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Survey of Tennessee - 1797


Gilbert Imlay


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This article was transcribed from the Tennessee Historical Commission and Tennessee Historical Society publication, Tennessee Old and New Sesqui-centennial Edition 1796-1946. It originally appeared in F. Debrett's third edition of A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, published in London, England, in 1797. Full of the kind of detail important to genealogists, the article is notable because of its publication shortly after Tennessee became the 16th State of the United States of America.


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The State of Tenasee, lately called(1) the Territory of the United States south of the river Ohio, is that tract of country which was ceded to the United States by the state of North Carolina, in the year 1789. It is situated between the parallels of 35 degrees and 36 degrees 30 minutes, extending from the great Iron Mountain to the river Mississippi.
When we cast our eyes on the map of any country, especially the map of a new country, in which little else is seen than the situation of mountains, rivers, and plains, we are desirous to know what is the state of its soil and climate; what are the advantages its inhabitants may be expected to enjoy, or the difficulties under which they must labour. A general answer to these questions, as they respect the Tenasee government, is the object of this publication.
e discover, at first sight, that the state is cut into eastern and western divisions, by Cumberland Mountain, a ridge near 30 miles broad; and it is probable that the commercial connexions of people who live in the eastern division, may be different from those of the western inhabitants.
The great island on Holston river is not above 340 miles from Richmond in Virginia, along a good waggon road; whence we may conclude that the settlers on Holston will preserve a considerable intercourse with the atlantic states; but people who live on the westward of Cumberland mountain, will send their produce to market by means of the Mississippi. This remarkable difference in their situation will probably induce the inhabitants of those districts to employ themselves differently; for the most property or profitable productions in one settlement, may not be most profitable in the other.
The Holston settlement contains 52,338 inhabitants, though in the year 1775 it hardly contained 2000. The land in this settlement is generally fertile; but the face of the country is much broken. Placed, as it is, between two large mountains, we may readily suppose that the farmer never suffers by the want of rain. The soil produces wheat, barley, indian corn, hemp and flax, in great perfections. Physicians have not heretofore found their way to that country, for the people have not been sick. They enjoy a temporate climate, ease, and abundance.
Iron ore abounds in that country. A capital furnace and forge have lately been erected on Holston, near the Virginia line. There is a bloomery below the mouth of Wataga, and another 25 miles above the mouth of Frenchbroad. There are also sundry lead-mines in the settlement, one in particular on Frenchbroad river, that produces 75 per cent in pure lead.
The greatest part of the state of Tenasee lies in the west side of Cumberland mountain; and though that country has hardly been settled ten years by civilized men, it naturally claims the greatest share of our attention, because it is extensive, and will probably become the residence of a numerous and powerful colony. [How prescient of Mr. Imlay to realize Nashville's future prominence at a time when East Tennessee dominated politically, socially, and economically.]
The mean distance between Cumberland mountain and the Mississippi is about 230 miles. This, at 103 miles broad, gives fifteen millions of acres; and it is generally agreed, that 11 or 12 millions of that land may be cultivated to advantage; such is the proportion of arable land. The natives, who formerly inhabited that country, must have been very numerous; we seldom go more than five or six miles along the banks of Cumberland river, without finding a large burying-place, the evident remains of a considerable town. As the Indians had their choice of land, and do not appear to have been equally numerous in other places, we may suppose they found this to be a soil on which they could live with the greatest ease.
Boundaries. It is bounded by the states of Virginia and Kentucky on the north; by North-Carolina on the east; by South-Carolina and Georgia on the south; and by the river Mississippi which separates it from the Spanish province of Louisiana, on the west.
Divisions. It is divided into three districts: Washington, Hamilton, and Mero; containing nine counties; Washington, Sullivan, Green, Hawkins, Knox, Jefferson, Davidson, Sumner, and Tenesee.
Situation. It is situate between the latitude 35, and 36 30' north, which parallels form its northern and southern boundaries; its breadth therefore is 104 miles, and its length, from the North-Carolina line to the Mississippi, about 400 miles.
Rivers. There are few countries so well intersected by creeks and rivers: the principal are the Mississippi, Tenasee, Cumberland, Holston, Clinch, Wolf, Hatchee, Forked-deer, Obion, and Reelfoot.
The Tenasee, formerly called by the French Cherokee, empties itself into the Ohio, nearly 60 miles above its junction with the Mississippi.
Holston river, the principal north fork of the Tenasee, receives in its bed, before its junction with the Tenasee, several considerable rivers, Nolachucky, Wattauga, French-broad, and Little river.
Clinch runs into the Tenasee below the mouth of Holston. Duck river empties into the Tenasee below the Muscle Shoals, and Elk river above them.
Emery river is a branch of Clinch.
Obed river, the Caney-fork, Red river, Stone River, and Harpeth, are considerable branchs of Cumberland river. This country contains, besides, a large number of bold, navigable creeks.
Mountains. Yellow, Bald, Iron, and Uncka [Unaka] mountains, which form the eastern boundary of this territory, and separate it from North-Carolina, are a chain of mountains running nearly south-westwardly. Clinch mountain divides the waters of Holston and Clinch rivers.
The large Cumberland mountain separates the eastern inhabitants of this government from the western ones.
Towns. Knoxville, the capital and seat of government, was established by William Blount, esq. the first governor of this territory; is situate in a beautiful spot on the north bank of Holston river, a few miles below the mouth of Frenchbroad. This town is remarkable for the treaty held by governor Blount in 1791, with the chiefs and head warriors of the Cherokee nation. It is the residence of the public officers of government. A printing office is established here, and the inhabitants enjoy the advantage of communicating to every part of the United States by post.
The Superior Court of law, the court of equity for Hamilton district, and the court of pleas and quarter sessions for Knox County, are held in this town, which is in a very flourishing situation.
Nashville, on the south bank of Cumberland river, is the district town of Mero: the courts of the district are held here. The Davidson academy, which is richly endowed, is in this town. Jonesborough, the capital of Washington district, is the seat of the courts of the district.
There are several other small towns that bid fair to increase in consequence.
Roads and Distances. From Knoxville, the present seat of government, to Philadelphia, is 650 miles.

