History of the Volunteer State – Tennessee

By Dr. Wayne C. Moore

Smoky Mountains National Park

View of North Carolina and Tennessee from Newfound Gap, Kathy Alexander.

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 except for 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. 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 Tennessee River’s headstreams, in 1708. It was on the lands of the Cherokee, from whom the settlers obtained an eight-year lease in 1771. They organized themselves and adopted a code of laws signed by each adult in the colony.

Others soon joined them and extended settlements down the Holston River valley 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

John Sevier

Though the fledgling state was unrecognized, John Sevier was named governor, and the state began establishing an official government. Sevier would stand out as one of the most prominent and picturesque figures in Tennessee’s early and formative history. He was called “the greatest of Indian fighters,” having fought against the Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee. However, North Carolina was displeased 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 United States Constitution in 1789, it also ceded its western lands, which would become Tennessee. In the meantime, Sevier 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. President George Washington appointed William Blount 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 from Kentucky and Virginia. At the same time, however, there was support for the 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 that 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 the Creek military power. It propelled Jackson and 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 gave him the nickname that he bore through the life of “Old Hickory.”

Three years later, he led another force mainly composed 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 banks and many individuals. However, by the mid-1820s, the state’s economy bounced back, becoming one of the South’s new cotton boom centers.

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

Slave in a cotton field, Henry L. Stephens, 1863

Slave in a cotton field, Henry L. Stephens, 1863

By 1848, slavery as a national issue overshadowed state issues, breaking apart political parties, church denominations, and neighborhood friendships. As newspapers waged a vicious war of words over abolitionism, southerners, including many in Tennessee, grew angry over northern interference with slavery, so much so that delegates from across the South met in 1850 at the Southern Convention in Nashville to express their defiance.

Despite these issues, commerce and farm wealth in the state climbed to unprecedented heights. This prosperity only confirmed the superiority of the Southern agricultural system, which included slavery. By 1860, the enslaved population had nearly doubled to 283,019, with only 7,300 free African-Americans in the state, which amounted to about 25% of the population.

With so much capital invested in slaves and the state’s prosperity, residents did not intend to willingly suffer the loss of their property or have restrictions on its use.

Tennessee, along with other southern states, viewed the possible election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and the elevation of his anti-slavery Republican Party to national power in 1860 as a disaster. In fact, Lincoln had so little support in Tennessee that his name was not even on the ballot.

Most Tennesseans initially showed little enthusiasm for breaking away from the Union. In February 1861, 54% percent of the state’s voters voted against sending delegates to a secession convention. However, sentiment changed after the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to coerce the seceded states back into line.

Isham G. Harris

Isham G. Harris

Governor Isham Harris began military mobilization, submitted an ordinance of secession to the General Assembly, and made direct overtures to the Confederate government. In a June 8, 1861, referendum, East Tennessee held firm against separation, while West Tennessee returned an equally heavy majority in favor. The deciding vote came in Middle Tennessee, which went from 51 percent against secession in February to 88 percent in favor in June. Having ratified by popular vote, its connection with the fledgling Confederacy, Tennessee officially became the last state to withdraw from the Union.

Tennessee was one of the Border States that sent many men to fight on both sides of the Civil War. A sizeable part of the male population — 187,000 Confederate and 51,000 Federal soldiers — mustered in from Tennessee.

Much of the Civil War was fought in Tennessee’s cities and farms; only Virginia saw more battles. Geography dictated a central role for Tennessee. As a border state with its rivers being key arteries to the Deep South, it was a major target for the Federals. From the early days of the war, Union efforts focused on securing control of those transportation routes and major roads and mountain passes such as the Cumberland Gap. Unfortunately, for Tennessee and the Confederates, most of the state’s battles were Union victories.

In February 1862, the Union began the Twin Rivers Campaign to control the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and the steamboat traffic. By controlling these rivers, the Union could control many goods and commodities delivered to the South. The Union strategy was effective when General Ulysses S. Grant and the United States Navy captured control over both rivers and held off the Confederate counterattack at Shiloh in April of the same year.

Battle of Stone River, Tennessee, December 31, 62. Jan. 2-3, 1863, Kurtz and Allison, 1891

Battle of Stone River, Tennessee, December 31, 62. Jan. 2-3, 1863, Kurtz and Allison, 1891

The Capture of Memphis and Nashville gave the Union control of Tennessee’s Western and Middle sections. Control was confirmed at the Battle of Stones River at Murfreesboro in early January 1863.

