Tennessee is divided into the regions of East, Middle, and West Tennessee. Known legally as the “Grand Divisions,” these regions are represented by the three stars in the center of the Tennessee state flag, which was adopted in 1905. Each has distinctive geographical, cultural, and economic features.
East Tennessee is characterized by rugged terrain: mountains, gorges, ridges, thick forests, and rocky plateaus. Through this region the Tennessee River runs northeast to southwest. Paralleling the river are valleys that have facilitated migration along the spine of the Appalachians. The clay-saturated, stony soil in East Tennessee is excellent for brick production, but it does not lend itself to large-scale farming. Still, small plots have been cultivated for millennia; there are remains of ancient Woodland and Mississippian Indian settlements all along the river. The region is rich in iron ore, coal, and timber, resources that later encouraged industrial development. Once known for its manufacturing plants, East Tennessee is now home to many of the state’s insurance, service, and educational institutions.
Middle Tennessee is a region of rolling hills and meadows nourished by the Tennessee River and its many tributaries, notably the Cumberland River in the north and the Duck and Elk rivers in the south. With plentiful water and rich soil, Middle Tennessee once hosted some of the largest tobacco plantations and horse farms in the South, especially around the cities of Nashville and Columbia. Wessyngton Plantation, located north of Nashville and founded in the 1790s, was the largest tobacco plantation in the country before the Civil War. Middle Tennessee is also blessed with mineral springs that led to the establishment of resorts like the one at Beersheba Springs (1830s). Fresh water springs are abundant as well, the source of distilleries such as Jack Daniel's in Lynchburg (1875). Today Middle Tennessee’s wealth comes from a thriving music industry, automobile manufacturing, the hospitality industry, and real estate development.
West Tennessee is the flattest and smallest of the state’s three regions. It is also the least populated, despite the presence of Memphis, the largest city in the state. Fed by the Mississippi and its many tributaries, this region makes up part of the Gulf Coastal Plain, and has been devoted mostly to farmland. The loamy soil of the area is ideal for growing cotton. Not surprisingly, West Tennessee, unlike the mountainous East, developed an economy dependent on slave labor and tenant farming. Among the first of many West Tennessee plantations was Davies Manor in Shelby County, built in the 1830s and once boasting a spread of 2,000 acres worked by twenty-three slaves. Agriculture is still the predominant economic force in this region.
Hernando de Soto explored parts of Tennessee during his 1540 expedition. He probably encountered the many burial mounds that once flanked the Tennessee River in both the western and eastern parts of the state. Such mounds, remnants of which can still be seen near Shiloh (c. 1000 CE) and Castalian Springs (c. 1100 CE), were built by the Woodland and Mississippian Indian cultures. Originally surrounded by wattle-and-daub houses and a log palisade, these mounds are the oldest extant structures in the state.
The first Euro-American efforts to settle Tennessee were made by the British colonists during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). In 1756 the British built Fort Loudoun in what is now Monroe County as a means of securing the aid of the Cherokee and preventing French incursion west of the Appalachians. Colonial expansion into tribal land in Virginia and South Carolina led to the destruction of the fort by the Cherokee in 1760. Peace was soon restored, but at the cost of the gradual erosion of tribal land over the next seventy-five years.
The first Euro-American settlers entered East Tennessee in 1768. Many were of Scots-Irish ancestry and tended to come from Northern Ireland and the borderlands between Scotland and England. Seeking land similar to their ancestral uplands and freedom from government regulation and taxes, these settlers were attracted to the isolated coves and hollows of Southern Appalachia. They built log cabins, intermarried with the Cherokee, tended small farms and sloping pastures, and fostered a culture of self-reliance. They also developed a distinctive type of barn with a cantilevered upper story that helped to deter rot and termites. The Langston Hughes Library in Clinton is a refurbished barn of this type from the 1860s.
Settlement of Middle Tennessee began in 1779 when Pennsylvanian farmer John Buchanan built a wooden stockade on the Cumberland River. In 1780, Buchanan’s stockade, named Fort Nashborough, hosted some 200 settlers led by John Donelson and James Robertson. The fort served as the seed of the city of Nashville. Like Fort Loudon, Fort Nashborough was reconstructed with the help of the WPA in the 1930s; it was demolished in 2015.
The settlement of Western Tennessee began in 1818 when Andrew Jackson negotiated the Treaty of Tuscaloosa and the Chicasaws ceded to the United States some 10,700 square miles between the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. The town of Memphis, planned in part by Jackson, was founded the following year. Located on protective bluffs above the Mississippi River, Memphis soon served as a hub of trade and transportation, attracting tens of thousands of immigrants, especially those from Ireland escaping the potato blight of the 1840s and those from Bavaria following the 1848 German revolution. St. Peter Church in Memphis, a Catholic edifice, was built in the 1850s by and for such immigrants.
