Tennessee Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Tennessee is one of the south central states, strategically located along the Mississippi River on the west and the Unaka range of the Appalachian Mountains on the east.

History of Tennessee

Tennessee is one of the south central states, strategically located along the Mississippi River on the west and the Unaka range of the Appalachian Mountains on the east. To its north lie Kentucky and Virginia, to its south Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, to its east North Carolina, and to its west Arkansas and Missouri. The state, which runs 120 miles from north to south and 430 miles from east to west, has dense forests in the portions that lie within the Great Smoky Mountains. In its lower regions in the west are cypress swamps much like those found in parts of southern Georgia.

Early History

Ancient burial mounds and archaeological artifacts verify the presence of inhabitants in Tennessee prior to recorded history and long before European explorers made their ways into the area. Paleo-Indians are thought to have lived in this region as much as fifteen thousand years ago. These prehistoric inhabitants were followed by other early American Indians.

The early British and Spanish explorers in the area encountered several Indian tribes, notably the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Shawnee, the Creek, and the Yuchi. Of these, the Cherokee were the most sophisticated, living in their own well-developed enclaves in the southeastern part of Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountains. The Chickasaw lived to the west toward the Mississippi River and were considered a belligerent tribe.

By 1714 the Cherokee and the Chickasaw had driven the Shawnee out of the Cumberland Valley, which they inhabited, through the Kentucky area, to north of the Ohio River. At about the same time, these two dominant tribes drove the Creek and Yuchi Indians south to Georgia, leaving the area very much in their hands.

Exploration and Settlement

It is known that a group of explorers led by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, presumably the first Europeans to enter the area, were in southeastern Tennessee in 1540. By the following year, this group had pushed west and had reached the Mississippi River. By 1566-1567, another Spanish group, led by Juan Pardo, had carried out two expeditions in the southeastern part of Tennessee and had erected a fortification near modern Chattanooga.

It was not until 1673 that both French and British explorers arrived, at almost the same time, in the area. Two Virginia traders of British descent, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur, made their way into eastern Tennessee at about this time. In the western extreme of the area, two Frenchmen, Father Jacques Marquette, a missionary, and Louis Jolliet, a fur trader, arrived, having sailed down the Mississippi from the north. A decade later, in 1682, another famous French explorer, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and his band of followers constructed Fort Prud’Homme on the Natchez (Hatchie) River.

Early Tennessee

The territory into which many of the explorers pressed was a part of the large Cherokee Nation in eastern Tennessee. The French and British competed for control of the Cherokee, with the French initially emerging as the victors. At the end of the French and Indian War, however, the Treaty of Paris, enacted in 1763, ceded the area to the British.

Daniel Boone explored this territory, and, in 1769, permanent settlement by whites began, with four parts of the state attracting residents. One settlement was in eastern Tennessee near the Virginia border, a town that eventually was to lie partly in Virginia and partly in Tennessee. Another settlement grew up along the Watauga River near Elizabethtown. West of the Holston River near Rogersville, a settlement was established, while a fourth settlement developed near Erwin along the banks of the Nolichuky River.

When it was discovered in 1771 that all the land on which the white inhabitants had settled except that north of the Holston River belonged legally to the Cherokee, the white settlers were forced to lease the land from them. These settlers finally bought it in 1775 under the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals.

The Revolutionary War

Although this area was remote from the major battlefields of the Revolutionary War, people from the Tennessee region engaged in some combat against the British and the Loyalists. In October, 1780, the Battle of King’s Mountain marked the most severe British defeat in the South. Shortly before this battle, North Carolina annexed the eastern region of Tennessee into its western territory and held it until 1784, when it gave the territory over to the U.S. government.

The people in this territory established a separate state, called the state of Franklin, with John Sevier as governor. This state existed for four years. North Carolina, however, attempted to retrieve the territory and finally succeeded in 1789 but soon again ceded it to the United States. In 1790 it officially came to be known as the Territory South of the River Ohio; its governor was William Blount. By 1794 the Tennessee region became the first territory to achieve the representative-government stage under the recently enacted Northwest Ordinance. The first territory to have a delegate in the U.S. Congress, Tennessee, in 1796, became the sixteenth state to enter the Union.

Slavery and the Civil War

Tennessee had few of the sprawling plantations found in parts of the Deep South, although in its eastern lowlands and central area, where cotton was grown, there was considerable slave labor. In eastern Tennessee, however, the agricultural economy was on a small scale. Farmers raised their own food, hunted, and were essentially self-sufficient. What help they had usually came from their children and other family members.

Before the Civil War, significant road building took place in Tennessee. Turnpikes were constructed, railroad tracks were laid, and waterways were improved for river navigation. Some industry developed, mainly ironworks, but the chief occupation was farming.

Naturally, where slave labor was used, mainly in the western and middle parts of the state, people favored slavery, but in its eastern extremes, Tennesseans were resolutely antislavery. After South Carolina and other southern states left the Union, Tennessee refused to call a convention to consider secession. In April, 1861, however, Tennessee’s governor refused to send troops to join the Union army, and on June 8, Tennesseans voted to secede.

Aside from Virginia, Tennessee had more battles fought on its land than any other southern state–more than four hundred. Of its 145,000 soldiers, however, more than 30,000, mostly from eastern Tennessee, joined the Union army. In 1865 Tennesseans voted to abolish slavery, although in 1870 they voted to ban interracial marriages and in 1875 enacted the first Jim Crow laws that strictly limited the freedom of blacks.

Postwar Tennessee

Tennessee was readmitted to the Union on July 25, 1866. It was spared many of the punitive programs that Reconstruction imposed on other southern states. The war left Tennessee impoverished to the point that it was unable to meet its financial obligations and in 1883 settled with its lenders for fifty to eighty cents on the dollar. Farmers were extremely strained financially. In 1891 and 1892, coal miners, protesting the use of convicts leased to Tennessee’s coal mines, revolted in the “Coal Miner’s War.”

Tennessee gained national attention in 1925, when charges were leveled against schoolteacher John Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution in his high school classes. The Scopes trial, known as the Monkey Trial, focused attention on the state, and the outcome, which favored Tennessee’s religious conservatives, was decried by much of the nation.

The Tennessee Valley Authority

Rich in natural resources, Tennessee did not profit significantly from its natural wealth until the years following 1933, when Congress established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a flood control and power project of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The TVA harnessed rivers and created lakes. It enhanced the power output that private industry had already begun to finance by building dams on the Little Tennessee, Ocoee, and Pigeon Rivers in the 1920’s.

By the mid-1990’s, Tennessee was generating some seventy-two billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Besides serving its stated purposes, the TVA created attractive recreational areas in parts of the state. Moreover, the lakes created by the TVA and the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers combine to give Tennessee more than a thousand miles of inland waterways. These navigational routes are supplemented by more than 1,100 miles of interstate highways and 154,000 miles of public roads. With 155 airports, Tennessee has ample provision for air transport.

Other Commercial Enterprises

One of the long-standing commercial enterprises in Tennessee is lumbering. The forests of the Appalachian Mountains provide a great deal of hardwood, and the central area of the state is known for its red cedar.

Manufacturing is centered most in eastern Tennessee, which produces grain mill products, inorganic chemicals, drugs, and plastics. A major nuclear research facility at Oak Ridge has brought many scientists into the state, enhancing some of its manufacturing enterprises.

Rich in minerals, Tennessee produces a great deal of gravel, zinc, coal, and clay. It ranks first in the nation for its production of ball clay and gemstones. Although coal production dropped off significantly after 1980, two of the most important zinc-producing operations are in Mascot and Jefferson City, Tennessee.

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