Tennessee State History

Tennessee State collage of images.

Select a topic
General State History
Historic Figures

General Tennessee State History

Ten thousand years ago, Tennessee was inhabited by Native American people of various tribes. The first white man known to have come to Tennessee was the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540. Sometime after de Soto's explorations, the native population diminished and the area was largely used as a hunting ground by the Choctaw, Cherokee, Shawnee and Chickasaw. The first permanent white settler was William Bean, who in 1769, built a cabin on the Watauga River in northeast Tennessee. The first constitution ever written by white men in America was drafted in 1772 by the Watauga Association at Sycamore Shoals near Elizabethton, Tennessee. It was patterned after the constitution of the Iroquois League of Nations, a "federal" system of government developed 200 years earlier for five eastern Native American tribes.

In 1779, Jonesborough became the first chartered town in what is now Tennessee. Also, by 1779, white longhunters were pushing into Middle Tennessee with settlers following their trails. They built forts in what are now Davidson, Robertson and Sumner counties. By 1810, a thriving population was centered in and around Fort Nashboro -- soon to be called Nashville -- and people continued to immigrate along the Cumberland River, the Tennessee River and the Natchez Trace until they spread to the Mississippi River.

Tennessee settlers played a vital part in winning the American Revolutionary War. The "Overmountain Men" helped to defeat the British at the Battle of King's Mountain, a victory which proved to be a major turning point in the war.

Tennessee was at first part of North Carolina, and then was known briefly as the State of Franklin. It later became part of the "U.S. Territory South of the River Ohio," and finally was admitted to the Union as the State of Tennessee, the 16th state, on June 1, 1796.
Tennessee Historic Figures

Davy Crockett
1786-1836: Frontier figure, U.S. representative; born near present-day Rogersville, Tenn. He was a poor farmer but an excellent hunter and scout. He served under General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War (1813--14). He was a justice of the peace and a Tennessee legislator, and served in the U.S. House of Representatives (Dem., Tenn.; 1827--31, Whig, Tenn.; 1833--35). With little formal education, he was not especially well informed on public issues and he was always ready to take a break from public service to go bear hunting. He made a celebrated tour of the major northern cities (1834). Failing in his re-election effort in 1834, he went to Texas to aid the Anglo-Americans in their struggle for independence. He was killed in the defense of the Alamo.


Andrew Johnson
1808-75: Seventeenth U.S. president; born in Raleigh, N.C. Poor, self-educated but ambitious, he moved to Tennessee in 1826 to pursue the tailor's trade. He saved enough money and soon entered politics, becoming an advocate of labor and popular democracy against the claims of birth and wealth. Beginning as an alderman, he worked his way up to represent Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives (Dem.; 1843--53), and became governor (1853--57), then U.S. senator (1857--62). Although he had defended slavery, he refused to accept secession; his courageous stand led Lincoln to appoint him military governor of Tennessee and then to select him as vice-president for the 1864 election; his presence on the ticket undoubtedly helped the beleaguered Lincoln get reelected. Becoming president on Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Johnson attempted to pursue the conciliatory reconstruction policies Lincoln had envisioned but Johnson was increasingly thwarted by Radical Republican desires for revenge. The conflict finally led to an 1868 congressional impeachment of Johnson, but he survived by one vote. He left office embittered and in disgrace, but later found a measure of exoneration, and, five months before his death, regained his Senate seat.


Wilma Rudolph
1940-94: Track athlete; born in Clarksville, Tenn. After wearing a leg brace as a child, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics, with victories in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, and the 4x100 meter relay at the 1960 games.


Sequoia
1770-1843: Native American leader, inventor of Cherokee writing system; born in eastern Tennessee. He was born into a Cherokee family respected for its knowledge; he became a silversmith and trader. By 1821, after 12 years of work, he perfected his system of writing to record the Cherokee language; drawing on English, Greek, and Hebrew letters, he came up with 85 or 86 new characters. He traveled about teaching his syllabary to other Cherokee; within a few years it was used to print newspapers and books, including parts of the Bible, in Cherokee. He went to Washington, D.C., in 1828 to negotiate a treaty governing the exchange of the Cherokees' land in Arkansas for land in territory that became Oklahoma; he then worked to improve relations among the Indians forcibly relocated there. The giant trees and then a national park, in California, were named after him. Although Sequoyah was a name given him by Christian missionaries - his Cherokee name was Sogwali - he was usually known to his white contemporaries as George Guess, or Gist (because, it is claimed, he was fathered by a white explorer-soldier, Nathaniel Gist).


Al Gore, Jr.
1948-Present: US vice-president, born in Washington, DC. He studied at Harvard and Vanderbilt Universities, worked as a journalist, then became a Democratic congressman (1977--85) and senator (1985--92). He was elected vice-president to Bill Clinton in 1992 and reelected in 1996. Especially noted for his interest in environmental issues, he wrote Earth in the Balance: Healing the Global Environment (1992). He also worked to cut back on government bureaucracy.