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About Tennessee :: 1540-1799

Contributed by Fred Smoot


During the Summer of 1540 Hernando De Soto, Knight Commander of the Order of St. James of Compostela, Governor of Island of Cuba, Adelantado of Florida, “Child of the Sun,” Spanish Adventurer, with his expedition, by a strong mounted company of Spaniards from Florida, ransacked the Indian villages in the valley of the Tennessee River. Before entering Tennessee, they had followed through what is now Georgia and the Carolinas, believing that somewhere in the vast reaches of the wilderness there would be treasure cities to plunder. From the Tennessee valley the Spaniards moved westward for almost a year. Many of them - including grim, iron-willed De Soto - had looted with Cortez in Mexico or Pizarro in Peru and, as a matter of course, they massacred the Indians and burned their villages when they failed to find gold. They followed bison trails and Indian trade-paths, wandering south at times into Alabama and Mississippi. In April 1541 the remnants of the party planted the flag of Spain on the bluffs of the Mississippi River and made camp near the present site of Memphis. After raiding Chickasaw villages nearby for food and mussel pearls, they crossed the river to continue searching for the will-o’-the-wisp gold they were never to find.

More than a century passed before there is a record of another white man entering the territory. In 1673 a woods ranger named James Needham was commissioned by Abraham Wood, Virginia trader, to scout the possibility of trade with the Overhill Cherokee whose towns lay along the Little Tennessee and Tellico Rivers. Accompanied by Gabriel Arthur, an indentured servant, and several Indians from the Cherokee Lower Towns, Needham twice crossed the mountains into Tennessee. On the second trip he was killed by the Indians.

In the year that Needham and Arthur were in the valley of the Tennessee, Joliet and Marquette with five companions beached their canoes under the Lower Bluffs and were hospitably received in the Chickasaw villages north of the present Memphis. Other white men, French and English, may have found their way into Tennessee, but the next recorded visit was that of La Salle in 1682, when Fort Prudhomme was erected near the mouth of the Hatchie River on the First Chickasaw Bluff. A crude arrangement of earthworks and palisades occupied for only a short time, the fort soon fell into ruin.

A deserter from La Salle’s expedition, Martin Chartier, who wandered into Middle Tennessee and joined a band of Shawnee in the lower Cumberland Valley, left the valley with the tribe in 1692. Soon afterward a second Frenchman, Charles Charleville, set up a trading post in an old Shawnee stockade at French Lick, half a mile from the bluff upon which the little frontier town of Nashville was to be built nearly a century later.

During the period of conflicting claims that followed, Spain included Tennessee with the Province of Florida on the strength of De Soto’s journey. The French based their claim to the entire Mississippi Valley on La Salle’s explorations and the activities of traders from Louisiana and Canada. The English claim was derived from the Virginia and Carolina grants which had indefinite limits westward.

After Needham’s trips among the Cherokee, the English lost no time in spreading their influence west to the Mississippi. Although French traders continued to visit Tennessee, their importance waned rapidly as more English traders came over the mountains and settled among the Cherokee, usually marrying into the tribe. This persistent penetration by the English robbed the Spanish and French claims of real force.

When Virginia was partitioned in 1663, Tennessee became a western part of Carolina; thirty years later a further division left Tennessee within the jurisdiction of North Carolina. Ideas about the region remained vague well into the middle of the eighteenth century. The Upper Tennessee Valley, which Virginians thought was within their boundaries, was not explored until 1748, when Dr. Thomas Walker, sent out by the Loyal Land Company of Virginia, penetrated the territory to the present Kingsport. Two years later Walker with a party of Long Hunters (probably already familiar with the region) came down the upper Holston Valley, followed well-beaten bison trails westward, and crossed the Clinch River. From this point Walker and his wilderness scouts pushed north into Kentucky through the great mountain pass which he later named Cumberland Gap in honor of the Duke of Cumberland.

When the French and Indian War broke out, the Overhill Cherokee petitioned the colonial governments of Virginia and South Carolina to build and strongly garrison a fort in their country. Virginia acted first Major Andrew Lewis led a party into the Overhill country and built a fort near Chota, the Cherokee capital. The South Carolinians, refusing to cooperate with the Virginians, set about building a fort of their own. The work was pushed to completion in 1757 by British regulars and militia from South Carolina, under the command of Captain Paul Demore. Named Fort Loudoun in honor of the Earl of Loudoun, commander of the British forces in America at the time, this was the first Anglo-American fort garrisoned west of the Alleghenies. The Virginia fort at Chota was never occupied.