After Nashville was captured, the first Confederate state capital to fall, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson as the state’s military governor. This new government quickly abolished slavery in the state. In the meantime, Union troops began to occupy much of Tennessee through the war’s end, depleting her resources and contributing to a social order breakdown in many areas.

Though the Union was in control of most of western Tennessee, the Confederates continued to hold the eastern portion of the state despite Unionist sentiment.

The Confederates besieged Chattanooga in the early fall of 1863 but were driven off by General Grant in November. Many of the Confederate defeats can be attributed to the poor strategic vision of General Braxton Bragg, who led the Army of Tennessee from Shiloh to Confederate defeat at Chattanooga.

The last major battles came when the Confederates invaded in November 1864 and were checked at Franklin, then destroyed by George Thomas at Nashville in December. When the war was over, Tennessee would see more than its share of devastation from years of warring armies traveling through the state.

On January 9, 1865, a State convention assembled at Nashville and proposed amendments to the constitution abolishing slavery. The Confederacy’s military league, the ordinance of secession, and all acts of the Confederate States government were annulled, and the payments of any debts contracted by the state were prohibited. The people ratified these proceedings, and William G. Brownlow was chosen governor. In April, the legislature ratified the 13th Amendment to the National Constitution, reorganized the state government, and elected Senators to Congress. When the state ratified the 14th amendment to the National Constitution in 1866, they were soon able to send members to the House of Representatives.

Tennessee was the third state to ratify the 14th Amendment, before any other Southern state and earlier than most Northern states.

Slave refugees, Alfred R. Waud, 1863

Slave refugees, Alfred R. Waud, 1863

However, Tennessee’s ordeal would not cease with the end of the Civil War but continued during the postwar period known as Reconstruction. Governor Brownlow’s administration acted in concert with the Radical Republicans in Congress rather than with most of the people in Tennessee, which included a hand-picked legislature and the exclusion of most conservative voters. Brownlow faced considerable opposition from other Unionists who resented his authoritarian methods. As a result, Brownlow decided to give the vote to freedmen to bolster his support at the polls. Accordingly, in February 1867, the Tennessee General Assembly endorsed black suffrage — a full two years before the National Congress would do the same by passing the 15th Amendment.

With the aid of a solid black vote, Brownlow and his slate of candidates swept to victory in the 1867 elections. Such an unpopular and undemocratic state soon called forth its own form of conservative agents, namely, the Ku Klux Klan and shadowy vigilante groups opposed to Brownlow.

William G. Brownlow

William G. Brownlow

Made up largely of ex-Confederates whose aim was to intimidate the black voters who supported Brownlow, these organizations flourished because of the Radicals’ near-total exclusion of men who had served the Confederacy from the normal channels of political activity.

In the meantime, African Americans were more destitute and unsettled after the war than most other Tennesseans. Having left the plantations and rural communities in large numbers, black refugees poured into Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and several smaller towns. Urban areas experienced a large increase in black populations as more freedmen fled the countryside to escape the violence of groups like the Klan.

These newcomers settled near the contraband camps or military forts where black troops were stationed, forming large black communities such as North Nashville and South Memphis. In time, urbanization made possible the growth of a black professional and business class and laid the foundation for economic self-sufficiency among freedmen.

One institution explicitly created to aid former slaves was the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had its most significant impact on education. On the other hand, the Bureau was not generally successful in helping blacks achieve land ownership, and the overwhelming majority of rural blacks continued to farm as tenants or laborers. The Freedman’s Bureau’s influence dwindled rapidly after 1866 when the Federal army departed.

On January 4, 1868, the Nashville Republican Banner published an editorial calling for a revolutionary movement of white Southerners to unseat the existing state legislature. “In this State,” the paper argued, “reconstruction has perfected itself and done its worst. It has organized a government that is as complete a closed corporation as may be found; it has placed the black man over the white as the agent and prime move of domination; it has constructed a system of machinery by which all free guarantees, privileges, and opportunities are removed from the people… The impossibility of casting a free vote in Tennessee short of a revolutionary movement … is an undoubted fact.”

