Revised 27 December 2010
Recommended reading: "Tennessee Genealogical Research" by George K. Schweitzer. Address 407 Regent Court, Knoxville, TN 37923.
The settlement of Tennessee occurred as a result of its mountains and rivers. People came to this state on foot or down the rivers. It is geographically divided into three main areas and this is why you hear books refer to it as East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.
East Tennessee is the area between the peaks of the Unaka Mountains and the centerline of the Cumberland Plateau. Middle Tennessee consists of the area from the Cumberland Plateau to the northward-flowing Tennessee River. West Tennessee begins at the Tennessee River and ends at the Mississippi River.
The Unaka Range, which forms the eastern boundary, runs north/south. It begins in New York and ends in Alabama. The Mississippi River begins in Minnesota and flows in a southward direction to the Louisiana delta. There are numerous other rivers, which flow through this state giving it waterway access from other states. The Tennessee River, as mentioned above, flows in a northward direction in some places and southward in others. The Holston River feeds into the Tennessee River from Virginia. The Watauga, Nolichucky, French Broad and Little Tennessee Rivers come from North Carolina.
The Cumberland River is, like the northward flowing Tennessee River, situated in Middle Tennessee. It starts in Kentucky, dips into Tennessee in the northeast corner of Middle Tennessee, goes on to Nashville, then heads back north, where it re-enters Kentucky to flow toward and into the Ohio River.
The Southern part of Middle Tennessee is watered by the Duck River, which flows into the Northbound Tennessee River. The Tennessee River crosses Kentucky then empties into the Ohio River just below the Cumberland River. In West Tennessee, its westward slant causes all its streams except the Big Sandy to flow into the Mississippi River.
Now that we are all confused. Let's look at who was here first. The Chickasaw Indians lived in northern Mississippi and claimed all of west Tennessee and part of Middle Tennessee as their hunting grounds. The Creek, Yucki and Cherokee claimed East Tennessee. The northern half of Middle Tennessee, which comprised the Cumberland Valley, was the home of the Shawnee tribes.
In 1700 to 1714, the Chickasaw and Cherokee tribes united to drive the Shawnee north and out of middle Tennessee. They claimed all of east Tennessee, all of Middle Tennessee and most of Kentucky as their hunting grounds after that date.
The first non-Indian explorers in that area were the Spanish led by Hernando DeSoto in 1539/41. In 1566, another group came across headed by Juan Pardo. He built a fort and named it St Elena. The fort was located near Chattanooga. He lived there for a short period then returned to Florida, from whence he came. In 1873, Abraham Wood of Britain decided he wanted to trade with the Indians. He was from Fort Henry, Virginia (Now called Petersburg). He traded guns, ammunition, tools and cloth to the Indians in exchange for furs and hides. His agents, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, accompanied by eight Indians, entered into the Cherokee area and traded with the Cherokees. The same year, two Frenchmen, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet brought five companions from Lake Michigan, down the Mississippi River to the Chickasaw Bluffs, near present-day Memphis. Nine years later, another French party, under the leadership of Robert Lavelier de La Salle, built Fort Prud'homme. This fort was located near where the Hatchie River empties into the Mississippi River. That portion is now in Lauderdale county, Tennessee. The fort became an important stopping place for French traders.
From 1673 to 1714, both the British and French continued active trading with the Indians. Both claimed the territory of Tennessee and both tried to cultivate the Indians' favor in order to consolidate their claim. The British appeared to be the favorites. The French continued to try to with the favor of the Indians and this continual currying of favor caused wars between the tribes.
By 1735, the French had a series of forts and trading posts up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. These permitted French traders, explorers, soldiers and priests to have free access throughout the colonies. In May of 1775, soldiers from Watauga helped to fight off the British at Charleston South Carolina. On July 5, 1776, the district applied to North Carolina for annexation into their territory because of the dangers of Cherokee attack. The Cherokee parties attacked the Wataugans later in July but they were defeated. Two months later, troops from Virginia and North Carolina and Tennessee destroyed four of the Cherokee towns, which resulted in a peace treaty under which terms the Indians surrendered land.
