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History of Tennessee

The present site of Memphis may be the point where the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, reached the Mississippi river, but this cannot be determined with certainity.  Father Marquette in his voyage down the Mississippi camped upon the western border, and La Salle built Fort Prud'homme upon the Chickasaw Bluffs, probably on the site of Memphis, in 1682, but it was abandoned, then rebuilt, and again abandoned.

The territory was included in the English grant to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584 and in the later Stuart grants, including that of Carolina, in 1663.  No permanent settlement, however, was made until 1769, though wandering explorers and fur traders visited the eastern portion much earlier.

A party of Virginians led by Dr. Thomas Walker (1715-1794), in 1750 reached and named the Cumberland river and mountains in honour of the royal duke.  In 1756 or 1757, Fort Loudon, named in honour of John Campbell, earl of Loudon, was built on the Little Tennessee river, about 30 m. N. of the present site of Knoxville, as an outpost against the French, who were now active in the whole Mississippi Valley, and was garrisoned by royal troops.  The fort was captured, however, by the Cherokee Indians in 1760, and both the garrison and the neighbouring settlers were massacred.

Eastern Tennessee was recognized as a common hunting ground by the Cherokees, Creeks, Miamis and other Indian tribes, and the Iroquois of New York also claimed a considerable portion by right of conquest.

In 1768 the Iroquois ceded whatever claim they had to the English, and in 1769 several cabins were built along the Watauga and Holston rivers upon what was thought to be Virginian soil.  A settlement near the present Rogersville was made in 1771 and in the next year another sprang up on the Nollichucky. After the failure of the Regulator insurrection in North Carolina in 1771, hundreds of the Regulators made their way into the wilderness.  When the settlements were found to be within the limits of North Carolina, that colony made no effort to assert jurisdiction or to protect the settlers from Indian depredations.  Therefore in 1772 the residents of the first two settlements met in general convention to establish a form of government since known as the Watauga Association.

A general committee of thirteen was elected to exercise legislative powers.  This committee elected from its members a committee of five in whom executive and judicial powers were lodged.  The smaller committee elected a chairman, who was also chairman of the committee of thirteen.  A sheriff, an attorney and a clerk was elected, and regulations for recording deeds and wills were made.  Courts were held, but any conflict of jurisdiction with Virginia or North Carolina was avoided.

In 1775 the settlement on the Nollichucky was forced to join the association, and in the same year the land was bought from the Indians in the hope of averting war.

With the approach of the War of Independence, the dream of becoming a separate colony with a royal governor was abandoned, and on petition of the inhabitants the territory was annexed to North Carolina in 1776 as the Washington District, which in 1777 became Washington county, with the Mississippi river as the western boundary.  The population increased rapidly and soon several new counties were created.

During the War of Independence the hardy mountaineers under John Sevier and Evan Shelby did valiant service against both the royal troops and the Loyalists in South Carolina, chiefly as partisan rangers under Charles McDowell (1763-1815).  Major Patrick Ferguson with several hundred Loyalists and a small body of regulars, made a demonstration against the western settlements, but at King's Mountain in South Carolina he was completely defeated by the Americans, among whom Colonel Sevier and the troops led by him were conspicuous.

After the War of Independence the legislature of North Carolina in 1784 offered to cede her western territory to the general government, provided the cession should be accepted within two years.  The Watauga settlers, indignant at this transfer without their consent, and fearing to be left without any form of government whatever, called a convention which met at Jonesborough on the 23rd of August 1784, and by which delegates to another convention to form a new state were appointed.  Meanwhile North Carolina repealed the act of cession and created the western counties into a new judicial district.  A second convention, in November, broke up in confusion without accomplishing anything; but a third adopted a constitutiion, which was submitted to the people, and ordered the election of a legislature.

This body met early in 1785, elected Sevier governor of the new state of Franklin (at first Frankland), filled a number of offices, and passed several other acts looking to separate existence.  Four new counties were created, and taxes were levied.

Later in the year another convention, to which the proposed constitution had been referred, adopted instead the constitution of North Carolina with a few trifling changes, and William Cocke was chosen to present to Congress a memorial requesting recognition as a state.  Congress, however, ignored the request, and the diplomacy of the North Carolina authorities caused a reaction.  For a time two sets of officials claimed recognition, but when the North Carolina legislature a second time passed an act of oblivion and remitted the taxes unpaid since 1784, the tide was turned.  No successor to Sevier was elected, and he was arrested on a charge of treason, but was allowed to escape, and soon afterwards was again appointed brigadier-general of militia.

