Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition

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This chronicle of the formation of Tennessee from indigenous settlements to the closing of the frontier in 1840 begins with an account of the prehistoric frontiers and a millennia-long habitation by Native Americans. The rest of the book deals with Tennessee's historic period beginning with the incursion of Hernando de Soto's Spanish army in 1540. John R. Finger follows two narratives of the creation and closing of the frontier. The first starts with the early interaction of Native Americans and Euro-Americans and ends when the latter effectively gained the upper hand. The last land cession by the Cherokees and the resulting movement of the tribal majority westward along the "Trail of Tears" was the final, decisive event of this story. The second describes the period of Euro-American development that lasts until the emergence of a market economy. Though from the very first Anglo-Americans participated in a worldwide fur and deerskin trade, and farmers and town dwellers were linked with markets in distant cities, during this period most farmers moved beyond subsistence production and became dependent on regional, national, or international markets.

Two major themes emerge from Tennessee Frontiers: first, that of opportunity the belief held by frontier people that North America offered unique opportunities for advancement; and second, that of tension between local autonomy and central authority, which was marked by the resistance of frontier people to outside controls, and between and among groups of whites and Indians. Distinctions of class and gender separated frontier elites from lesser whites, and the struggle for control divided the elites themselves. Similarly, native society was riddled by factional disputes over the proper course of action regarding relations with other tribes or with whites. Though the Indians lost in fundamental ways, they proved resilient, adopting a variety of strategies that delayed those losses and enabled them to retain, in m

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1. Land, People, and Early Frontiers

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People and land interact in many ways, producing fundamental changes in each. When writing of a region, then, especially of its frontier stages, it is essential to explore those myriad interactions and their consequences. In the case of Tennessee, that task is difficult because the state’s 42,244 square miles encompass disparate geographic features which have attracted different peoples at different times. Scholars and politicians often acknowledge these geographic and historical peculiarities by referring to the three states or grand divisions of East, Middle, and West Tennessee.

East Tennessee, the most physically diverse of the regions, has witnessed the most complex frontier experiences as peoples of different races and cultures coped in their own ways with one another and with the dictates of nature. Officially this region stretches westward from North Carolina to the middle of the Cumberland Plateau. Its boundary with North Carolina is within a physiographic province, the Unaka Mountains, which includes the Great Smoky range and has peaks towering more than 6,600 feet above sea level. Although the mist-enshrouded mountains, lush flora, and cascading streams shaped a rich body of mythic lore for early Indians, this province offered few attractions for permanent habitation. Not until the early nineteenth century would small settlements of white pioneers intrude into narrow valleys like Cades Cove and become eddies in the major flow of westward migration.

 

2. Trade, Acculturation, and Empire: 1700–1775

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For Tennessee Indians the 150 years following de Soto’s expedition were fraught with unsettling portents. Demographic upheavals and the creation of new polities brought uncertainty and a hint of the greater transformations that were soon to occur. Sheltered by distance from the new European outposts on the South Atlantic and Gulf coasts, native Tennesseans nonetheless obtained a few manufactured items reflecting the material allures of white civilization. But soon the diffusion of European goods accelerated and assumed dangerous proportions. South Carolina businessmen were especially aggressive in pursuing the Indian trade, starting with tribes close to Charleston and then rapidly extending operations westward. By the end of the seventeenth century they were skirting the southern end of the Appalachians and taking their pack trains to the Creek towns of Georgia and Alabama and even to the Chickasaw villages of northern Mississippi. By the early eighteenth century they were visiting the Overhill Cherokees of Tennessee.