In early 1777, the Washington District was accepted by North Carolina and became part of Rowan county, North Carolina. In April of 1777, this area was transferred into Burke County and in November, they were made an independent county of North Carolina under the name Washington County. Washington County was primarily the same size as present day Tennessee.
In February of 1778, the Washington County Court met for the first time and in 1779, Jonesborough was set up as the county seat. Later that year, North Carolina split off part of Washington County and created Sullivan County. By the middle of 1780, the British threatened to take over the area. The citizens of Washington and Sullivan counties sent a 1000-man army to fight them at Kings Mountain, South Carolina and the British were defeated. Returning from this war, they found the Cherokees on the warpath again and so entered into another battle at Boyd's Creek (now Sevier County). The Cherokee were defeated on 11 December 1780 and the following spring, another expedition burned more of the Indian towns in North Carolina and Tennessee. The British surrendered on 19 October 1781 and the colonies became free.
In 1779, Richard Henderson, who had bought the Cumberland Valley lands from the Cherokee in 1775, asked James Robertson of Watauga to lead a band of settlers into the area. The area they founded was called French Lick and is now known as Nashville. They came overland through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and then down into Tennessee. A second group came down the Tennessee River, then up the Ohio River and then up the Cumberland River. There was a constant problem with the Indian tribes throughout the area. By 1783, the number of settlers had grown enough to cause the Indian threat to diminish. In 1783, the northern half of Middle Tennessee was made Davidson County, North Carolina. North Carolina was issuing land grants in this area to its Revolutionary War veterans and selling off land at five cents an acre to anyone who wanted it.
In April 1784, at the request of the United States, North Carolina ceded the remaining land in Tennessee to the federal government but they had to accept it in two years. The Wataugans were angry at being cast off by North Carolina and met in Jonesborough in August and again in December. At these meetings, they voted to form a new state to be called Franklin. Before they could act on the vote, North Carolina rescinded its action and took Tennessee back. The Wataugans ignored their actions and in March 1785, set up a state government and requested that Congress accept them as a state. Congress would not accept Franklin without the approval of North Carolina and North Carolina would not agree so Franklin died in its tracks March of 1788.
From of the Franklinites migrated southwest. In 1785, some of them, led by James White, settled in the forks of the French Broad and Holsten Rivers and thus Knoxville was born under the name of White's Fort.
In December 1789, North Carolina again ceded its lands to the United States and this time, it was accepted. It was made the Territory of the US south of the River Ohio, or the Southwest Territory. William Blount was appointed territorial governor, John Sevier was the eastern Brigadier General and James Robertson was made the western Brigadier General. Tennessee became our 16th state on 1 June 1796.
The Tennessee families shared their lands with the Cherokee Indian tribes. The Cherokee lived in farming communities and were governed by their own written legal code; most Cherokee were literate and the tribe published a newspaper written in the newly-invented Cherokee alphabet. The discovery of gold ion the Cherokee lands, however caused President Andrew Jackson to evict the tribe in 1838-39, forcing them into Oklahoma in a bitterly hard march known as the Trail of Tears.
When the Civil War broke out, Tennessee was a state divided against itself. The eastern highlanders were staunchly pro-Union, while the middle and western population were strongly pro Confederacy. With the exception of Virginia, Tennessee saw more battles than any other state. Over 400 battles were fought on her soil. One of the first Union victories came in 1862 at Fort Donnellson on the Cumberland River, but the Battle of Shiloh, which began 6 April 1862 by the Shiloh churchyard was by far one of the bloodiest battles of the war. More than 100,000 Rebel and Union troops battled it out in a battle of muskets and artillery that left more than 3,400 dead. This particular battle killed more men in battle than all of America's prior three wars combined. Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union. This was a war that split families and saw divided loyalties among neighbors. . .it pit brother against brother and made enemies out of loved ones. Tennessee was one of the first states to rejoin the union......this occurred in 1866.
Tennessee today is a mixture of the past and the future. It was the sight of a famous trial in 1925 when John Scopes was convicted in Dayton of teaching evolution in to his classes. Against that backdrop you move to 1964 to the creation of the Tennessee Space Institute and a not to be forgotten episode in 1968, with the execution of the Afro-American leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. Tennessee is a land with its eyes on the future, but within its heart, lies the pathway into the dreams of a great history.
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