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Earliest Settlement Routes To Tennessee


A short history of the migration from the east coast to Tennessee highlighting the trails, paths, and roads used.

Earliest Settlement Routes to Tennessee

While the earliest attempts at colonization of the new world in the 1500’s failed, in 1607 a lasting colony was established at Jamestown (in what is now Virginia) and expanded in 1619 to Albemarle (first settlement in what is now North Carolina).  Even while these earliest settlements in the new world were along the coast, a longing for the western lands existed.  A “sea-to-sea” grant was included with the 1607 settlement granting them all land between the 34th and 41st parallels.  Yet the settlers made no significant advance into the western lands for many years.  During the same period the Spanish were in present day Florida and Louisiana and were expanding their influence northward. The French were venturing westward from the Saint Lawrence River into the Mississippi River valley. In 1673 some Virginians, James Needham and Gabriel Arthur were the first Englishmen to venture into present day Tennessee.   They found the Cherokee anxious to trade with the English rather than the Spanish.  Long Hunters began to hunt and trap in the western lands, but very few English settlers attempted to build there. 

In 1663 King Charles II gave the land between the 31st and 36th parallels to a group of eight Englishmen who had helped restore him to the English throne.  These men were colonizing what was then called Carolina and which included what is now Tennessee.  Yet the only persons to venture into the western lands continued to be Long Hunters.   They brought back grand stories of the vast land with much game, mountain passes and fertile river valleys.  Great interest continued to build in the coastal settlements as many settlers desired to venture into the vast western lands.

As early as 1692 a Frenchman who was married to a Shawnee woman was known to live at the French Lick on the Cumberland River at what is now Nashville, Tennessee, but no Englishmen were there yet.  This settlement was abandoned in 1714 when the Shawnee were forced to leave the settlement by the Cherokee.

As the French were trading with the Shawnee at French Lick, the English were developing a growing fur trade with the Cherokee.  A few English traders began to live among the Cherokee and to settle in the valleys of the northeast portion of the western lands.  Other contact with the Cherokee and concern for the Spanish and French gaining control of the vast land west of the mountains caused the English to push into the western land and even build forts such as Fort Prince George and Fort Loudoun.  At the Cherokee’s request these forts were designed to protect the Cherokee against invasion by the Spanish from the south and the French from the west.  There was also an alliance during the French and Indian War, but almost immediately afterward the alliance failed and both settlers and Indians killed members of each other’s groups and the Cherokee War raged.  While the fighting ebbed and flowed and several treaties were negotiated that gave more and more land to the English the settlers continued to brave the dangers of the frontier to migrate further into the western lands. 

While the French, Spanish and English battled for control of the Mississippi River Valley a political war also raged with the French, the Spanish and the English all vying for the friendship of the Indians.  Generally the Creek and Choctaw were allied with the French while the Cherokee and Chickasaw seemed to favor the English.  The Spanish never seemed to gain strong alliances with any of the Indians.  Of course the Indians’ loyalty was dependent upon who provided them the most trade goods, guns and gunpowder.  Every attempt was made to convince the Indians to be loyal to the English even to taking six of the Cherokee to visit London in 1730.  Also in 1730 Adair traveled among the Cherokee and wrote of his extensive travels.  Adair, as other traders who in 1740 employed a Mr. Vaughan as a packman to transport their goods, traveled along the Great Path that led from the far northeast generally southwesterly down the valleys between the Allegheny and Cumberland mountains to the Cherokee towns along the Little Tennessee River.

The first recorded permanent settlement west of the Allegheny divide and on a stream that drained eventually into the Gulf of Mexico was located at Draper’s Meadows near the present Blacksburg, Virginia in 1748.  The settlers were a group of Scotch-Irish who were the first of many Scotch-Irish to settle in the river valleys.  Over the next several years the frontier was to take on a distinctly Scotch-Irish flavor with whiskey replacing rum and peach brandy so popular on the sea coast colonies as the choice for drink.

In 1745 the highlands of North Carolina were opened up and Scots Highlanders settled there in such numbers that their Gaelic language was prominent for many years.  This opening of the western frontier soon led to settlements on Indian land in spite of restrictions by the colonies that limited surveys or land ownership beyond the Allegheny mountains.

Governments were set up, treaties negotiated, wars fought, forts built and a steady migration continued. More and more the land was populated with settlers. They stopped at suitable locations along the rivers and valleys where game was plentiful and crops could be planted.  By 1748 over 160,000 deerskins were exported from Charleston alone. Much of the deerskins and fur trade came from the growing English trade with the Indians. Travel into the western lands was growing to be significant.  The impact on the Cherokee was to force them to relinquish claim to more and more land.  The settlers began to build permanent structures and the use of the land would never again be that of hunting and shared property.  The English placed great emphasis on land ownership and used such ownership to establish power in the developing political system. 