 

3. The Revolutionary Frontier: 1775–1780

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By 1775 the white threat to the Cherokee land base in upper East Tennessee was apparent. An estimated two thousand white settlers lived there, about three-fourths having arrived from the Great Valley of Virginia and the rest by way of the difficult mountain route from North Carolina. The earliest came on horseback and on foot, usually driving a few head of livestock. Though they were an ethnically diverse group, the majority were of English stock. A few of the wealthier immigrants brought along a slave or two. To the horror of the Cherokees, these newcomers transformed the landscape by girdling and cutting trees, building cabins, and planting crops and orchard trees. Settlers continued to hunt deer and bear for food and sport, but they increasingly depended on meat from domestic livestock. Cattle and hogs fed widely, especially among the tall cane that flourished along the streams. After the first few years a rough road system linked the new settlements with Virginia and distant cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, but except for occasional drives of livestock to outside markets, traffic was mostly oneway. The few merchants in the area included John Carter on the Watauga, Evan Shelby at present-day Bristol, and Jacob Brown on the Nolichucky.

 

4. Expansion Amid Revolution: 1779–1783

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The periodic lulls in backcountry warfare allowed settlers to consolidate their treaty gains and prepare for renewed expansion beyond the existing frontier. Especially alluring were the lands along the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee, nearly two hundred miles west of the Holston and Watauga settlements. Unlike the larger Tennessee River, which roughly parallels it to the south and west, the Cumberland was never seen as a highway linking Atlantic coastal areas with the Mississippi Valley. Instead, it attracted attention because of the area’s fertile soil and incredible abundance of game animals: buffalo, deer, bear, elk, squirrel, beaver, turkey, and waterfowl. Indeed, early visitors found buffalo and other game animals so thick at the salt licks that their bellowing “resounded from the hills and forests.”

During the late seventeenth century wandering bands of Shawnees hunted and trapped along the Cumberland and sometimes settled long enough to plant a crop or two of corn. Accompanying them were a few Frenchmen down from the Illinois Country or the Wabash River. These individuals were mostly shadowy figures, but one of them was Martin Chartier, a well-traveled jack-of-all-trades who in 1690 began a two-year adventure with some Shawnees that took them throughout the Cumberland valley. A few years later another Frenchman operated a small trading post near present-day Nashville and served the needs of resident Shawnees. He was eventually assisted by an eager young countryman named Jean de Charleville. But the Cherokee and Chickasaw menace was becoming more dangerous, and a Chickasaw ambush in 1714 ended French trade and Shawnee habitation in the area. Around 1745 Peter Chartier, the mixed-blood son of Martin, apparently led some Shawnees in an attempt to resettle near Nashville, but the fierce Chickasaws again forced them out. After that the Cumberland area was a no-man’s-land. The fat buffalo and other game animals continued to attract hunters from several tribes, but such visitors had to be prepared for fight, flight, or death. It was a dangerous region.

 

5. Speculation, Turmoil, and Intrigue: 1780–1789

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Tennessee’s frontier was a society shaped by aspiring elites, covetous men of vast ambition who saw the acquisition of land as the means of economic and social advancement. Virtually every leader of pre-revolutionary society recognized that supporting the patriot cause was the only way of making good his land claims in the face of growing British opposition. The cause of independence also sanctioned new campaigns against the Cherokees to soften their resistance to ever-increasing encroachment on tribal lands. With the Revolution finally won, land speculators circled Tennessee’s landscape like vultures, seeking to profit from the end of British control.

Illustrious Tennesseans like John Donelson, James Robertson, and John Sevier were on this roster of elites and exchanged their unexcelled knowledge of local conditions for the economic and political support of prominent speculators in North Carolina and elsewhere. Foremost among the latter was William Blount. Born in 1749, he was part of a prominent family which was friendly with Judge Richard Henderson and had invested in his Transylvania Company. Blount served as paymaster for North Carolina’s Continental troops during the Revolution while helping his family expand its business activities. He first won election to the state assembly in 1781, and the following year he was elected a state delegate to the Continental Congress. From the outset his politics and business were inseparable; for him there was no such thing as conflict of interest.

