Tag Archives: Tennessee History

Historic happenings at Knoxville museums this weekend

There’s plenty for history buffs to do in Knoxville over the next couple of days.

UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has a brand new exhibit opening on Friday.  Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age focuses on the proliferation of consumer household goods that accompanied industrialization, trade, and travel in the late nineteenth century.  The McClung’s permanent collection has a ton of fascinating material from this period, so there should be some really neat objects on display.  The museum is hosting a lecture on the era by historian Pat Rutenberg on July 16 at 2:00, so check that out if you’d like to learn more about the era.

On Saturday and Sunday, we’re having our annual Statehood Day Living History Weekend at Marble Springs.  Admission is free, and we’ll have reenactors and interpreters  on hand for demonstrations and talks at the historic buildings.  If you haven’t been to the site, or if you’ve taken the standard tour but have never been to one of our living history events, this is one of the best occasions to visit.

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In James K. Polk news…

Polk’s current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. By Brent Moore from Antioch, TN (President James K. Polk tomb, Nashville) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not often that Young Hickory has a big news week, but a couple of developments have quite a few people talking about James K. Polk lately.

First up: his corpse might be taking up new quarters.  It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened.  Like a lot of other historical figures, Polk’s mortal coil has had quite the active career.

He died of cholera at Polk Place, his Nashville home near the site of the present Tennessee State Capitol, just three months after leaving office.  Despite his request to be laid to rest there, he was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city as demanded by law for cholera victims.  Shortly thereafter his remains went back to Polk Place for interment, where they stayed for more than forty years.  But in 1893, the bodies of Polk and his wife got relocated to the Capitol grounds and laid to rest beneath a monument designed by the same architect responsible for the Capitol building itself.  It wasn’t where the former president wanted to spend the afterlife, but it was close—just a short distance from Polk Place, which got demolished in 1900.

There the matter (and Polk) rested until a current proposal that state lawmakers are considering, which would entail moving the remains again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, TN.  Polk’s father built the Columbia house in 1816, and the future president lived there until his marriage in 1824.  The site’s curator says the move would accord with Polk’s desire to be buried at home, since the Columbia museum is his only residence still standing (other than the White House).  Joey Hensley, a state senator who supports the reinterment, has also argued that the current tomb is too easy to overlook.

The relocation is one step closer to happening, since the state senate has given its approval.  But both houses of the General Assembly, the state historical commission, and the courts have to agree before anybody starts digging, and the state historian thinks it’s a bad idea.

Personally, I think the sensible thing to do is leave the grave where it is.  In his will, Polk didn’t request burial “at home,” but specifically at Polk Place.  Since Polk Place itself is gone, fulfilling that request to the letter isn’t possible, but the State Capitol is just a short walk from where the house stood.  It seems as appropriate a spot as any, especially since it’s a place of honor at the seat of the state government.  That’s just my take.

The other Polk news item is the publication of another volume of his papers by the fine folks at UT’s James K. Polk Project.  This new volume includes valuable material on the end of the Mexican War and the consequent U.S. territorial gains, one of the most important developments of Polk’s presidency.

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Communication and a cryptid on the Tennessee frontier

I’ve run across some strange stuff while poking around in Tennessee’s early history, but nothing as bizarre as a newspaper report J.L. Bell has uncovered.

In the 1790s, militiamen on patrol in the Cumberland Mountains stumbled across a creature that “had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales, of a black, brown, and light yellow colour, in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes, of a fiery red.”

When one of the men attacked the thing with his sword, “it jumped up, at least, eight feet” and then landed, spewing “a red kind of matter out of its mouth resembling blood, and then retreated into a Laurel thicket turning round often, as if it intended to fight. The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.”

Yikes!  Soldiers on a wilderness mission come face-to-face with a grotesque, creepy-eyed beastie.  Seems like I’ve heard this one before…

Bell quotes the story as it appeared in the Hampshire Gazette on Sept. 24, 1794, and notes that it also popped up in various other newspapers with attributions to the Knoxville Gazette, the first paper published in what’s now Tennessee.  Unfortunately, searchable copies of the Knoxville Gazette aren’t yet available online.  But here’s the same item from the Aug, 30, 1794 issue of the Baltimore Daily Intelligencer.  It’s identical to the one Bell found in the Hampshire Gazette.

