A Brief History

Ten thousand years ago, Tennessee was inhabited by Native American people of various tribes. The first white man known to have come to Tennessee was the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto in 1540. Sometime after De Soto's explorations, the native population diminished and the area was largely used as a hunting ground by the Choctaw, Cherokee, Shawnee and Chickasaw. The first permanent white settler was William Bean, who in 1769, built a cabin on the Watauga River in northeast Tennessee. The first constitution ever written by white men in America was drafted in 1772 by the Watauga Association at Sycamore Shoals near Elizabethton, Tennessee. It was patterned after the constitution of the Iroquois League of Nations, a "federal" system of government developed 200 years earlier for five eastern Native American tribes.

In 1779, Jonesborough became the first chartered town in what is now Tennessee. Also, by 1779, white longhunters were pushing into Middle Tennessee with settlers following their trails. They built forts in what are now Davidson, Robertson and Sumner counties. By 1810, a thriving population was centered in and around Fort Nashboro -- soon to be called Nashville -- and people continued to immigrate along the Cumberland River, the Tennessee River and the Natchez Trace until they spread to the Mississippi River.

Tennessee settlers played a vital part in winning the American Revolutionary War. The "Overmountain Men" helped to defeat the British at the Battle of King's Mountain, a victory which proved to be a major turning point in the war.

Tennessee was at first part of North Carolina, and then was known briefly as the State of Franklin. It later became part of the "U.S. Territory South of the River Ohio," and finally was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee, the 16th state, on June 1, 1796.

Tennessee’s great diversity in land, climate, rivers, and plant and animal life is mirrored by a rich and colorful past. For all but the last 200 years of the 12,000 years or so that this country has been inhabited, the story of Tennessee is the story of its native peoples. The fact that Tennessee and many of the places in it still carry Indian names serves as a lasting reminder of the significance of its native inhabitants.

Since much of Tennessee’s appeal for her ancient people as well as for later pioneer settlers lay with the richness and beauty of the land, it seems fitting to begin by considering some of the state’s generous natural gifts.

Tennessee divides naturally into three “grand divisions”
East Tennessee; upland, often mountainous, Middle Tennessee with its foothills and basins, and the low plain of West Tennessee. Travelers coming to the state from the east first
encounter the lofty Unaka and Smoky Mountains, flanked on their western slope by the Great Valley of East Tennessee. Moving across the Valley floor, they next face the Cumberland Plateau, which historically attracted little settlement and presented a barrier to westward migration. West of the Plateau, one descends into the Central Basin of Middle Tennessee—a rolling, fertile countryside that drew hunters and settlers alike. The Central Basin is surrounded on all sides by the Highland Rim, the western ridge of which drops into the Tennessee River Valley. Across the river begin the low hills and alluvial plain of West Tennessee. These geographical “ grand divisions” correspond to the distinctive political and economic cultures of the state’s three regions.

Tennessee possesses a climate advantageous for people and agriculture, with abundant rainfall and a long, temperate growing season. The area generally is free from the long droughts and freezes of more extreme climes. The three major rivers  that flow around and across Tennessee—the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers—have created watersheds which cover most of the state. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville and flows in a southwesterly direction into Alabama, then loops back north to the Kentucky border. The Cumberland River drains northern Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee is covered by a network of sluggish streams, swamps and lakes which flow directly into the Mississippi River.

These rivers and their tributary streams have played a significant role from the earliest times by yielding fish and mussels, by serving as major transportation routes, and by creating the fertile bottom soils that attracted farmers. Fossil-laden rocks found across Tennessee attest to the fact that warm, shallow seas covered the state in the distant past. Coal-bearing strata of the Pennsylvanian period are present throughout the Cumberland Plateau. Plant and dinosaur fossils of the Cretaceous epoch occur in the sandstones of West Tennessee. Remains of extinct mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths, driven south by the advancing glaciers of the Ice Age, can be found in the Pleistocene deposits of West and Middle Tennessee.

The story of man in Tennessee begins with the last retreat of the Ice Age glaciers, when a colder climate and forests of spruce and fir prevailed in the region.  Late Ice Age hunters probably followed animal herds into this area some 12,000-15,000  years ago. These nomadic Paleo Indians camped in caves and rock shelters and left behind their distinctive arrowheads and spear points. They may have used such stone age tools 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 predominant vegetation changed from conifer to our modern deciduous forest. Abundant acorns, hickory, chestnut and beech mast attracted large numbers of deer and elk. Warmer climate, the extinction of the large Ice Age mammals, and the spread of deciduous forests worked together to transform Indian society.

During what is known as the Archaic period, descendants of the Paleo Indians began 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., natives took the crucial step of cultivating edible plants such as squash and gourds—the first glimmerings of agriculture. Archaic Indians thereby ensured a dependable food supply and freed themselves from seasonal shortages of wild plant foods and game. With a more secure food supply, populations expanded rapidly and scattered bands combined to form larger villages.

The next major stage of Tennessee pre-history, lasting almost 2,000 years, is known as the Woodland period. This era saw the introduction of pottery, the beginnings of settled farming communities, the construction of burial mounds and the growing stratification of Indian society. Native Americans in Tennessee made the transition from societies of hunters and gatherers to well-organized tribal, agricultural societies dwelling in large, permanent towns.