When Brownlow left Tennessee in February 1869 to become a U. S. senator, DeWitt Clinton Senter, as Speaker of the Senate, succeeded in Tennessee’s governorship. This was just the opening for which conservatives had been waiting. Senter soon put his powers to use, permitting ex-Confederate voters’ registration and restoring their civil rights, thereby ensuring his victory in the 1869 gubernatorial race. He was re-elected later that year, and in 1870, a new state constitution was written. By then, the legislature, dominated by conservatives, walked a middle road to avoid the threat of Federal military occupation. They ratified the abolition of slavery and voting rights for freedmen but limited voter participation by enacting a poll tax; thus, most blacks remained disenfranchised. Rewriting the State constitution effectively ended Reconstruction in Tennessee, but the struggle over black freedmen’s civil and economic rights had just begun.

In the 1870s, white elites worked to reclaim political power, using paramilitary groups against freedmen and their allies to terrorize them, suppress voting, and control labor. However, black Tennesseans remained active politically and exercised their newfound legal rights. They brought suits in the county courts and ran for local elective offices, particularly in the cities where they commanded blocs of voting strength.

Thirteen black legislators were elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives, beginning with Sampson Keeble of Nashville in 1872. Much of their legislative work involved fighting rearguard actions to preserve some of Reconstruction’s hard-won gains. However, these newfound freedoms would not last for long. S. A. McElwee, Styles Hutchins, and Monroe Gooden, elected in 1887, would be the last black lawmakers to serve in Tennessee until the 1960s.

With the restoration of Democratic Party rule, a reaction set in against the moves made toward racial equality. Lynchings, beatings, and arson were used to enforce white supremacy during the Klan era. In the 1870s, this system was refined to include the legal enforcement of second-class citizenship for blacks — statutory discrimination commonly referred to as “Jim Crow” laws. By the 1880s, the legislature mandated separate facilities for whites and blacks in public accommodations and railroads. One young woman, Ida B. Wells, challenged the “separate but equal” law on the railroads in an 1883 court case and spent much of her later life drawing the nation’s attention to the use of lynching as a means of terrorism against blacks.

Benjamin Pap Singleton

Benjamin Pap Singleton

Nashvillian, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, also attacked the practice of lynching and urged his fellow freedmen to leave the South altogether to homestead in Kansas — the so-called “Exoduster” movement. The allegiance of black voters to the Republican Party made them ready targets for Democratic politicians, and “Jim Crow” laws gradually whittled down the participation of African Americans in the political system.

In the political campaign of 1888, the Democrats waged a battle unparalleled in corruption and violence to gain quorum control over both houses of the legislature. With Republicans unable to stall or defeat antiparty measures, the disfranchising acts sailed through the 1889 general assembly, and Governor Robert L. Taylor signed them into law. Hailed by newspaper editors as the end of black voting, the laws worked as expected, and African American voting declined precipitously in rural and small-town Tennessee. Many urban blacks continued to vote until so-called progressive reforms eliminated their political power in the early twentieth century.

Thus, the white, elite-dominated legislature had the power to add more Jim Crow laws and establish state segregation with provisions that would last until the mid-20th century. Disfranchising provisions worked against poor whites as well as blacks for decades.

In 1900, African Americans made up nearly 24% of the state’s population of more than two million residents.

Scopes Trial

Scopes Trial

As the new century began, Tennessee was troubled by conflicts between the values of its traditional, agrarian culture and the demands of a modern, increasingly urban world. Issues such as prohibition, women’s suffrage, religion, and education came to the fore of political debate, replacing the economic issues that dominated late nineteenth-century politics.

Tennessee became the focus of national attention during the campaign for women’s voting rights. Like temperance, women’s suffrage was an issue with its roots in middle-class reform efforts of the late 1800s. The organized movement came of age with the founding of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association in 1906. However, it would still be years before they gained the right to vote in 1920.

Further national attention came to Tennessee’s way during the trial of John T. Scopes, also called the Scopes Trial. In 1925, as part of a general education bill, the General Assembly passed a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Some local boosters in Dayton, Tennessee, concocted a scheme to have Scopes, a high school biology teacher, violate the law and stand trial to draw publicity and visitors to the town. Little did they know how well their plan would work. The trial brought national and international media coverage; thousands flocked to Dayton to witness the event.

Tennessee was ridiculed in the northeast and West Coast press as the “Monkey State,” even as a wave of revivals defending religious fundamentalism swept the state. The trial was also given the name “Monkey Trial” by the same reporters.

In the end, Scopes was convicted and fined $100, a penalty later rescinded by the state court of appeals. The law itself remained on the books until 1967. More important was the law’s symbolic importance. It was an expression of the anxiety Tennessee’s rural people felt over the threat they believed modern science posed to their traditional religious culture.