 

6. The Southwest Territory: 1790–1796

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William Blount was a member of the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, and he hoped North Carolina would share his enthusiasm for the finished document. Once again his ideology and business considerations blurred: a preference for stronger central authority coincided with a desire for North Carolina’s cession of Tennessee to the new government and the expected increase in the value of his property. He remained discreetly quiet, however, as state delegates debated the Constitution in a special convention dominated by long-simmering factionalism and a general fear of overweening federal authority. In July 1788 delegates deferred acceptance of the document by offering a series of amendments that Antifederalists realized would never be enacted. Alarmed, Blount and other Federalists quickly used skillful propaganda and the Constitution’s ratification by other states to convince the assembly to reconsider the issue in the fall of 1789.

Cession and ratification were separate issues. Even while calling for a new convention, Blount promoted the idea of cession by continuing to intrigue with James Robertson and other Westerners over a possible secession and alliance with Spain. They made little attempt at secrecy, and rumors abounded. Blount even sponsored and secured legislative approval for organizing Middle Tennessee as the Mero District, in honor of Don Esteban Miró, the Spanish governor in New Orleans (who perhaps was puzzled by the misspelling of his name). As far as Blount and some Westerners were concerned, the “Spanish Conspiracy” was mostly an attempt to inform easterners of transmontane concerns and create an impression that cession to a stronger federal authority was the only way to offset a growing Spanish menace to the West. Most Tennesseans favored ratification and cession so the new United States government could protect them from Indians, secure their right to navigate the Mississippi, and eventually, under the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance, grant them statehood. This scenario perfectly suited the wishes of nonresident speculators like the Blounts.

 

7. The Social Fabric

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Prior to the Revolution, Tennessee was a meeting place of whites and Indians who generally interacted peaceably as long as there was a rough balance of power. Whites were basically transients in an Indian landscape—traders, soldiers, a few long hunters, and occasional odd-ball visionaries such as Alexander Cuming and Christian Gottlieb Priber. The relationship between the Indians and the whites was no mere dichotomy of exploiters and victims but rather a process of mutual accommodation and adaptation, a cultural negotiation of expediency in which both sides attempted to gain advantages and maintain varying degrees of autonomy. The intercultural fluidity even allowed African-Americans a modicum of opportunity within both Native American and white society.

Following the Revolution, this landscape rapidly vanished as accommodation became less necessary for whites. Indians quickly learned that United States sovereignty meant the end of British support, and hordes of new settlers appropriated vast tracts of lands. Neither limited Spanish support nor the stubborn resistance of Creeks and Chickamaugas could restore the rough military parity of earlier days. By the turn of the nineteenth century the Indians had been neatly cordoned off by treaty-imposed boundaries, and they were no longer the dominant concern of white Tennesseans. African-Americans were now shackled by an expanding plantation economy. The demise of older modes of accommodation and adaptation reflected significant changes within all of Tennessee’s social components.

 

8. The Frontier Economy

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During its earliest frontier period Tennessee was part of an international economy centered on a thriving trade in furs and deerskins. With the arrival of the first white settlers, the peltry trade became less important, and land speculation on a massive scale came to characterize the economy. Restless men of wealth and influence vied and sometimes cooperated with one another to engross millions of acres and then to dispose of them at enormous profit. The speculators’ machinations involved businessmen and would-be investors in every major city of the United States and many cities in Europe. For ordinary settlers the economy was radically different, initially featuring limited agricultural production geared to family subsistence or trade in small nearby markets. Eventually Tennessee farmers developed regional, national, and even international markets. But for both speculators and farmers, the economy throughout the state’s frontier period depended on land and its productive potential, and production was measured in agricultural terms.