The peak of prehistoric cultural development in Tennessee occurred during the Mississippian period (900-1,600 A.D.). Cultivation of new and improved strains of corn and beans fueled another large jump in population. An increase in territorial warfare and the erection of ceremonial temples and public structures attest to the growing role of chieftains and tribalism in Indian life. Elaborate pottery styles and an array of personal artifacts such as combs, 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 the people then living in the region. In their futile search for gold and silver, Hernando de Soto’s band in 1541 and two later expeditions led by Juan Pardo encountered Native Americans. By introducing firearms and, above all, deadly Old World diseases such contacts hastened the decline of these tribes and their replacement by other tribes, notably the Cherokee. The advent of the gun brought about major changes in Native American hunting technique and warfare. Indians grew increasingly dependent on the colonial fur trade by supplying European traders with deer and beaver hides in exchange for guns, rum and manufactured articles. This dependence, in turn, eroded the Indians' traditional self-sufficient way of life and tied them ever closer to the fortunes of rival European powers.

Over the years Tennessee has experienced great moments and great sadness, from the worst earthquake in U.S. history to the first constitution drafted in America. Tennessee is home to major Civil War battle sites, including Chattanooga and Shiloh, which are now national military parks. The state was also the home of heroes such as frontiersman Davy Crockett and railroad engineer Casey Jones, whose escapades were both made legendary by popular songs. One of the state’s sadder moments was the 1968 assassination of Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. The site of the shooting is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991.

Pre-18th Century

First Inhabitants: Tennessee's earliest residents were the prehistoric Mound Builders. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Shawnee inhabited the region when DeSoto first explored it in 1540.

18th Century

First Constitution: In 1772, the Watauga Association at Sycamore Shoals, near Elizabethton, was the first group of European settlers to draft a constitution on American soil. The association's formation marked the first attempt by Americans at complete self-government.

King of the Wild Frontier: Davy Crockett was not born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, as the famous song says. In actuality, he was born on the banks of Limestone Creek near Greeneville in 1786. A replica of the Crocketts log cabin stands at the site today.

Land Grab: When Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796, it became the first state to be carved out of national territory.

Constitutional Acclaim: Tennessee's first constitution provided for universal male suffrage, including free blacks, prompting Thomas Jefferson to call it the least imperfect and most republican of any state.

19th Century
Shattering Incident: The worst series of earthquakes in American history occurred in northwestern Tennessee during the winter of 1811-12. The earthquakes caused a huge land area to drop several feet and created tidal waves on the Mississippi River. The river flowed backward into the newly formed depression, which created today's Reelfoot Lake.

Emancipation Publication: The first newspaper in the nation exclusively devoted to the abolition of human slavery, The Emancipator, was published in Jonesborough, Tennessee's oldest incorporated town, in 1820.

Alphabetic Genius: Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith born in Tennessee, was the only known man in the history of the world to single-handedly develop an alphabet, which resulted in the first written Native American language in 1821. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore chronicles his story.

Presidential Production: Tennessee produced three U.S. presidents: Andrew Jackson, 1829-37; James K. Polk, 1845-49; and Andrew Johnson, 1865-69. Their birthplaces and/or former homes are all historic sites open to the public.

Frequent Fights: Tennessee was the location of more Civil War battles than any other state except Virginia. The state contains four military parks: Chickamauga-Chattanooga in Chattanooga, Shiloh near Savannah, Stones River in Murfreesboro, and Fort Donelson near Dover.

Union Return: Tennessee was the first state readmitted to the U.S. after the Civil War in 1866. During the conflict East Tennessee was strongly pro-Union, while West and Middle Tennessee sided with the Confederacy. Tennessee was also the only state that seceded from the Union that did not have a military governor after the Civil War, largely due to the influence of President Andrew Johnson, a state native.

White Hoods: The original Ku Klux Klan was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866.

Musical Origination: The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville introduced the world to Negro spiritual music, which became the basis of other genres of African-American music. Nashville first became known for its music through the singers successful tours to raise money for the university in the 1870s.

20th Century
Brave Engineer: Casey Jones, the legendary railroad engineer killed in a train accident in 1900, lived in Jackson, Tennessee. Today a museum honoring him is located in Jackson.

Minority-Owned Milestones: The nation's oldest African-American financial institution, Citizen Savings Bank and Trust Company (1904) and the nation's oldest African-American architectural firm, McKissack and McKissack (1905), both began in Nashville

Suffrage Decider: On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and clinching state to ratify the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote.

Monkey Mania: Dayton, Tennessee was the site of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial, also referred to as the Monkey Trial, which challenged teaching evolution in public schools. The state law banning the teaching of evolution was not repealed until 1967.

Nascent Music: Bristol, Tennessee is considered the birthplace of Country Music, because it was the site of the first recordings of the music genre in the 1920s.

Booming Business: Oak Ridge, the secret city the U.S. government created in the 1940s, was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb. It is now known as "The Energy Capital of the World' and home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has gained international recognition for its research in basic sciences, energy systems, environmental technology and safety.

African-American Achievements: The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, housed in the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, recounts the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Best-selling author Alex Haley's boyhood home in Henning was the first historic site in the state devoted to an African American.

Bicentennial Buildup: In 1996, the state ended its yearlong statewide celebration, entitled Tennessee 200 by opening a new state park, Bicentennial Mall, at the foot of Capitol Hill in Nashville.