Meanwhile, settlers had pushed on further into the wilderness.  On the 17th of March 1775 Colonel Richard Henderson and his associates extinguished the Indian title to an immense tract of land in the valleys of the Cumberland, the Kentucky and the Ohio rivers.  In 1778, James Robertson (1742-1814), a native of Virginia, who had bee prominent in the Watauga settlement, set out with a small party to prepare the way for permanent occupation.  He arrived at French Lick (so called from a French trading post established there) early in 1779, and in the same year a number of settlers from Virginia and South Carolina arrived.  Another party led by John Donelson arrived in 1780, and after the close of the War of Independence, the immigrants came in a steady stream.  A form of governement similar to the Watauga Association was devised, and block-houses were built for defence against the Indians.

Robertson was sent as a delegate to the North Carolina legislature in 1783 and through his instrumentality the settlements became Davidson county.  Nashville, which had been founded as Nashborough in 1780, became the county seat.  Finally, in 1843, it became the state capital.  Robertson, the dominant figure in the early years, struggled to counteract the efforts of Spanish intriguers among the Indians, and when diplomacy failed led the settlers against the Indian towns.

On the 25th of February 1790 North Carolina again ceded the territory to the general government, stipulating that all the general provisions of the Ordinance of 1787 should apply except that forbidding slavery.  Congress accepted the cession and, on the 26th of May 1790, passed an act for the government of the "Territory south of the River Ohio." William Blount was appointed the first governor, and in 1792 Knoxville became the seat of government.  The chief events of Blount's administration were the contests with the Indians, the purchase of their lands, and the struggle against the Spanish influence.

A census ordered by the Territorial legislature in 1795 showed more than 60,000 free inhabitants (the number prescribed before the Territory could become a state), and accordingly a convention to draft a state constitution met in Knoxville on the 11th of January 1796.  The instrument, which closely followed the constitution of North Carolina, was proclaimed without submission to popular vote.  John Sevier was elected governor, and William Blount and William Cocke United States senators.  In spite of the opposition of the Federalist party, whose leaders foresaw that Tennessee would be Republican, it was admitted to the Union as the sixteenth state on the 1st of June 1796.

With the rapid increase of population, the dread of Indian and Spaniard declined.  Churches and schools were built, and soon many of the comforts and some of the luxuries of life made their appearance.  The public school system was inaugurated in 1830, but not until 1845 was the principle of taxation for support fully recognized.

As in all new states, the question of a circulating medium was acute during the first half of the 19th century, and state banks were organized, which suspended specie payments in times of financial stringency.  The Bank of Tennessee, organized in 1838, had behind it the credit of the state, and it was hoped that money for education and for internal improvements might be secured from its profits.  The management became a question of party politics, and during the Civil War its funds were used to advance the Confederate cause.

The development of the western section along the Mississippi was rapid after the beginning of the century, Memphis, founded in 1819, was thought as late as 1832 to be in Mississippi, and not until 1837 was the southern boundary, which according to the North Carolina cession was 35 degrees, finally established.  In common with other river towns, the disorderly element in Memphis was large, and the gamblers, robbers and horse thieves were only suppressed by local vigilance committees.  The peculiar topographical conditions made the three sections of the state almost separate commonwealths, and demand for better means of communication was insistent.

The policy of state aid to internal improvements found advocates very early in spite of the Republican affiliations of the state, but a definite programme was not laid out until 1829, when commissioners for internal improvements were appointed and an expenditure of $150,000 was authorized.

In 1835 the state agreed to subscribe one-third to the capital stock of companies organized to lay out turnpikes, railways, etc, and four years later the proportion became one-half. Though these agreements were soon repealed, the general policy was continued, and in 1861 more than $17,000,000 of the state debt was due to these subscriptioins, from which there was little return.

Though President Andrew Jackson was for many years practically a dictator in Tennessee politics, his arbitrary methods and his intolerance of any sort of independence on the part of his followers led to a revolt in 1836, when the electoral vote of the state was given to Hugh Lawson White, then United States senator from Tennessee, who had been one of Jackson's most devoted adherents.

White's followers called themselves Anti-Van Buren Democrats, but the proscription which they suffered drove most of them into the Whig party, which carried the state in presidential elections until 1856, when the vote was cast for James Buchanan, the Democratic candidate.

The Whig party was so strong that James K. Polk (Democrat), a resident of the state, lost its electoral vote in 1844.  With the disintegration of the Whig party, the state again became nominally Democratic, though Union sentiment was strong, particularly in East Tennessee.