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Since the opening is addressed to “the Printers of the Knoxville Gazette,” I assume this is the same text that appeared in that paper.  One wonders who submitted it to the Knoxville Gazette in the first place, but there doesn’t seem to be a name attached to any of the versions available online.

The reference to Indian lore is interesting.  Reptilian creatures do appear in Cherokee mythology.  The most well-known is probably the Uktena, a great horned serpent bearing a crystal in its forehead.  But I’m not aware of any creature from southeastern Native lore matching the description of the thing these militiamen encountered.  As Bell notes, William Blount referred to it as “Cheeklaceella” when he mentioned the article in a 1798 letter to John Rhea.  I couldn’t find that word in an electronic search of texts on Indian mythology.  In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere except in a printed version of Blount’s letter from Samuel Gordon Heiskell’s book on early Tennessee history.

What I find notable is the fact that newspapers across the country picked up this bizarre report from the Tennessee frontier.  Readers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Maryland would have read the story of the militiamen who encountered a mysterious creature in the Cumberland mountains, and editors in these cities seem to have been aware of what their colleagues on the frontier were printing.  Lately I’ve been going through letters written by settlers in southwestern Virginia during the Revolutionary era, and I’m surprised at how often they refer to events in Boston, Philadelphia, Yorktown, and even Europe.  Similarly, eastern newspapers picked up news from Kentucky and the Tennessee country and disseminated it all along the seaboard.  We tend to think of the eighteenth-century trans-Appalachian West as a remote, isolated region, but frontier folk were very much a part of early American communication networks.

Anyway, assuming the incident happened as the newspapers described, what did those militiamen see?  My money’s on some sort of crane with a skin disease, but you never know…

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Talking history at UT this fall

Here are three upcoming lectures at the University of Tennessee you might be interested in if you’re a a history aficionado.

First up is the 2016 Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture, held every fall semester in honor of a former faculty member in the Department of History.  This year’s speaker is Dr. Elliott West, Alumni Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas and past president of the Western History Association.  His books include The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (winner of the Francis Parkman Prize) and The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story.  Dr. West will be discussing the West before Lewis and Clark.  This talk is this coming Monday, Oct. 3 at 5:00 p.m. in UT’s Howard Baker Center, room 103.

Later this fall, the McClung Museum is hosting two lectures on Knoxville’s history in conjunction with the new exhibit on historic archaeology and in celebration of the city’s 225th birthday.  On Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2:00 p.m. Jack Neely will present “Subterranean Knoxville: The Buried Narrative of a Distracted City” in the museum’s auditorium.  Neely has written a number of books on Knoxville’s history, including Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth and Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City.  He is also a longtime journalist, a regular contributor to the Knoxville Mercury, director of the Knoxville History Project, and the guy who probably knows more about this city and its past than anybody.

On Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2:00 p.m. Kim Trent of Knox Heritage will be at the museum to discuss historic preservation in Knoxville.  The folks at Knox Heritage have been working on behalf of this city’s historic structures for years, and they do some great stuff.

All three of these events are free, so if you’re in the Knoxville area, come by for a little historical edification.  And if you haven’t seen Knoxville Unearthed yet, you can check it out while you’re here.

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Digging up Knoxville at the McClung Museum

Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over.  The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy.  Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen.  It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.

The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff.  Let’s take a look at some highlights.

Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory.  This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793.  It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.

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Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July?  Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.

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East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too.  The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.

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Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however.  Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new.  A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.

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James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s.  These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table.  Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.

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Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…

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I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit.  Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.

 

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Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…

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…and a small piece of a pepper shaker.  Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.

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Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier.  But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him.  This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins.  They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.

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Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee.  One of them wore this good luck amulet…

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…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.

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About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House.  When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin.  Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office.  In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters.  Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.

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Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site.  Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.

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And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet.  Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017.  Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.

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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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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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