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 12000 years or so that this country has been inhabited, the story of Tennessee is the true 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 the 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” – upland, often mountainous, East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee with its foothills and basin, and the low plain of West Tennessee. Travelers coming to the state from the east encounter first 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 Highland Rim, the western ridge of which drops into the Tennessee River Valley, surrounds the Central Basin on all sides. 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.
During the 150 years following da Soto`s visit, new tribes moved into the Tennessee region. The powerful Cherokee built their towns and villages along the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee Rivers, while the Chickasaw Nation held sway over the territory west of the Tennessee River. A large Ohio Valley tribe, the Shawnee, moved south into the Cumberland River country, but by 1715 the last Chickasaw had driven out Shawnee and Cherokee attacks. Henceforth, the game-filled woods of Middle Tennessee would be home to no Indian towns, although various tribes used it as a common hunting ground.
The early fur traders lived among the Indians and became the crucial link between tribesmen, colonial governments, and international markets. They employed Indian hunters to supply them with beaver skins and deer pelts, which they carried on pack trains to Charles Town or shipped down river to New Orleans. South Carolina merchants dominated the early Tennessee fur trade, exporting over 160000 skins worth $250000 in 1748 alone. The fur trade was profitable for the traders, but it wiped out much of Tennessee’s native animal life. The competition for the Indian trade sharpened Anglo-French rivalry, and the Indians were drawn into a global power struggle.
In 1754, the contest between the French and British for control of a New World empire burst in the French and Indian War, in which native alliances became the objects of European military strategy. The end of the French and Indian War brought a new presence to the Tennessee wilderness, as restless back-country Virginians and North Carolinians began moving across the mountains into the valleys of East Tennessee. They ignored the British prohibition against settling on Indian lands. By the early 1770s, four different communities had been established in northeastern Tennessee – on the Watauga River, the North Holston, the Nolichucky, and in Carter’s Valley. With the founding of these tiny settlements, frontier diplomacy entered a new phase: the possession of land, not trading privileges, now became the white man’s goal. When an extended survey of the North Carolina-Virginia boundary line showed most whites to be squatting illegally on Indian land, the settlers negotiated leases for their farms from the Cherokee.
In the days before statehood, Tennessee struggled to gain a political voice and suffered for lack of the protection afforded by organized government. Six countries – Washington, Sullivan and Greene in East Tennessee and Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee in the Middle District – had been formed as western countries of North Carolina between 1777 and 1788. After the Revolution, however, North Carolina did not want the trouble and expense of maintaining such distant settlements, embroiled as they were with hostile tribesmen and needing roads, forts and open waterways. Nor could the far-flung settlers look to the national government, for under the weak, loosely constituted Articles of Confederation, it was a government in name only.
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