Category Archives: Tennessee History

A road trip into Cherokee history

With summer winding down, I thought I’d try to squeeze in one last historical day trip.  This past weekend I headed south of Knoxville to the Little Tennessee River watershed, heartland of the eighteenth-century Overhill Cherokee towns.  It’s one of the state’s richest historical and archaeological regions, and much of it, alas, is underwater.  The construction of Tellico Dam in the 1970s turned this stretch of the Little Tennessee into a reservoir that flooded Native American sites dating back thousands of years.

Fortunately, archaeologists conducted salvage excavations before the waters rose, and you can see the fruit of their labors at places like the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, my first stop of the day.  The inventor of the Cherokee syllabary was born during the American Revolution at the Overhill town of Tuskegee near Ft. Loudoun, a British outpost constructed during the French and Indian War.  (I wrote a review of Ft. Loudoun State Historic Site waaaayyyy back in 2009.)  Lt. Henry Timberlake visited the area in late 1761 on a peace mission following the Anglo-Cherokee war; his 1765 map shows the close proximity between the fort and Sequoyah’s hometown.

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The museum isn’t technically on the actual townsite, since Tuskegee disappeared under the reservoir’s waters when the dam closed.  But it still offers a nice overview of the region’s Native American history going all the way back to the Paleoindian period.

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There’s also a traveling version of the “Emissaries of Peace” exhibition on Cherokee-British relations in the 1750s and 1760s.  (The original exhibit—which is excellent, by the way—is at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.)

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Of course, the museum also covers Sequoyah himself and the process by which he created a new written language from scratch.

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Sequoyah was a silversmith and blacksmith by trade.  The museum grounds have a reconstruction of his shop…

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…and a dogtrot cabin.

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But if you ask me, the most impressive thing to see at the museum is this burial mound.  It holds the remains of 191 Native Americans discovered during the salvage excavations conducted before Tellico Dam inundated the area.

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One of the townsites the dam obliterated was Tanasi, located about five and a half miles southwest of where the museum now stands.  In the 1720s it was among the most important of the Overhill Towns; now the only indication that it existed is a marker by the side of the reservoir.  If you’re interested in seeing it, just follow the signs as you leave the parking lot of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

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Timberlake’s map popularized the spelling of the town’s name as “Tennessee.”  Nobody knows who had the idea to apply it to the sixteenth state, but an early tradition holds that it was Andrew Jackson, who served as a delegate to the 1796 constitutional convention in Knoxville.

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By the time of Timberlake’s visit, Chota had eclipsed Tanasi as the principal Overhill town, and it remained a sort of de facto Cherokee capital during the tumultuous years of the Revolution.  In December 1780, following the victory of his Washington Co. militia at King’s Mountain, John Sevier marched south to the Little Tennessee and put the towns to the torch as the Cherokees fled before him.  Joined by Arthur Campbell’s Virginians, the troops stopped at Chota on Christmas Day.  After enjoying some much-needed provisions, they burned the town on the 28th.  The Cherokees rebuilt Chota, but Sevier’s campaign marked the beginning of its decline, and by the 1790s it was a shadow of its former self.

If you head north from the Tanasi marker and proceed for about a mile, you’ll come to a sort of circular cul-de-sac and a grass-covered path.  The path leads to the site of Chota’s townhouse, which the TVA raised above the level of the reservoir’s waters.  The pillars stand for the Cherokee’s seven clans, with an additional pillar for the entire nation.

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Beside the monument is the final resting place of Oconostota, one of the most prominent leaders, warriors, and diplomats of the eighteenth-century Southeast.  Goods interred with his body allowed archaeologists to identify his grave during the salvage excavations.  He was re-buried next to the townhouse site in 1989.

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Because the TVA elevated the site of the townhouse, it’s the only part of Chota that’s still high and dry.  If you want to see the rest of the townsite for yourself, you’d better know how to scuba dive.

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With independence won, the new U.S. government inherited the same frontier problems that had plagued the British: keeping Native Americans and settlers from killing each other, regulating the Indian trade, and securing land cessions from the tribe.  This site, north of Chota and within spitting distance of the site of Ft. Loudoun, was intended to help accomplish those objectives.  These are the remains of Tellico Blockhouse, constructed in 1794 at the request of Cherokees exasperated at white encroachment.

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The blockhouse served as a garrison for federal troops, a trading post (or “factory” in the contemporary terminology), and a conduit for communication between the national government and the Cherokees.  A regulated trade brought under federal control would hopefully stem the abuses Indians suffered at the hands of unscrupulous merchants, while the presence of soldiers would rein in the cycles of violence that erupted whenever frontiersmen and warriors took the law into their own hands.