There were few large plantations and fewer slaves in that mountainous region, while the middle and western sections wre more in harmony with the sentiment in Mississippi and Alabama.  In 1850 representatives of nine Southern states met in a convention at Nashville to consider the questions at issue between the North and the South.  The vote of the state was given for Bell and Everett in 1860, and the people as a whole were opposed to secession.

The proposition to call a convention to vote on the question of secession was voted down on the 9th of February 1861, but after President Lincoln's call for troops the legislature submitted the question of secession directly to the people, and meanwhile, on the 7th of May 1861, entered into a "Military League" with the Confederacy.  An overwhelming vote was cast on the 8th of June in favour of secession, and on the 24th Governor I.G. Harris (1818-1897) issued a proclamation declaring Tennessee out of the Union.  Andrew Johnson, then a United States senator from Tennessee, refused to resign his seat, and was supported by a large element in East Tennessee. A Union convention, including representatives from all the eastern and a few of the middle counties, met on the 17th of June 1861 and petitioned Congress to be admitted as a separate state.  The request was ignored, but the section was strongly Unionist in sentiment during the war, and has since been strongly Republican. (NOTE: Greene county included)

The state was, next to Virginia, the chief battleground during the Civil War, and one historian has counted 454 battles and skirmishes which took place within its borders. In February 1862, General U.S. Grant and Commodore A.H. Foote captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee river, and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland.  The Confederate line of defence was broken and General D.C. Buell occupied Nashville.  

Grant next ascended the Tennessee river to Pittsburg Landing with the intention of capturing the Memphis & Charleston railway, and on the 6th-7th of April defeated the Confederates in the battle of Shiloh.  The capture of Island No. 10 in the Mississippi on the 7th of April opened the river as far south as Memphis, which was captured in June.

On the 31st of December and the 2nd of January General William S. Rosecrans (Federal) fought with General Braxton Bragg (Confederate) the bloody but indecisive battle of Stone River (Murfreesboro).

In June 1863 Rosecrans forced Bragg to evacuate Chattanooga. Bragg, however, turned upon his pursuer, and on the 19th and 20th of September one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought at Chickamauga.  General Grant now assumed command, and on the 24th and 25th of November defeated Bragg at Chattanooga, thus opening the way into East Tennessee.  There General A.E. Burnside at first met with success, but was shut up in Knoxville by General James Longstreet, who was not able, however, to capture the city, and on the approach of General W.T. Sherman retired into Virginia.

Almost the whole state was now held by Federal troops, and no considerable military movement occurred until after the fall of Atlanta in September 1864. Then General J.B. Hood moved into Tennessee, expecting Sherman to follow him.  Sherman, however, sent reinforcements to Thomas and continued his march to the sea.  Hood fought with General John M. Schofield at Franklin, and on the 15th - 16th of December was utterly defeated by Thomas at Nashville, the Federals thus securing virtually undisputed control of the state.

After the occupation of the state by the Federal armies in 1862 Andrew Johnson was appointed military governor by the president (confirmed March 3, 1862), and held the office until inaugurated vice president on the 4th of March 1865.  Republican electors attempted to cast the vote of the state in 1864, but were not recognized by Congress. Tennessee was the first of the Confederate state to be readmitted to the Union (July 24, 1866), after ratifying the Constitution of the United States with amendments, declaring the ordinance of secession void, voting to abolish slavery, and declaring the war debt void.

The state escaped "carpet bag" government, but the native whites in control under the leadership of William G. Brownlow (1805-1877) confined the franchise to those who had always been uncompromisingly Union in sentiment and conferred suffrage upon the negroes (February 25, 1867).  The Ku Klux Klan, originating in 1865 as a youthful prank at Pulaski, Tennessee, spread over the state and the entire South, and in 1869 nine counties in the middle and western sections were placed under martial law.

At the elctions in 1869 the Republican part split into two factions. The conservatitive candidate was elected by the aid of the Democrats, who also secured a majority of the legislature, which has never been lost since that time.  The constitution was revised in 1870.  For a considerable time after the war the state seemed to make little material progress, but since 1880 it has made rapid strides.

The principal occurrences have been the final compounding of the old state debt at fifty cents on the dollar in 1882, the rapid growth of cities, and the increased importance of mining and manufacturing.

Reference: "The Encyclopedia Britannica Handy Volume Issue" Eleventh Edition, Published 1910-1911, Vol. 26, Pg 623 & 624

County Administrator, Carolyn Whitaker

Last update 15 April 2002