The routes used in this migration varied from early trails along ridge tops when Long Hunters traveled by foot and backpack or sometimes used packhorses to later cleared paths where wagons could pass.  The earliest arrivals into upper east Tennessee may have been Andrew Greer and Julius Dugger, who were there in 1766 but as they were traders, William Bean was likely the first permanent settler to build a cabin on the Watauga River in 1769. 

Other settlers soon followed and by 1772 four groups had built their homes in the Tennessee country.  Among those who joined Bean on the Watauga River near present day Elizabethton was Valentine Sevier and his son John.  James Robertson came to the Watauga area from North Carolina and later led settlers overland by way of the Wilderness Road (blazed by Daniel Boone in 1760) through Kentucky to settle Nashville on the Cumberland River.

Evan Shelby and his son Isaac were part of a second group that settled west of the Holston River near present day Bristol.  A third group settled in Carter’s Valley in 1770 and a fourth group settled on the Nolichucky River in 1771.  These settlers were primarily Scotch-Irish and like others before them they followed the valleys from the Northeast in a Southwest direction using the Great Path and stopping in the fertile valleys.  They did not own the land.  They just moved in, built cabins, and cleared the land for crops.  In fact, they were told this land belonged to the Indians and were told to move, but they refused.  Since these lands belonged to the Indians, no colony could provide government for them, thus they formed their own.  In 1772 they drew up a compact of governing statements called the Watauga Association.  It was intended to establish government until the area could be attached to either Virginia or North Carolina.  

These settlers were determined to stay, even though they were on the land in violation of the British and the Indians.  They succeeded in first renting and then buying their land from the Cherokee.  Dragging Canoe refused to agree to this 1775 treaty of Sycamore Shoals selling great sections of land to the settlers.  He began attacking the settlers and continued for 17 years until his death in 1792 to fulfill the prophecy he made in his great speech at Sycamore Shoals that the settling of these lands would be “dark and bloody.”

The Sycamore Shoals treaty led to the settlement of Nashville in 1780 by James Robertson traveling the Wilderness Road and John Donaldson traveling by the water route and meeting up in Nashville.  This trip was fraught with hardship, especially the river trip with the women and children. They encountered frozen waters, Indian attacks, smallpox, boat wrecks and many other hardships first floating down the Tennessee River and then poling up the Cumberland River.  Robertson’s group crossed over the Cumberland River on January 1, 1780 on the ice as it was frozen solid.

As early as 1784 attempts were made to gain authorization for a road to Nashville.  Little progress was actually made until 1788 when the North Carolina legislature authorized a wagon road to be cut from the southern end of the Clinch Mountain to Nashville and included a requirement for the counties to use the militia and to pay a tax to support the effort.  The Emery Road was the result of this action and was the first road cut from east to middle Tennessee.  This road was heavily traveled until the completion of Fort Southwest Point at Kingston November 1792 caused travel to begin to shift southward to gain the protection of the fort while waiting for armed escort.  The primary purpose for the fort at Southwest Point was to provide armed escort for the multitude of travelers moving from east to middle Tennessee to protect them from the danger of Indian attack.   

It was not until 1795 that the Walton Road was cut and cleared to a wagon road which later became the Cumberland Road and even later the bed for the Tennessee Central Railroad track.  The road was cut from the junction of the Clinch River and the Tennessee River across from Fort Southwest Point to join the Emery Road near Standing Stone and proceed on to Nashville.  This road soon became the primary route, replacing the Emery Road section from Clinch Mountain to Standing Stone, used by settlers going to the Cumberland settlements near Nashville.  Travel on any unescorted route such as the old Emery Road section was likely to result in death from Indians.  The fighting was heavy in all locations on the frontier for several years during this period, yet settlers traveled the roads and continued to build homes, blockhouses, forts, trading posts, and even cities were beginning to form. 

The growth was such that a census in 1791 showed approximately 37,000 settlers on the western frontier.  By 1795 that number had grown to over 77,000!  Tennessee became a state in 1796 and the ever-increasing momentum of immigration was so strong that the Indians were unable to even slow the swelling tide of white settlers taking their land.  The roads were becoming well traveled.  Life on the frontier was becoming more and more civilized as government, law and order, courts, elections, newspapers and such took the place of log cabins, solitude, fear of Indian attack and loneliness.  The frontier was being settled. 

Reference List

1.                  Corlew, Robert E.  Tennessee, A Short History. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

2.                  Durham, Walter T. Daniel Smith Frontier Statesman.  Gallatin, TN: Sumner County Library Board, 1976.

3.                  Parks, Joseph H. and Stanley J. Folmsbee. The Story of Tennessee. Chattanooga, TN: Harlow Publishing Corporation, 1958.

4.                  Ramsey, J. G. M.  Ramsey’s Annals of Tennessee and Fain’s Index. Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1926.


David Ray Smith

September 2, 2000

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