Ironically, when Tennessee’s rural culture was under attack by sophisticated urban critics, its music found a national audience. In 1925, WSM, a powerful Nashville radio station, began broadcasting a weekly live music program, which soon was dubbed the “Grand Ole Opry.” Such music came in diverse forms: banjo-and-fiddle string bands, family gospel singing groups, and country vaudeville acts like Uncle Dave Macon.

Grand Ole Opry Show,1930s

Still the longest-running radio program in American history, the Opry used the new radio technology to tap into a huge market for “old-time” or “hillbilly” music. Two years after the Opry’s opening, in a series of landmark sessions at Bristol, Tennessee, field scout Ralph Peer of the Victor Company recorded Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family to produce the first nationally popular rural records. Tennessee thus emerged as the heartland of traditional country music — home to many of the performers and the place from which it was broadcast to the nation.

Just as Tennessee was fertile ground for the music enjoyed by white audiences, it was also a center for the blues music popular with African Americans. Memphis, already a center for this music by the 1920s, became Tennessee’s “Blues Capitol,” as it drew performers from cotton farms to Beale Street clubs.

Tennesseans contributed their usual full complement of soldiers during World War I, as about 100,000 young men volunteered or were drafted into the armed services.

A migrant family from Tennessee camped in a field in Berrien County, Michigan, John Vachon, 1940

Tennesseans suffered along with the rest of the nation during the Great Depression. The need to create work for the unemployed, the desire for rural electrification, and the desire to control the annual spring floods on the Tennessee River drove the Federal creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the nation’s largest public utility, in 1933. It would become the nation’s largest electrical utility provider by 1945.

Despite the millions of dollars that TVA and the Federal government pumped into Tennessee, the Depression ended only with the economic stimulus from the country’s entry into World War II, which brought relief by employing ten percent of the state’s population. Approximately 33 percent of the state’s workers were female by the war’s end.

The pace of change accelerated dramatically after World War II, as industrialization and technology increased, especially in the rural-based agricultural communities. Farm technology brought higher productivity, and more and more people left the farms. In the meantime, the state was gaining in manufacturing and industrial facilities. In 1960, for the first time, the state had more urban than rural dwellers.

At about the same time that industry was increasing in the state, residents also began to fight the long-time political machines that had long run the state government. However, it was not until 1953 that a new constitutional convention finally removed the poll tax provisions. Hundreds of thousands of black and white citizens were disfranchised by its abuses during the decades since its passage. Though the poll tax was removed, there still were continued abuses under segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans, prompting reasons for young activists to continue in the Civil Rights Movement.

In the spring of 1960, after decades of segregation, Tennessee’s Jim Crow laws were challenged. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum across the South, the Federal Government passed the National Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The National Guard stands by during a Civil Rights march in Memphis.

The National Guard stands by during a Civil Rights march in Memphis.

Despite successes in the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee, sanitation workers broadened the struggle by going on strike against discriminatory pay and work rules in 1968. In support of the strike, Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis, where, on April 4, he was assassinated by a sniper as he stood on the Lorraine Motel’s balcony. African-American communities and admirers of King across the nation were shaken to grief and despair by the murder. Riots and civil unrest erupted in African-American areas in numerous cities across the country, resulting in widespread injuries and millions of dollars in property damages.

After decades of change from an agricultural to an industrial economy, Tennessee continued to grow over the next years during a strong business expansion.

One of the reasons the state enjoys business growth today is that it maintains one of the country’s lowest tax rates, drawing hundreds of businesses and individuals each year. Additionally, Tennessee has benefited from its diversity, making it less vulnerable to recessions than other states with fewer industry types. Today, its economy is primarily based on tourism, entertainment, a burgeoning medical and hospital industry, banking, insurance, agribusiness, and manufacturing.

Tennessee provides a wealth of history and travel destinations for the visitor, including 15 national parks, 53 state parks, hundreds of music and art venues, outdoor adventure opportunities, and more.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated October 2023.

About This Article: This article is primarily excerpted from The Tennessee Blue Book – History Section. Dr. Wayn  C. Moore of the Tennessee State Library and Archives wrote this section. The article as it appears here, however, is far from verbatim as it has been truncated, edited, and additional information provided.

Also See: 

Civil War Battles of Tennessee


Tennessee Photo Galleries

Tennessee – The Volunteer State