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The fort was also intended to be a vector for civilization.  Federalist policy toward the southern tribes emphasized acculturation, in the hope that Indians who adopted white ways would be more amenable to land cessions.  Silas Dinsmoor, the second Indian agent stationed at Tellico, accordingly supplied the Cherokees with tools and the means to spin their own cloth.

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The U.S. and the Cherokees did indeed negotiate a number of treaties at the blockhouse before the federal government moved its operations south to the Hiwassee River in 1807.  But neither these piecemeal cessions nor the Indians’ adoption of Euroamerican agriculture and cloth making satisfied their white neighbors’ land hunger.  “Frontier whites did not want Indians civilized,” writes historian John Finger.  “They wanted them out.”  And eventually they got what they wanted.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Hey Knoxville! Come have dinner and vote for Marble Springs!

If you’re a Marble Springs fan or a Tennessee history buff, let me encourage you to come to the South Knoxville Alliance’s Knoxville SOUP dinner on July 7th.

For a donation of five bucks, you get a meal, and four organizations will give short presentations on projects they’d like to undertake.  Then, all the attendees vote on the best proposal, and the winning organization gets the take from the door.  Marble Springs is competing to support our Farmers Market, one of our programs that offers something really cool to folks in our community.  The more of our supporters who attend and vote for us, the likelier we are to win.

Hope to see some of you this Thursday at the South Knoxville Community Center, 522 Maryville Pike, Knoxville, TN 37920.  The doors open at 6:00 p.m.

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Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.

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When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.

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Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.

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In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.

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If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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

Tennessee history, dinner theater, the Bible, so forth and so on

A few days ago I heard a radio ad for Biblical Times Dinner Theater in Pigeon Forge, TN, plugging a show that combines gospel music, Bible stories, and…wait for it…Tennessee history.

Surprised by that last one?  So was I.  In fact, for a second I thought I’d misheard something.  But it’s true.  You can now eat a meal, enjoy live entertainment, get some religious edification, and learn about the history of the Volunteer State all at the same time:

This show was specially created for those of you who are fans of classic gospel music and who have an interest in the FAITH heritage of East Tennessee. You will meet great heroes of the Bible along with legends of Tennessee who took a stand for God’s Word, from Moses to Billy Graham, Noah to Davy Crockett, Joshua to Sgt. York and enjoy music legends like The Happy Goodmans, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Elvis and more.

The website’s list of “Legends of Faith from the Bible and East Tennessee” also includes Samuel Doak and Andrew Johnson.  All you fellow Rev War and Tennessee frontier enthusiasts will recognize Doak as the Presbyterian minister who preached to the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals before the march that ended at King’s Mountain.  Andrew Johnson needs no introduction, although I confess that when I think of great defenders of the faith from Tennessee, he’s not exactly the first guy who comes to my mind.

I’m assuming all these characters somehow figure in the performance, but I’m not sure if cast members actually portray them on stage or if somebody just relates information about them in between the songs.  One historical figure who does put in an appearance is the Apostle Paul, because he’s the narrator.

Part of me would pay good money to see Davy Crockett, Sgt. York, and Samuel Doak singing and cutting a rug alongside Moses and Noah, especially if the M.C. is a guy who wrote part of the New Testament.  But at this point I think I’ll have to pass on making a reservation.  I love Tennessee history, I love the Bible, I love theater, and I love a hearty meal, but I’m not sure I’d like them all at the same time.

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The McClung Museum will be the epicenter of awesomeness in 2016

Somebody pinch me.  Seriously.  I’m not on cloud nine; I’m on cloud twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  Maybe higher than that.

Fallen from Edenic perfection though it is, this world affords us a great many fine things, including the companionship of family and friends, sublime sunsets, good BBQ, and free access to Shakira videos on YouTube.

Of all the pleasures we’re granted in life, however, two of the greatest are undoubtedly the study of these subjects:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. The early history of East Tennessee

Imagine, then, how ecstatic I was to learn that the next two special exhibits at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture here in Knoxville will be…

DINOSAUR DISCOVERIES: ANCIENT FOSSILS, NEW IDEAS

June 4, 2016–August 28, 2016

This exhibition showcases the world of modern paleontology, introducing a dynamic vision of dinosaurs and the scientists who study them. New discoveries and technologies reveal how dinosaurs lived, moved and behaved. Find out how advanced technologies allow scientists to look at fossils in fresh ways. Examine realistic models and casts, and see dinosaurs walk, run and move their long necks in fantastic computer simulations.

and…

KNOXVILLE UNEARTHED: ARCHAEOLOGY IN THE HEART OF THE VALLEY

September 7, 2016–January 8, 2017

In honor of Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, this exhibition explores the city’s heritage as seen through archaeological discoveries in the “Heart of the Valley.” Using historic artifacts unearthed in and around Knoxville, along with historical images, maps, documents, and oral histories, the exhibition tells the story of Knoxville’s development from a frontier settlement to an industrialized city.