Aside from these Catholic groups, most of the Tennessee's early white settlers were Protestant. Inspired by the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790–1840), Protestant Missions were sent to Tennessee to convert the Cherokee and Chicasaw to Christianity and to provide spiritual and social nourishment for white settlers. Establishments like the Brainerd Mission in Hamilton County, built in 1817, helped to cement a strong Presbyterian presence in East Tennessee, though Baptist and Methodist congregations sprang up quickly as well. Indeed, the oldest church in the state may well be the Watauga River Church, a Baptist assembly founded in 1772 in Johnson City and now called the Sinking Creek Baptist Church.
Missionaries and preachers proselytized the Cherokee, introducing them to Anglo-American customs and dress, and encouraging the development of a written language. This did not prevent white settlers, however, from moving onto Cherokee land. In one of the most infamous acts in American history, the federal government authorized the Treaty of New Echota (1835), which removed the Cherokee from their ancestral land in the Southern Appalachia, forcing them west to the Oklahoma Territory. At gunpoint, the Cherokee, among other members of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, were escorted in the 1830s along a series of water and land routes collectively known as the Trail of Tears. During 1838–1839, between 2,000 and 6,000 of the 16,543 displaced Cherokee died along the way, mostly from disease and exposure.
President Andrew Jackson was responsible for the eviction of the Five Civilized Tribes. Nonetheless, his presidency represented a turning point in American politics and his populist policies made him a heroic figure to many. He also paved the way for two more Tennesseans to follow him into the White House. Residences all three Tennessee U.S. presidents can be visited today: Jackson’s Hermitage outside Nashville (1819–1835), James K. Polk’s ancestral home in Columbia (1816), and Andrew Johnson's House in Greeneville (1851).
At the outbreak of the Civil War, East Tennessee tended to side with the Union, and though West Tennessee was Confederate to the core, the state voted to secede from the Union only with great reluctance and a bare majority. Because of the its strategic importance Tennessee suffered more battles than any other state except Virginia. Between 1862 and 1865 the slave-based economies of Middle and West Tennessee were devastated, though many antebellum houses survived and remained in the hands of their original families. Union forces were especially eager to secure Chattanooga, located on one of the few east-west gaps in the Appalachians and along a navigable river and central railway. In the fall of 1863, the small city saw the arrival of over 100,000 northerners in uniform. Among them were men who saw the natural resources and potential of the area and decided to settle in East Tennessee after the war. During the 1870s and 1880s smoke stacks from new industrial and manufacturing plants dotted the city’s skyline and Chattanooga became known as the “Dynamo of Dixie.”
To shore up its pro-federal foothold in the South during Reconstruction, the federal government began to supply Tennessee, especially the eastern part of the state, with funds to build a variety of municipal structures. The U.S. Courthouse and Post Office in Chattanooga (1888–1892), a fine Richardsonian Romanesque edifice, is a stately example of this federal largesse. Supplementing federal money were grants from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded thirteen public and five academic libraries throughout the state between 1900 and 1917, including the impressive main public library in Nashville and the Peabody Library at Vanderbilt University.
Tennessee enjoyed a significant amount of federal sponsorship during the 1930s and 1940s. Nearly every county in the state can boast of at least one post office funded by the WPA. To control flooding, generate electricity, and provide much-needed employment during the Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority built no fewer than sixteen major dams between 1933 and 1944. The government also erected entire towns, like the one of Norris, to house and educate the many workers on the dams. With the dams, and the power they generated, came the secret city of Oak Ridge, source of the materials and science behind the development of the atomic bomb. At the same time Tennessee became home to major manufacturing centers like Alcoa, which thrived during the Second World War as a provider of aircraft aluminum.
Churches in Tennessee have long played a central role in the cultural life of the state, especially during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Institutions such as the Mason Temple in Memphis, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ (c. 1941), provided spaces for the assembly of black congregations and the pursuit of social justice. The Mason Temple in particular is the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last public address.
The state is probably best known for its rich musical heritage. Bristol is the birthplace of country music. Memphis is famous for its jazz and blues. And Nashville, “Music City,” is the home to every genre, the site of the Grand Ole Opry (Ryman Auditorium, 1892), the Country Music Hall of Fame (2001), and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center (2003).
Over the past half-century, Tennessee has become part of the New South. There has been a shift from industrial manufacturing and agriculture to service industries like insurance, healthcare, and high technology. Most of the smoke stacks are gone, but because of its two vital river systems, Tennessee remains host to major assembly plants (Nissan in Smyrna, General Motors in Spring Hill, Volkswagen in Chattanooga), chemical companies (Eastman in Kingsport), hospital complexes (Vanderbilt University Medical Center), transportation hubs (Fed Ex in Memphis), and educational institutions (University of Tennessee in Knoxville).
Carter (III), Samuel. Cherokee Sunset: A Nation Betrayed. A Narrative of Travail and Triumph, Persecution and Exile. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Arnold, Dean W. Old Money, New South: The Spirit of Chattanooga. Chattanooga, TN: Chattanooga Historical Foundation, 2006.
Patrick, James. Architecture in Tennessee, 1768–1897. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
West, Carroll Van. Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes: A Traveler’s Guide. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
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