No sooner had the garrison taken possession than traders, artisans, blacksmiths, and small farmers began settling in the region protected by the fort. Many of them brought their wives, and undoubtedly the first child born in the West to parents of the Anglo-Saxon race saw the light of day in the little community.“

Fort Loudoun remained the westernmost English outpost for three years. Abandoned at the outbreak of the Cherokee War, it was reoccupied by the North Carolinians after the British victory of 1761. Trade with the Cherokee was resumed and white men could again travel unmolested through the Overhill region.

Even during the height of the war a few wilderness scouts had been hunting in Tennessee and Kentucky. The most noted of these was Daniel Boone, whom the Indians both feared and admired. When Richard Henderson of North Carolina, one of the first great American land speculators, became interested in East Tennessee and Kentucky lands, he sent Boone in 1760 to find desirable sites for settlement. A year later another landhunter, Elisha Walden, explored the Clinch and Powell Valleys.

Increasing numbers of Long Hunters, seeking lands for Henderson and other speculators, came into Tennessee. In 1765 and again in 1770 Henry Scaggs passed through the Cumberland Gap and explored the bluffs where Nashville now stands. In the next four years parties led by James Smith, Kasper Mansker, and Isaac Bledsoe extensively explored this region. One of the parties found Timothe DeMonbreun, an Illinois Frenchman, operating a trading post in a cave on the Cumberland River. When early Nashville grew up almost at his front door, DeMonbreun became one of its leading citizens.

Meanwhile actual settlement of Tennessee began in 1769, when William Bean built his cabin on Boone’s Creek near the Watauga River and several families from North Carolina joined him. Bean’s settlement and those in Carter’s River Valley (1771) and on the Nolichucky River (1772) were known as the Watauga Settlements.

Isolated in a mountain wilderness and almost entirely ignored by North Carolina, the people of the Watauga Settlements soon felt the lack of organized government. In 1772 they formed the Watauga Association and elected five magistrates to make and administer law. The records of the Association are lost and little is known about it. It is certain, however, that the Watauga constitution was the first to be written and adopted by independent white Americans.

The Wataugans had no legal title to the lands they occupied. Until March 17, 1775, the region was part of the Cherokee country, but on that date Richard Henderson’s newly created Transylvania Land Company purchased an immense tract of nearly 20,000,000 acres from the Indians. Immediately the Transylvania Company resold the Watauga territory to its settlers. Title was taken by Charles Robertson as trustee for the community.

At the outset of the Revolutionary War the Wataugans organized themselves into a military district which they named for George Washington.

They requested annexation to North Carolina and in 1777 the petition was granted. Washington District was incorporated as Washington County, including the whole of the present State, and in 1779 Jonesboro was platted as the county seat.

In the same year Colonel Evan Shelby marched from Watauga against the Chickamauga, a hostile branch of the Cherokee, and defeated them near the present Chattanooga. In 1780 news came across the mountains that Major Patrick Ferguson and a British force of about twelve hundred men, most of them loyalists, were raiding westward. The Over-Mountain men of Watauga rallied at Sycamore Shoals under John Sevier and, as they trailed eastward, were reinforced by Shelby’s Indian fighters and a force of Virginians led by Colonel William Campbell.

On October 7 they attacked the British entrenchments on King’s Mountain. The frontiersmen used the Indian tactics they knew so well, creeping from tree to tree, sniping at the British. Ferguson and about six hundred of his men were killed while the Americans lost only twenty-eight men. This, the only battle in which the Tennessee settlers took part, marked the turn of the tide in the South.

While war was going on in the East, the migration of settlers into Middle Tennessee began. Henderson’s Transylvania Company had been denied title to its purchases within Virginia’s territory, so Henderson and his associates made plans to exploit other lands believed to lie within North Carolina’s western boundaries. The Cumberland River region was picked for the first settlement. Here Nashborough was founded in 1780.

The tiny settlements of Watauga and the Cumberland were in an extremely precarious position. They were not even upon the frontiers of North Carolina, but hundreds of miles in the wilderness beyond the frontiers and open to Indian attack from the east, north, and south. In 1784 they petitioned the Assembly of North Carolina for the “salutary benefits of government.” But North Carolina immediately ceded the entire Over Mountain territory to the Federal Government, “for the frontiersmen were always on the verge of war with the Indians and in case of trouble they would require protection.” Congress was given two years in which to accept or reject the grant.

