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About Tennessee :: Pre-Historical



A HISTORY OF TENNESSEE :: The Land and Native People
Tennessee Blue Book

Tennessee’s great diversity in land, climate, rivers, and plant and animal life ismirrored by a rich and colorful past. For all but the last 200 years of the 12,000years or so that this country has been inhabited, the story of Tennessee is the storyof its native peoples. The fact that Tennessee and many of the places in it still carryIndian names serves as a lasting reminder of the significance of its native inhabit-ants. Since much of Tennessee’s appeal for her ancient people as well as for laterpioneer settlers lay with the richness and beauty of the land, it seems fitting tobegin by considering some of the state’s generous natural gifts.

Tennessee divides naturally into three “grand divisions”—upland, often moun-tainous, East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee with its foothills and basin, and thelow plain of West Tennessee. Travelers coming to the state from the east encounterfirst the lofty Unaka and Smoky Mountains, flanked on their western slope by theGreat Valley of East Tennessee. Moving across the Valley floor, they next face theCumberland Plateau, which historically attracted little settlement and presenteda barrier to westward migration. West of the Plateau, one descends into the Cen-tral Basin of Middle Tennessee—a rolling, fertile countryside that drew huntersand settlers alike. The Central Basin is surrounded on all sides by the HighlandRim, the western ridge of which drops into the Tennessee River Valley. Across theriver begin the low hills and alluvial plain of West Tennessee. These geographical“grand divisions” correspond to the distinctive political and economic cultures ofthe state’s three regions.

Tennessee possesses a climate advantageous for people and agriculture, withabundant rainfall and a long, temperate growing season. The area generally is freefrom the long droughts and freezes of more extreme climes. The three major riversthat flow around and across Tennessee—the Mississippi, Tennessee andCumberland Rivers—have created watersheds which cover most of the state. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville and flows in a southwesterly direction intoAlabama, then loops back north to the Kentucky border. The Cumberland Riverdrains northern Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee is covered by a network ofsluggish streams, swamps and lakes which flow directly into the Mississippi River.These rivers and their tributary streams have played a significant role from theearliest times by yielding fish and mussels, by serving as major transportationroutes, and by creating the fertile bottom soils that attracted farmers.

Fossil-laden rocks found across Ten-nessee attest to the fact that warm,shallow seas covered the state in thedistant past. Coal-bearing strata of thePennsylvanian period are presentthroughout the Cumberland Plateau.Plant and dinosaur fossils of the Cre-taceous epoch occur in the sandstonesof West Tennessee. Remains of extinctmammoths, mastodons and giantsloths, driven south by the advancingglaciers of the Ice Age, can be foundin the Pleistocene deposits of West andMiddle Tennessee.

The story of man in Tennessee be-gins with the last retreat of the IceAge glaciers, when a colder climateand forests of spruce and fir prevailed in the region. Late Ice Age hunters prob-ably followed animal herds into this area some 12,000-15,000 years ago. Thesenomadic Paleo-Indians camped in caves and rock shelters and left behind theirdistinctive arrowheads and spear points. They may have used such stone agetools to hunt the mastodon and caribou that ranged across eastern Tennessee.About 12,000 years ago, the region’s climate began to warm and the predomi-nant vegetation changed from conifer to our modern deciduous forest. Abundantacorns, hickory, chestnut and beech mast attracted large numbers of deer andelk. Warmer climate, the extinction of the large Ice Age mammals, and the spreadof deciduous forests worked together to transform Indian society.

During what is known as the Archaic period, descendants of the Paleo-Indiansbegan to settle on river terraces, where they gathered wild plant food and shell-fish in addition to hunting game. Sometime between 3,000 and 900 B.C., nativestook the crucial step of cultivating edible plants such as squash and gourds—thefirst glimmerings of agriculture. Archaic Indians thereby ensured a dependablefood supply and freed themselves from seasonal shortages of wild plant foodsand game. With a more secure food supply, populations expanded rapidly andscattered bands combined to form larger villages.

The next major stage of Tennessee pre-history, lasting almost 2,000 years, isknown as the Woodland period. This era saw the introduction of pottery, the begin-nings of settled farming communities, the construction of burial mounds and thegrowing stratification of Indian society. Native Americans in Tennessee made thetransition from societies of hunters and gatherers to well-organized tribal, agricultural societies dwell-ing in large, permanent towns.

The peak of prehis-toric cultural develop-ment in Tennesseeoccurred during theMississippian period(900-1,600 A.D.). Cul-tivation of new andimproved strains ofcorn and beans fueledanother large jump inpopulation. An in-crease in territorialwarfare and the erec-tion of ceremonialtemples and public structures attest to the growing role of chieftains and tribalismin Indian life. Elaborate pottery styles and an array of personal artifacts such ascombs, pipes, and jewelry marked the complex society of these last prehistoric in-habitants of Tennessee.

The first European incursions into Tennessee proved highly disruptive to thepeople then living in the region. In their futile search for gold and silver, Hernandode Soto’s band in 1541 and two later expeditions led by Juan Pardo encounteredNative Americans. By introducing firearms and, above all, deadly Old World dis-eases, such contacts hastened the decline of these tribes and their replacement byother tribes, notably the Cherokee. The advent of the gun brought about majorchanges in Native American hunting technique and warfare. Indians grew in-creasingly dependent on the colonial fur trade by supplying European traders withdeer and beaver hides in exchange for guns, rum and manufactured articles. Thisdependence, in turn, eroded the Indians' traditional self-sufficient way of life andtied them ever closer to the fortunes of rival European powers. [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]