History of Tennessee/Indigenous "Tennessee" (to 1800)
Prior to European settlement in Tennessee in 1541, the land was known by Indigenous tribes as the "Territory South of the River Ohio". This point in time can be referred to as "Indigenous Tennessee."
Archeological evidence suggests that around 13,000 years ago, the Paleoindians crossed over the Bering Strait via a land bridge that connected Russia to North America. These early ancestors reached the fertile woodland and prairies of the Territory South of the River Ohio in small family groups of 25-50 individuals. Their movement was based on the movement of the animals they hunted, such as mammoth and giant bison, and they used flint stone to fashion tools and weapons for hunting.
Indigenous Tribes in Tennessee
The Cherokee Tribe
The Cherokee dwelled in the valley of East Tennessee, and were known by white settlers and other tribes as being cruel warriors with an efficient political organization. Since women had the most power and independence in the tribe, chiefs were elected by the matrons. Being an Iroquois speaking people, they were one of five tribes to establish the Iroquois Confederacy in 1570, which was created to bring peace and unification amongst the tribes. Although the Cherokee were a powerful tribe, by the 1750s their population had significantly declined due to disease and conflict brought by the English and French settlers.
The Muskhogean Tribes
The Muskhogean race is comprised of many tribes, three of which are the Chickasaw, Creek, and Koasati, all of whom occupied parts of Tennessee. Being sedentary, they occupied villages where women were farmers and gatherers of squash, beans, and corn, while men were sent off to hunt. The Creek Tribe in particular had many conflicts with the Cherokee causing the Creek-Cherokee War, a four decade long cycle of revenge warfare. Alternatively, the Chickasaw were often at war with the Choctaw tribe who occupied the Mississippi River Valley area and, towards the end of the 18th century, they alternated between being allied with and being at war with both the British and French.
The Quapaw Tribe
The Quapaw Tribe, belonging to the Dhegian-Siouan speaking people, were believed to have migrated down the Ohio River Valley around 1200 CE, although this is widely debated. Due to their migration patterns, other tribes and eventually the French called them “Akansea” or “Akansa” meaning “land of the downriver people." With a small population of no more than 6,000 people, this community built houses containing multiple families, and were mostly farmers and gatherers of corn, maize, beans, and squash. They also created canals and used nets for easy access to fish. The Quapaw were a creative people, often making pottery and elaborate outfits for ceremonial purposes.
The Shawnee Tribe
This Algonquin-speaking tribe were intelligent, sedentary farmers of maize and rice who made use of advanced tools such as spades and hoes. As one of the first tribes to come in contact with white settlers, they were friendly with the French but at war with the British. Although they lacked tribal organization, they were advanced in art and able to make soft clothing, had many legends and myths, and documented their lives through picture writing.
The Yuchi Tribe
Discovered during the Spanish de Soto expedition of 1539-1543, the Yuchi tribe was a Uchean speaking tribe, a distinct language unrelated to the other tribes. They had a relatively small population of around 5,000 individuals. This tribe settled in permanent towns with women farming corn, squash, and beans, while men hunted elk, bear, and deer. By 1730, only 130 Yuchi men were recorded in Tennessee as they had been forced to migrate due to ongoing wars with the Cherokee.
Rituals and Practices
From the beginning, Native Americans have used myths, stories, and legends to communicate their respect and wisdom for animals and nature. One of the most celebrated rituals practiced by all Native Americans is the Green Corn Ceremony, a time for thanksgiving and renewal, which coincides with the ripening of the autumn crop. Tobacco is a plant with many ritualistic purposes in Native American culture. The smoke is believed to connect this world with the supernatural, making tobacco sacred. It was often used in agreements between tribes as offerings, payments, or to show respect. It was also used medicinally in healing and curing, as well as to suppress hunger.
Agriculture & The Agri-Economy
The economy and trade of the Indigenous people of the land that would become the state of Tennessee is unique. Since many of the local tribes descended from Mississippian culture, they were simultaneously an agrarian society, and a hunter-gatherer society. This includes the Muscogee, Chickasaw , Choctaw, and Cherokee tribes. Over the next few centuries, the hunter-gatherer economy shifted from seasonal base camps to more dense populations in semi-permanent encampments on prime river-ine sites. They primarily hunted deer, bear and turkey using the atlatl (a type of throwing stick) to propel their spears with great force. The more drastic dietary changes came with the large-scale gathering of fruits and nuts and the consumption of fish, mussels, snails and turtles. This implies that a fair portion of their economic power would have been involved in the trade of food and animal products, such as hides, furs and other food products and by-products.
These tribes were also matrilineal by nature, meaning that they placed great importance on a woman’s role in her tribe. With this in mind however, tribes still held a system of basic gender roles. Women were responsible for the farms and agrarian life, this included making the tools they would implement in their farming techniques. They also supplemented the trading of crops with handicrafts such as woven baskets and pottery. These products would play a very important role in trade, as these goods bolstered the local economy, allowing the tribes to exchange resources and gather what supplies they might need, even if they came from abroad. Trading within the tribes was a fairly common occurrence, evidence of this can be seen in several European goods that were traded from tribes near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts into Tennessee, some time during the Protohistoric Period. As Europeans progressed further into North America, and the “white man’s” presence was becoming increasingly profound, the local tribes opened up their trading with the British, French and Spanish that frequented the area. New goods, such as metal tools, textiles, and firearms were integrated into the economy, and quickly became regarded as luxury items, highly prized by the Indigenous people of Tennessee. Soon, the English colonists of Carolina had built up a near-monopoly over trade with the Cherokee, Creeks, and many other tribes stretching as far as the Mississippi. However, this monopoly by the big merchants of Charleston would not last forever. In the end, the debate over how trade should be conducted would lead to the end of proprietary government and its associated dominance over trade with the Cherokee, and the regulatory system would return. In the beginning of the 1700s, until roughly 1750, the natives either took their goods to Savannah Town, at the falls of the Savannah River, or exchanged their goods with the traders in established posts at Cherokee towns.