News of North Carolina’s action aroused great indignation in the settlements. Delegates from Washington, Sullivan, and Greene Counties met at Jonesboro and discussed a working plan for an independent western state to be called Franklin. In the same year (1784) a constitution, patterned after that of North Carolina, was adopted.

Concurrently the North Carolina Assembly had repealed its act of cession, but the Franklanders, as they called themselves, refused to undo their work. A general assembly met at Greeneville in March 1785, and chose officers to act under Governor John Sevier.

For four years there were continual clashes between Franklin officials and those sent over the mountains by North Carolina. When Sevier’s term as governor expired, no new election was held, and the State of Franklin collapsed.

Left unprotected again, the territorials organized “The Government South of the Holston and French Broad Rivers.” The constitution and laws of North Carolina were adopted, the Franklin officers were continued in power, and various delegations were chosen. This government functioned until 1790, when Congress accepted the second offer of cession and brought into being “The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio,” commonly known as the Southwest Territory. The Territorial government, administered largely by Presidential appointees, with William Blount as Governor, operated for nearly six years. Knoxville was selected as the seat of the government in 1792, a year after the town had been platted.

On July 2, 1791, Blount made the Treaty of the Holston with the Cherokee, who placed themselves under the protection of the United States and agreed to the extension of boundaries for white settlements. In the same year the Knoxville Gazette was temporarily set up at Rogersville and soon afterward moved to Knoxville. Four years later a wagon road was completed across the Cumberland Plateau between Knoxville and Nashville.

Tennessee had now exceeded by more than a fourth the population necessary for the formation of a state, and the constitutional convention, which met in Knoxville on January 11, 1796, petitioned Congress for admission to the Union. Here was drawn up the constitution which Thomas Jefferson called “the least imperfect and most republican” to be adopted by any of the States.

Congress delayed action and the impatient Tennesseans organized their State government before the authority had officially been granted. John Sevier, frontier dandy, soldier, land-speculator, and the most powerful political figure in the region, became the first governor. The legislature, meeting at Knoxville on March 29, 1796, elected as United States Senators William Cocke, an East Tennessee follower of Sevier, and stiff, Tory William Blount of Middle Tennessee. To fill the one seat in the House of Representatives another of Sevier’s men was elected, a swaggering high-tempered lawyer from Middle Tennessee - young Andrew Jackson.

Three months later, June 1, 1796, Congress admitted Tennessee to the Union, but refused to seat Cocke and Blount because they had been elected prior to the State’s admission. The two Senators were reelected at a special session of the legislature, and the three Tennesseans took their seats in Congress on December 5, 1796.

In the following year Blount became involved in one of the gravest scandals of the time. A European war between the new Republic of France and Great Britain was imminent. Blount’s sympathies were with Britain. He took part in a scheme to recruit in Tennessee partisan fighters for Britain and planned to send them on raids into Louisiana and Florida. A letter from him on the subject fell into the hands of an enemy and was published in the newspapers. On July 8, 1797, Blount was charged with treason and expelled from the Senate. The date for an impeachment trial was set, but the matter was dropped on a technicality because of Blount’s great popularity in the West.

Settlement of Tennessee proceeded rapidly. Home-seekers poured in from the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and even New England. They came with Revolutionary War land-grants, either earned in service or purchased from veterans or speculators. (Often these grants were forgeries.) Many of them came simply as squatters. The old Wilderness Road and Avery’s Trace were congested with “movers” during the summer months - great top-heavy Conestoga wagons drawn by oxen, broad-tired farm wagons piled high with household goods, and crude sledges with runners of hickory or oak; befrilled gentlemen astride blooded horses rawboned farmers on hairy plow-nags, peddlers and merchants with their trains of donkeys, immigrants too poor to afford horse or ox plodding through the dust clouds with their meager belongings and children on their backs - all moving west toward the promise of land in Tennessee. Other thousands came by keelboats, poled up the Cumberland and Tennessee from the Ohio.

The newcomers were often misled and swindled by shrewd first settlers who dominated the State, but they kept coming. By the end of the century the wilderness had retreated before them to the Mississippi bottomlands. From the eastern mountains to the western counties of Middle Tennessee towns had sprung up, each with its public square and log courthouse, its church that served as a schoolhouse on weekdays, its gristmill, distillery, smithy, and general store. Roads webbed the forestland, connecting outlying farms and villages with the towns, where, presently, the courthouses and churches were of brick or stone and the log dwellings sheathed with clapboards.

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