A frontier outpost of the British Empire

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my historic site reviews, but the other day I tagged along on a trip to Fort Loudoun State Historic Area near Vonore, TN.  This is another of those fascinating frontier-era sites in East Tennessee that I’ve intended to visit for a good, long while.  (It’s funny how you’ll drive hundreds of miles to see a site but go years without hitting the ones in your backyard.)

During the French and Indian War, both sides lobbied America’s tribes for military aid.  The British tried to enlist the Cherokee in their war for empire, but Cherokee warriors balked at leaving their villages undefended.  In 1756 South Carolina began constructing a fort on the Little Tennessee River to offer protection to these Overhill towns and to help improve trade between the tribe and the British.  This fort, named for the Earl of Loudoun, was the first significant European structure in what is now Tennessee.

Colonial alliances between whites and Indians were about as stable as Hollywood marriages, and the relationship between the British and Cherokee was no exception.  Indians passing through Virginia angered settlers by stealing their horses.  Colonists killed British-allied Indians for scalp money.  As reprisals took place on both sides, colonial authorities finally imprisoned a number of Cherokee chiefs in South Carolina.  A party of warriors attacked the fort to free the hostages, but the attack failed and the chiefs were put to death.

By the summer of 1760, the same Ft. Loudoun built to cement the Cherokee-British alliance was deep in enemy territory and under a loose siege by the very Indians it was supposed to protect.  Promised safe passage, the garrison started a long trek back to South Carolina.  They didn’t get far before disgruntled Cherokee warriors attacked them; many were captured and later ransomed, while others (including Paul Demere, the British officer in charge) met extremely unpleasant ends at the hands of the Indians.  Maybe the Cherokee were upset that Demere broke the surrender terms by hiding some of the fort’s arms, or maybe they were still upset over the murder of the chiefs held hostage in South Carolina.

Fort Loudoun State Historic Area tells this complex story of alliances made and broken on the outskirts of Britain’s empire.  The centerpiece is a full-scale reconstruction of the fort.  You can explore the barracks, bastions, guardhouse, commandant’s quarters, blacksmith shop, oven, and some fairly extensive outer works (a parapet, dry moat, and chevaux-de-frise).  It’s an impressive structure, and as an added bonus, the view from the elevated rear area is pretty spectacular.

The bad news is that it’s not even remotely similar to the view you would have had 250 years ago—or even three decades ago, for that matter.  Originally the ground around Ft. Loudoun was bottomland, but now it’s at the bottom of a man-made lake.  In the 1970′s, the TVA—as part of its ongoing effort to improve the lives of Appalachians by putting their homes underwater—dammed the Little Tennessee River, which overflowed its banks and flooded the area surrounding the fort site.  In the process, they completely destroyed important Cherokee archaeological sites, sent the endangered snail darter packing, and turned the site of Ft. Loudoun into an island.  To make things even more confusing, the reservoir around Ft. Loudoun is called “Tellico Lake,” but there’s another TVA project called “Ft. Loudoun Lake” that’s farther from the fort site than Tellico.  Go figure.

One of the Indian town sites destroyed by the Tellico Dam project was Tuskegee, boyhood home of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee writing system.  The park features a couple of reconstructed Cherokee dwellings, one for the summer months and one for the winter months, that illustrate the types of structures found in the villages that Ft. Loudoun was built to protect.

I used to think that the original site of Ft. Loudoun itself was underwater, too, but the reconstruction is on the original spot, although it’s seventeen feet higher in order to keep the reservoir at bay.  The idea that the original site got flooded is a common error that first appeared in a Tennessee history textbook, according to the excellent guide who showed my group around the fort.  Dressed in full redcoat gear, he was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the site, the life of an eighteenth-century British soldier, the region’s history, and early American history in general.  It was one of the smoothest, most thorough tour presentations I’ve heard in a long, long time.

I’ve always maintained that the ultimate test for any visitor center is whether or not any visitor, especially one who knows nothing about a site, can have a fulfilling and interesting tour of the grounds based solely on what they learn from the film and exhibit.  I think Ft. Loudoun would pass this test with flying colors; in fact, it’s the best visitor center I’ve seen at any of the state-run historic sites in Tennessee that I’ve been able to visit.  A fifteen-minute film covers the fort’s context in the colonial struggle for control of North America, its construction, daily life within its walls, and its eventual fall.  The exhibit is small but extremely well-done, incorporating artifacts from the excavations that have taken place at the site over the years.  It’s a fascinating look at how the inhabitants of an outpost on the edge of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire lived their lives.

I’ll also point out that if you’re into the French and Indian War, you’d better bring some disposable income with you.  The gift shop is stocked with hard-to-find academic titles and really great commemorative prints, as well as the usual souvenir items for kids.

You might want to plan on spending some extra time, too, because Ft. Loudoun isn’t the only historic site in the park.  In the 1790′s the federal government built Tellico Blockhouse just a short distance away from where Ft. Loudoun stood, partly to provide the Cherokees with protection from settlers, and partly to domesticate them by teaching them farming and manufacturing techniques.  The excavated foundations are now part of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Area, just across the lake from the visitor center and reconstructed fort.  The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is on Tellico Lake too, but it isn’t a part of the state historic area, and unfortunately I didn’t have time to see it on this run.

Normally my Tennessee history interests fall a little bit later chronologically—from the Watauga Association to the end of the territorial period—but this is one of those sites that digs its way into your head and stays there.  It compares favorably with any historic site of its size, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area or on vacation in the Smokies.

4 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

4 responses to “A frontier outpost of the British Empire

  1. Frances Hunter

    Wow, what a truly fascinating post. A few years back, I read the great frontier series by Dale Van Every that covered some of this history, but I never thought about there being actual sites left to visit and tour. It sounds as if the state of Tennessee has outdone themselves developing Fort Loundon as a site with so much to offer the history. Makes me want to plan a trip to Tennessee.

    I was interested to read your negative comments about the TVA and the dams. It seems that some of the downside of the river projects of past generations is only just now being acknowledged. This past summer we visited Nebraska and the Dakotas (I’ve been blogging the trip over on “American Heroes” http://franceshunter.wordpress.com) and we saw and learned many of the consequences of the dams on the Missouri River on the Native people. Very sobering.

    Thanks again for a really great and educational post!

  2. Michael Lynch

    Thanks for the compliment! You should definitely visit Tennessee if you’re interested in historic travel. There are quite a few frontier sites in the eastern part of the state, and of course we’ve got a lot of Civil War sites, too.

    From what I’ve heard, a lot of Indian sites have been lost to man-made flooding in various parts of the country, but Tennessee got hit particularly hard. Many of the really important Overhill Cherokee towns are totally obliterated now.

    –ML

  3. Michael,

    Just a quick question, I’m looking up some family history and have a relative named Micheal Lynch born in 1807 in Illinois in my history, Her son in law was a Leavitt. Anyway, I’m wondering if this Michael Lynch happens to be a relative of yours? Thanks

  4. Michael Lynch

    Hi Thomas,

    I don’t think I have any relatives from Illinois going back that early. As far as I know, most of my relatives were in Virginia or East Tennessee during that period. It’s possible there may be a distant relation, because some families from Virginia ended up in the Midwest over the course of several generations. (Lincoln’s grandfather was born in Virginia around 1778, and of course his family ended up in Illinois.)

    My mom basically picked my first name at random, and I don’t think I have any direct ancestors with that name, so I’d say it’s probably just a coincidence.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t be of any more help than this, but if you happen to find any connections between your family and Lynches in northeastern Tennessee, let me know.

    –ML

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