Miles From Knoxville to Long-island, on Holston is 100
Abington 43
Fort Chissel 64
English's ferry, New river 24
Montgomery town 11
Big lick Liberty town 33
New London 28
Floods 15
Powhatan court-house 65
Richmond 32
From Knoxville to Richmond 494
These two roads are very good waggon-roads; and the price of transportation of any goods or articles from Richmond to Knoxville does not exceed four dollars per cwt.
From Knoxville to Nashville the distance is 183 miles, viz:

From Knoxville to south-west Point 35
Big lick garrison, on Cumberland 80
Bledsoe lick 32
Nashville 36
From Knoxville to Nashville 183
The 80 miles between the two garrisons are not yet opened for waggons; but families moving to the settlements on Cumberland, send generally their baggage by water from Knoxville down the Tenasee river.

From Nashville to Three forks of Red river 28
Big Barren River 32
Green river 45
Danville 50
Lexington 35
Miles From Nashville to Lexington, in Kentucky 190
It is a beautiful road through the barrens.
In the summer of 1795, a good waggon-road was cut across Cumberland Mountain, and it was passed by 30 or 40 waggons in the fall. The late friendly conduct of the Cherokee Indians, in consequence of a long talk with governor Blount, and the amicable disposition of the Spanish government, have greatly altered the condition of settlers on Cumberland river, and made them perfectly happy. Several thousands crossed the Cumberland mountain in September, October, and November last, in detached families, without a guard, and without danger. The Indians treated them with kindness, visited their camps at night, and supplied them plentifully with venison.
From Nashville, on Cumberland river, to Lexington, in Kentucky, is 190 miles.
From Nashville to New Orleans the distance by land is about 450 miles -- the country in general level; and a good road might be cut at a small expence.
Climate. The climate in this country is very temperate; and the experience of ten years assures us that it is healthy. The piercing northerly winds that prevail, during the winter, in the atlantic states, seldom molest the inhabitants on Cumberland river, for they have no great mountains to the north or the westward. The inhabitants of the atlantic states are also subjected to sudden changes in the atmosphere, arising from their vicinity to the ocean; the air that comes from the surface of the sea, especially from the warm gulf-stream in winter must be very different in its temperature from the air that comes across cold and high mountains; but the great distance between the Cumberland settlers and the ocean, considering that many great mountains are interposed, effectually secures them against the bad effects of those sudden changes.
North-easterly storms never reach this country.


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The legislature of the territory of the United States south of the river Ohio, at their session in July 1795, made a law for numbering the inhabitants, in order to determine whether they were not entitled to all the privileges of a state, according to an ordinance of congress, passed the 13th of July 1787, respecting states to be formed in the ceded territory; which provides, that "Whenever any of the said states shall have 60,000 inhabitants therein, such state shall be admitted by its delegates in the congress of the United States, on an equal footing with the original states, in all respects whatever." On taking the census, it appeared, that there were in the territory 77,262 inhabitants, of whom 66,640 were free persons: whereupon the Governor, in pursuance of the law, called a convention, who lately met at Knoxville, formed a constitution, &c.

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