Dinosaurs and East Tennessee history.  It’s like if you made a Venn diagram of awesomeness, and plopped the McClung Museum’s rotating exhibit gallery right down in the middle.

Could it get any better?  Oh, yes, indeed, it could.

A few days ago I opened an e-mail from the Department of History’s director of graduate studies.  My assistantship assignment for next semester came in, and I’ll be working for…wait for it…the McClung Museum.

I. GET. TO. WORK. AT. THE. MCCLUNG. MUSEUM.

Here’s a pretty close approximation of how I reacted.

Seriously, I couldn’t be more excited.  I haven’t been able to get my hands dirty with museum work in quite a while, and the fact that I get to do it at a Smithsonian-affiliated institution with a fossil exhibit and a special exhibition on Knoxville’s history makes me absolutely giddy.

Oh, one more thing.  The archaeology exhibit will feature some artifacts from excavations at Marble Springs, which is fantastic, because we haven’t really had an opportunity to showcase this stuff at the site.  If you’re interested in seeing some of these traces of John Sevier’s plantation, be sure to stop by this fall.  Admission to the McClung Museum is free, and it’s one of the most fascinating ways to spend some time in the Knoxville area.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

UTK historians are making news

We’re wrapping up another semester at UTK, and our history faculty (both current and emeritus) has been making headlines.

With all the brouhaha over the $20 bill, Jacksonian scholar Dan Feller has been in the news quite a bit lately (like here, for example).  A few days ago he talked to NPR about the tumultuous presidential election of 1824 and how it helped make our modern party system.

Stephen Ash, author of a book about the bloody racial episode in Memphis in 1866, lent his expertise to another recent NPR story, this one about an effort to erect a state historical marker dedicated to the massacre and paid for by the local chapter of the NAACP.  The Tennessee Historical Commission, which oversees the state markers program, approved text for the signage that referred to the massacre as a “race riot.”  Historians and members of the community objected to the phrasing, so the NAACP decided to erect its own signage rather than go through the THC program.  Personally, I much prefer the language on the NAACP’s private marker.  In this case, I think the phrase “race riot” carries connotations that would obfuscate what happened in 1866, whereas “massacre” more accurately conveys the nature of the actual event.

Julie Reed, who taught one of my all-time favorite grad courses, has a new book out.  She examines the Cherokee Nation’s social welfare efforts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their influence on U.S. government policy.

Finally, Shannen Dee Williams, whose seminar I had the privilege of taking this past semester, has been appointed to the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lectureship Program.

We’ve got fantastic professors.  I’m lucky to get to learn from these folks!

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When the historical record is silent

Back when I was in the early stages of narrowing down a topic for my master’s thesis on King’s Mountain, my advisor said to me, “You might end up being more interested in who these guys are.”  In other words, there was a good possibility that I’d end up focusing less on the battle and more on the men who waged it.

As it turned out, I didn’t concentrate on “who these guys are,” at least not for that project.  Instead, I looked at the way contemporaries and later antiquarians interpreted the battle and the men who fought there.  It was more a study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there than anything else.  Actually, I owed that topic to my advisor as well; a scholar of war and memory himself, he made an offhand suggestion that I might look at the ways people remembered the battle.  That comment reminded me of a nasty nineteenth-century controversy involving some of the veterans, and off I went.

But since then, the question of “who these guys are” has preoccupied and vexed me.  Popular writing on the pioneers who settled the Appalachian frontier in the late eighteenth century tends to portray them more as stock characters than flesh-and-blood historical actors.  Here’s how East Tennessee writer Pat Alderman described them in one of his illustrated works of “history made interesting“:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.  They were courageous souls, daring and eager as they ventured along the unfamiliar trails leading westward.  The wide expanse of mountains, hills and valleys, covered with virgin forests and teeming with wild game, challenged their pioneer spirits.  This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.  They depended on the forest and streams for their sustenance.  They would pitch a fight, scalp an Indian or wrestle (“rassel”) a bear at the drop of a hat.

