restricted access 1 Land, People, and Early Frontiers
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1.  Land, People, and Early Frontiers 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. Both whites and Indians favored the gentler, more productive landscape of the Ridge and Valley Province immediately west of the mountains. A series of valleys on a northeast-to-southwest axis separated by low ridges, this region is commonly known as the Great Valley of East Tennessee and is an extension of the Great Valley of Virginia. This is where Tennessee’s first European visitors interacted with complex and highly accomplished Indian societies. The well-watered valleys were generally fertile, and around Indian villages they featured extensive fields of corn. Timber was abundant: thick forests of deciduous species like oak, chestnut, and poplar, as well as scattered expanses of conifers such as pine, cedar, hemlock, fir, and spruce. River cane flourished along the streams, providing forage and protection for livestock and wild animals alike. Game was plentiful and included turkey, squirrel, black bear, white-tailed deer, elk, and wood bison (buffalo). Linking the valleys of East Tennessee is a broad network of streams coursing toward the southwest, some bearing Indian names, some rechristened by presumptuous whites. Among them are the Powell, Nolichucky, and Watauga rivers; they comprise a litany of frontier experience and flow into the even more famous Holston and French Broad rivers, which join to form the Tennessee just above Knoxville. (Tennessee is itself a probable bastardization of “Tanasee,” the name of a Cherokee town.) Flowing southwestward, the Tennessee swells as it absorbs the Little Tennessee , Clinch, and Hiwassee rivers. At Chattanooga it takes a sharp jog to the northwest and makes a deep cut, the Grand Canyon of the Tennessee, into the Cumberland Plateau; it then loops southward and westward through Alabama and northward across Middle Tennessee and Kentucky to meet the Ohio River. The Cumberland Plateau, an ancient elevated tableland, includes parts of northern Alabama and Georgia, widens through Tennessee, and expands even more to cover much of eastern Kentucky and a smaller area in Virginia. In Tennessee its breadth TENNESSEE FRONTIERS 2  ranges from about forty to fifty-five miles, and its midpoint is the demarcation between the eastern and middle parts of the state. The plateau is steepest along its eastern front, Walden Ridge, which rises northeastward toward the Cumberland Mountains . At about 3,500 feet above sea level, these mountains are the highest part of the plateau. Separating Walden Ridge from the southern portion of the plateau is the narrow valley of the Sequatchie River, which follows a leisurely southwesterly course and joins the Tennessee near Chattanooga. The western part of the plateau is drained by numerous streams that flow into Middle Tennessee and is more broken and eroded than the eastern half. Throughout the plateau are countless caves, caverns, waterfalls, and narrow canyons, as well as many varieties of trees and wildlife. Despite its natural beauty, the Cumberland Plateau has the dubious historical distinction of being an obstacle for humans wishing to go elsewhere. To the first white settlers, it was the “Barrens” or the “Wilderness,” a dangerous and inconvenient barrier to the fertile valleys and basins beyond. This explains why the plateau’s most famous...


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