The French Broad River flows from near Rosman in Transylvania County, North Carolina, into Tennessee. Its confluence with the Holston River at Knoxville, Tennessee is considered to be the headwaters of the Tennessee River. It was originally named for being one of two broad rivers in western North Carolina . The one which flowed into French colonial territory was named the French Broad, and the other which stayed in English territory (the American colonies) was named the English Broad, now just the Broad River. A variant name of the French Broad River is Agiqua River, commonly seen on old maps.
The river begins west of the Eastern Continental Divide, and thereafter flows northwest through the Appalachian Mountains. The river follows a general northwesterly direction as it flows through Transylvania County, Henderson County, and Buncombe County. In Buncombe County, the river flows through the city of Asheville, where it picks up the Swannanoa River. Downstream of Asheville, the river proceeds north through Madison County, where it flows through the county seat of Marshall. In Cocke County, Tennessee the river picks up the Pigeon River and the Nolichucky River, after which it is impounded behind Douglas Dam. In Sevier County, Tennessee it picks up the Little Pigeon River, then flows through a wide gap in Bays Mountain before joining the Holston River at Knoxville.
The Tennessee portion of the French Broad was designated a state scenic river by the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. Approximately 33 river miles in Cocke County, Tennessee, starting at the North Carolina border and extending downstream to the confluence with Douglas Lake, are designated as Class III, Partially Developed.
The lower portion of the river is the site of a major hydroelectric dam development of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Douglas Dam, which is one of the larger TVA developments on a Tennessee River tributary stream. Douglas, like many of the older TVA facilities in East Tennessee, was initially developed largely to meet the electric power demands of World War II defense industries.