That’s laying the rugged individualism and buckskin on a bit thick.  It’s not so much a portrait of an actual group of people as it is a collection of frontier tropes.  The issue isn’t that descriptions like that are necessarily false, although I do doubt that any sane person who has ever lived has been eager to “rassel” a live bear.  The issue is that they don’t adequately address the question of who these guys really were, what they were doing west of the mountains, or why they got involved in the Revolution.

And those are the questions that have preoccupied me for a good, long while.  I distinctly remember the first visit I made to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, the place where “these guys” mustered to begin their march eastward that culminated in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I stood for a few minutes in front of Jon Mark Estep’s fine sculpture of a frontier militiaman at the park’s visitor center.

By Jon Mark Estep (sculptor), Brian Stansberry (photograph) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I looked at that figure, the question came back to me, along with a few related ones.  What the heck were you?  What were you doing out here?  What did you want out of the Revolution?  How did you go about trying to get it?

When I headed back to graduate school, I decided that I’d try to whittle these questions into a dissertation topic.  With my doctoral advisor’s help, I’ve been in the process of doing just that.  I’ve also been compiling primary sources to try to get at some answers.  While this process has been exciting, the prospect of a dissertation-length project has forced me to confront a disconcerting reality: there isn’t as much evidence about “these guys” as I’d like.

One issue is that a lot of the sources they left behind date from years—in many cases decades—after the events I’m interested in.  This is something I learned when I was doing research for my thesis on King’s Mountain.  Veterans of that battle wrote about their experiences, but much of what they wrote dates from the 1810s and 1820s, during a revival of interest in the Revolution that swept the whole country.  As I’ve tried to broaden out my research to examine their Revolutionary experiences as a whole, I’ve found the same pattern at work.  Instead of contemporary accounts, I keep running into memories set to paper long after the events themselves transpired.

What’s especially irksome is the fact that the end of the Revolution seems to have marked a real turning point in the proliferation of written documents concerning frontier Tennessee.  Once you hit 1784, primary sources suddenly become more abundant.  In other words, the end of the period in which I’m especially interested is precisely the point at which I’ve got more to work with.  Cue the Alanis Morissette, right?

Frustrating as it is to grapple with these post-Revolutionary sources, an even more frustrating problem is the absence of sources that I know once existed.  One of the greatest disasters to ever befall the study of early Tennessee history took place during the Civil War, when a Unionist set fire to J.G.M. Ramsey’s house in Knoxville.  Ramsey was a doctor by profession, but he was also a passionate antiquarian who had met many of Tennessee’s first generation of pioneers in his youth and spent a lifetime collecting material about them.  He was also a fervent secessionist who served as a Confederate treasury agent who fled Knoxville when the city fell to Union forces in 1863; in his absence, an arsonist put the Ramsey home and its priceless historical collection to the torch.  Thankfully, Ramsey set down some of the fruits of his research in a monumental book on early Tennessee history ten years before his house burned, but one wonders what insights into the state’s beginnings went up in smoke.  (Sometimes people ask me what historical event I’d like to witness if I had a time machine; if I had my choice, I’d probably go back to the hours preceding that fire and grab as many manuscripts as I could.)

Fire and time took their toll on other early frontier sources, too.  Perhaps the greatest collector of frontier sources who ever lived was Lyman Draper, a nineteenth-century antiquarian who devoted his life to compiling original manuscripts and transcriptions of early borderland records.  Many of the letters he received in response to requests for information repeat the same sad refrain over and over again: I can’t be of much help, since the family papers got lost in the war.  Likewise, while reading Rev War pension accounts, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found references to records lost, documents destroyed in house fires, and discharge papers long since misplaced and never accounted for again.

All this makes those contemporary sources I do have all the more precious.  Whenever I run across a Revolutionary document from Tennessee that I haven’t seen before—a settler’s petition to North Carolina authorities, say, or a John Sevier letter from 1781—I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a stash of Dead Sea Scrolls.  There are so relatively few material traces of Tennessee’s Revolutionary era left that I get giddy when I’m in their presence.  Those King’s Mountain weapons at the State Museum and Carter Mansion in Elizabethton are of incalculable value, just because they link us to those dramatic few years of the late eighteenth century.

I realize that I’m hardly the only researcher who has this problem.  And maybe it’s my own fault.  After all, I’m the one who decided to examine a population of only several thousand people living in a newly settled frontier society.  Of course, good historians figure out how to work around dearth of material; there are creative ways of getting at information on people who didn’t leave much of a paper trail.  I’ve been in grad school long enough to learn some of the tricks of the trade.  But I desperately wish these settlers had left more behind, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the fact that they left so little.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History