900s.  That's when W.B. Lenoir was asked to write an article on the history of Sweetwater Valley for the local newspaper.

"W.B. Lenoir and a friend concocted this story about John Howard Payne having dinner with a Cherokee chief in this valley," said Sherlin.  "He published a book in 1916 and admitted they made it up."

Lenoir's book explains that Sweetwater had "few if any traditions" and that he and a friend decided to "invent a legend."

"Have John Howard Payne on his trip from Virginia to Georgia travel through Sweetwater Valley, stop there and be entertained by a hospitable and highly intelligent chief," wrote Lenoir.  "Narrate that he [Payne] was also so much taken with the happiness of the Indian home that it inspired him to write the words and music of the song 'Home Sweet Home'; naming it 'Swatee Watee,' which in the Cherokee vernacular meant 'happy home.'  As a matter of fact neither of us knew of such words in the Cherokee language, and if there were such words had not the remotest idea what they meant."

"And that was published in the Sweetwater Telegram.  I don't know if they enjoyed the grape or not while they were writing that," laughed Sherlin.  "It is still thought by some people to be true, so that shows you the power of the press."

The term "Swatee Watee" does not exist in the Cherokee language and certainly does not translate to "happy home."  In truth, the name Sweetwater is somewhat self-explanatory.

"We had springs all over the place," said Sherlin.  "The water was deep, it was cool, and it was sweet.  It tasted good."

The groundwater supply is abundant throughout the region surrounding Sweetwater.  The Lost Sea is located a few miles from the city.  One small spring in downtown Sweetwater has served as part of the city's water supply since 1908.

"The city bought Cannon Spring from the Cannon family after lightning struck downtown and nearly burned it all down.  The Cannons sold it for about $900.  Today it still pumps out about 300,000 gallons of water a day for the city.  That has to be one of the best investments any municipality has ever made," said Sherlin.

While residents and wildlife continue to have their cups overflow with the savory waters of Monroe County, Sherlin said it is the people who make the area especially sweet.

"Sweetwater is a small town full of great people.  It is a beautiful community.  The people make Sweetwater, not the name," said Sherlin.