Another portion of the economy that saw a heightened emergence upon arrival of the European settlers was the slave trade. Many of the local tribes, primarily the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw, began to ally themselves with either the French or the British, as the Spanish began to cede from the area.
The Cherokees themselves found themselves forced to move, in part due to the increasing pressure from tribes on both the east and north who, armed with guns and weapons, had begun taking Native slaves for English traders in South Carolina and Virginia. These slaves were captives of war and raids, and though traditionally held no value to the tribes, gained economic value as the British began to purchase them. To the English, the bounty and plenty of North America was hampered only by the lack of labor to work the land, and these captive warriors provided a cheap form of knowledgeable labor. One of the largest contributors to this purchase of Native slaves was the Cherokee by the British. Evidence shows that the Cherokee warriors began selling slaves to the British in the early 17th Century, and would become their steadfast allies in their fight with the Tuscaroras, and in the Yamassee War soon after. Other tribes such as the Chickasaw also took part in slave trade raiding their enemies, the Choctaw, and giving themselves more control over prized hunting lands. The capture and selling of slaves would help these tribes gain resources and other items to aid in their survival.
Admission to the Union
Tennessee and The Constitution
The admission of Tennessee into the Union marked Tennessee’s shift from a territory to a state and marked significant changes for the Indigenous nations who lived in the region. In 1789, North Carolina ceded its Western territory to the United States, which set the region on the path to statehood. Tennessee was admitted on June 1, 1796 as the sixteenth state in the United States. In the state of Tennessee, Knoxville became the first capital city, John Sevier became the first governor and Andrew Jackson became the first congressman. This new statehood meant the creation and adoption of the Constitution of Tennessee and integration into the rest of the United States. The Constitution of Tennessee was created in 1796 and was comprised of eleven articles which outlined the structure of the government, the government institutions and the powers and limitations that could be exercised by the government. The Constitution also outlined the rights of the state’s citizens, although it is evident that the constitution did not apply to all. Article III, Section I outlines who is able to vote: “Every freeman of the age of twenty-one and upwards, possessing a freehold in the county wherin he may vote…”(Swindler, Chronology and Documentary Handbook of the State of Tennessee. When Tennessee was first admitted, inequalities that existed previous to statehood were now entrenched in legal doctrine. Article XI of the Constitution of Tennessee is the Declaration of Rights, and like the rest of the constitution, did not extend to all citizens. Women, Indigenous people, and African Americans were largely excluded or were not even recognized by the newly formed state. The Tennessee Constitution remained consistent with the Constitution of the United States. The admission of Tennessee into the Union was an important event in American history and was a beneficial addition to the United States, but not all Tennesseans experienced or received the benefits from this newly formed state.
Indigenous Peoples and Tennessee's Statehood
The Indigenous people inhabiting the newly formed state included the Chickasaw, Choctaws, Cherokee, and Muskogean. Leading up to Tennessee’s admission, what is now present day Tennessee, was considered a Southwest Territory and the Indigenous were subject to policies that pertained exclusively to them. As early as 1785, treaty provisions were put in place which granted the United States the “right of managing all (Indian) affairs." Although negotiations did take place with various groups, such as the Cherokee, and treaties were created, this did little to prevent the relocation of Indigenous people and did even less to protect their ancestral lands and ways of life. The Indigenous population were continuously forced off of their ancestral homes and were pushed further down the Tennessee River. This allowed for permanent settlement for the white American population, at the expense of the Indigenous peoples who used to have claim to the territory. These Americans and frontiersmen could now access and begin farming on the land that was previously disputed. In 1789, just six years before statehood, William Blount was appointed as “governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs for the territory," by President George Washington. The jurisdiction put in place had a central focus on ‘civilizing’ the Southwest regions Indigenous groups by “encouraging agriculture and useful arts.” Policies and negotiations with certain Indigenous groups such as the Cherokee, did take place, but ultimately the white settlers took precedence when it came to land claims and the buying and selling of property. Sentiments towards the loss of Indigenous lands and territories can be expressed through a group of various Cherokee chief’s address to Governor William Blount:
…is it because we are a poor broken nation not able to help ourselves? or is it because we are red people? Or do the white people look on us as the Buffaloe and other wild beasts in the woods, and that they have a right to take our property at their pleasure? Though we are red we think we were made by the same power, and certainly we think we have as much right to enjoy our property as any other human being that inhabit the earth. If not we hope our brother will not screen anything from us, if we are to have our land taken away at the pleasure of any white man that chuses to go and settle on it.
The admission to the United States only strengthened the position of government officials and the legitimacy of the various policies. The events that led up to the admission of Tennessee in 1796 into the union had negative effects on the Indigenous population and often times led to violent clashes between the Indigenous and the white American populations. In the years following Tennessee becoming an official state, the Indigenous population continued to be subjected to unfair policies and regulations. The Constitution of Tennessee in 1796 also affirmed the inequalities in the newly formed state by only allowing political activity for a select few people. All of the policies and limitations for a number of people in the state was only a foundation for further disenfranchisement and inequalities in the future of Tennessee.
For more information on the above topics, see the History of Tennessee: Further Reading at History_of_Tennessee/Further_Reading