 

9. Statehood to Nationalism: 1796–1815

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John Sevier was the most noteworthy transitional figure in Tennessee’s early history, occupying a position of authority from the Revolution to statehood and then holding various political offices until his death in 1815. He served six terms as governor, one as state legislator, and was elected three times to the U.S. House of Representatives. His career after 1796 echoes many themes of Tennessee’s early frontier: the striving to retain political and moral authority in the face of strong opposition from elites and upstarts alike; the emphasis on land acquisition at the expense of Indians; the intrigue with foreign powers; and the frequent demands for assistance from a young federal government that coincided with a defiant defense of local autonomy. In his later years Sevier also witnessed much that was new: the rise of thriving commercial towns; the growing importance of cotton cultivation and its iniquitous bedfellow, slavery; the emergence of the Nashville Basin as the center of population and political domination; the gradual shift from old patterns of social and political deference; the forced recasting of Indian identity toward an idealized model of “civilization”; and even in the midst of a fierce localism, the emergence of a nascent nationalism that would make Tennesseans some of the strongest defenders of U.S. honor and dignity.

 

10. The Western District: 1795–1840

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By 1815 Middle and East Tennessee were at different stages of frontier evolution. In the Cumberland Basin a slave-based commercial agriculture thrived, and Nashville, bustling and confident, was the most important town between Lexington and Natchez. The only recent Indian fighting had been on the Creek frontier in Alabama; the last Indian attacks against Cumberland settlers were twenty years removed and were now just a memory of old-timers. No tribal claims remained to impede progress, nor even the presence of friendly Indians as daily reminders. The nearest Cherokee and Chickasaw towns were more than a hundred miles away. With the emergence of a viable market economy and an effective white hegemony, the basin was moving out of its frontier era. The Cumberland Plateau, however, remained largely undeveloped, still a tedious barrens through which travelers hastened on their way elsewhere. In East Tennessee, meanwhile, topography continued to define the economy and settlement patterns. The ridges offered few agricultural prospects and attracted few inhabitants, while the valleys featured small towns, small-scale farming, and livestock raising. Communities like Knoxville and Jonesborough offered the amenities of a quiet, civilized life but seemed mere eddies in the flow of humanity to more glamorous destinations. The Cherokees who still resided in the southeastern corner of the state posed no military threat, and their remaining lands, whites confidently believed, would soon be ceded. East Tennessee’s frontier phase was winding down but had not yet ended.

 

11. Hegemony and Cherokee Removal: 1791–1840

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For white Tennesseans, the Cherokee presence was always a visible reminder of their frontier heritage, of dreams unfulfilled. That tribe had once claimed more than half of the entire state, but through a series of cessions retained only the southeastern corner by the end of 1806. Whites coveted that region as well, but for more than a decade they were unable to make any legal inroads there. The Cherokees held them off, not through force of arms, but through wily maneuvering and remarkable selective acculturation. They were becoming “civilized” and thereby acquiring the means of retaining both their homelands and identity as a people. For many Cherokees, civilization was simply another strategy in a long process of creatively coping with whites and redefining what it meant to be Cherokee. Ironically, it was a strategy sanctioned by United States Indian policy.

Civilization was one part of the twofold U.S. policy regarding Indians. The other was to acquire their lands to accommodate an ever-expanding white population. Whenever the two objectives came into conflict, as of course they sometimes did, the latter always prevailed. The 1791 Treaty of the Holston was a blend of both objectives, authorizing a tribal land cession and instruction of the Cherokees in the ways of white society and agriculture. The government would furnish agricultural implements, seed, and appropriate tutelage in the agricultural and mechanical arts. Cherokees would be encouraged to live like whites: replacing their matrilineal and matrilocal society with a patriarchal society; forsaking the extended, clan-dominated families for nuclear families; giving up tribal landholding and village society for individual, privatized property; forsaking the old religious beliefs and adopting Christianity; learning English; abhorring the old practices of blood revenge; and in general conforming to the norms of white Americans. The Cherokees were to become red-skinned whites. They were expected to conform to an idealized Jeffersonian society of humble yeomen and their families tending individual plots of land. That image and expectation for Indians would continue into the twentieth century.

 

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