History of the Volunteer State – Tennessee

[Editor’s note: This article is primarily excerpted from The Tennessee Blue Book – History Section, however, is far from verbatim as it has been truncated, edited, and additional information provided.]

Smoky Mountains National Park

View of North Carolina and Tennessee from Newfound Gap, Kathy Weiser-Alexander, September, 2012.

The State of Tennessee was originally a part of North Carolina, and was claimed as a hunting-ground by the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Shawnee, and the Six Nations of the Iroquois. No tribe made it a fixed habitation with the exception of the Cherokee, who dwelt in the extreme southeast part. Earl Loudon, governor of Virginia, sent Andrew Lewis to the region in 1756 to plant a settlement, and he built Fort Loudon, on the Tennessee River, about 30 miles from present-day Knoxville. The fort was besieged by Indians in 1760 and captured, with its inhabitants being murdered or reduced to captivity. However, armed men from Virginia and North Carolina retook the fort in 1761 and worked with the Indians for peace.

Immigrants from North Carolina, led by James Bobinson, settled on the Watauga River, one of the head streams of the Tennessee, in 1708. It was on lands of the Cherokee, from whom the settlers obtained an eight year lease in 1771. There, they organized themselves and adopted a code of laws signed by each adult individual of the colony.

Others soon joined them and extended settlements down the valley of the Holston River and over intervening ridges to the Clinch River and one or two other streams. Yet others penetrated Powell Valley and began a settlement in the southwest corner of Virginia.

These early settlers were known as the “Watauga Association” from 1769 to 1777. The territory was represented in the North Carolina legislature as the District of Washington. The new settlers had two main demands — protection from the Indians and the right to navigate the Mississippi River. However, these demands went unheeded and frustrated settlers formed the breakaway State of Franklin in August of 1784.

John Sevier

Though the fledgling state was unrecognized, John Sevier was named governor and the state began to set up an official government. Sevier would stand out as one of the most prominent and picturesque figures in the early and formative history of Tennessee. He was called “the greatest of Indian fighters,” having fought against the Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee. However, North Carolina was not pleased by this show of independence and began to reassert control over its western counties. These policies and internal divisions among East Tennesseans doomed the short-lived State of Franklin, which passed out of existence in 1788. That same year, Sevier was arrested on a charge of treason under North Carolina law, but he escaped. He was then elected to the North Carolina Senate and received a pardon from the governor, ending the treason charge.

When North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution of the United States in 1789, it also ceded its western lands, which would become Tennessee. Sevier, in the meantime continued to serve in the North Carolina Senate until he was elected to the United States Congress, a position he held from June, 1790 until March, 1791.

In 1790, Tennessee was organized, together with Kentucky, as “The Territory South of the Ohio,” more commonly known as the Southwest Territory. William Blount was appointed by President George Washington as the territorial governor.

A distinct territorial government was granted to Tennessee in 1794, and on June 1, 1796 it entered the Union as the 16th State. The seat of government moved several times, beginning at Knoxville, before moving to Kingston, Nashville, and Murfreesboro until 1826, when it was permanently fixed at Nashville.

In the early years of settlement, planters brought slaves with them from Kentucky and Virginia. At the same time; however, there was support for emancipation of slaves, primarily fueled by white settlers fearing competition with slave labor. At the constitutional convention of 1796, free blacks were given the right to vote if they met residency and property requirements. However, there was no emancipation law enacted.

Tennessee took an active part in the War of 1812, especially in the operations in the Gulf region. Tidings of the declaration of war reached Andrew Jackson, Commander of the Tennessee Militia on June 26, 1812 and he authorized Governor Blount to tender to the President of the United States the services of himself and 2,500 men of his division as volunteers for the war.

Despite a chronic shortage of supplies, little support from the War Department, and mutiny, Jackson’s militia army prevailed in a series of lopsided victories over the Red Sticks, a traditionalist faction of Creek Indians who led a resistance movement which culminated in the outbreak of the Creek War in 1813.

Battle of Horseshoe Bend

Battle of Horseshoe Bend

His victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama in 1814 utterly destroyed Creek military power and propelled not only Jackson, but also his lieutenants, William Carroll and Sam Houston, to national prominence. Andrew Jackson was appointed major general in the U.S. Army and given command of the Southern military district just in time to meet an impending British invasion of the Gulf Coast.

When British forces threatened New Orleans, Jackson took command of the defenses, including militia from several western states and territories. He was a strict officer but was popular with his troops, who often said he was as “tough as hickory,” which garnered him the nickname that he bore through life, of “Old Hickory.”

Three years later he led another force composed largely of Tennesseans into Florida, fighting the First Seminole War. For Tennessee, these military campaigns resulted in the clearing of Indian claims to nearly all of the state and the Chickasaw Treaty of 1818, extended Tennessee’s western boundary to the Mississippi River. Opening up a rich, new agricultural region for settlement, Western Tennessee boomed until the  Panic of 1819 ruined most of the banks and many individuals. However, by the mid 1820’s the state’s economy bounced back and it one of the centers of the South’s new cotton boom.

By 1830, the number of African Americans in the state was over 140,000, most of which were slaves working on large plantations or in the area of the Mississippi Delta working in transportation. At the convention of 1834, efforts to abolish slavery were once again made, but were badly defeated. In fact, the state also retracted the suffrage that had earlier been allowed for free black men.

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