Fred Bradley, Cherokee Storyteller in a traditional Cherokee wardrobe

Fred Bradley, Cherokee Storyteller in a traditional Cherokee wardrobe.  Photo taken at the Trail of Tears Commemoration in Franklin County (November 2022).

You don’t have to search very hard to detect the traces of Native People in Tennessee.  The town names of Tullahoma, Chattanooga, and Sewanee are all directly sourced from Native languages.  Our state’s name itself is derived from the word Tanasi, which is a word for ‘where the river bends’.  Tanasi was also the name of a Cherokee town in modern-day Monroe County dating back to the 1600’s which served as the de facto capital of the Overhill Cherokee from around 1721 until 1730, at which point towns within the nations merged.  Tanasi, along with another prominent town, Chota, were submerged in 1979 with the damming of the Tennessee River in construction of the Tellico Reservoir.  Before the area was flooded, thousands of artifacts were discovered through archeological study at the towns’ sites, preserving some pieces of Overhill Cherokee history before being lost at the bottom of the 16,000 acre lake.  Such is the fate of many ancestral Native civilizations without the written word, to be forgotten or learned about only from the perspective of their conquerors.  There is very little recorded information about ancient American culture that has not been suffused with the effects of European colonization.

It is theorized that Ice Age era hunters followed herds of animals south while the glaciers melted and temperatures warmed over 12,000 years ago.  The first evidence of humans in Tennessee are hunter-gatherer campsites in the Middle Tennessee region in the Archaic Period, settling near rivers and fishing, hunting, and cultivating edible plants, like squash and gourds.  Securing dependable food supply allowed populations to grow, and many smaller tribes banded together to establish larger settlements.  The Woodland Period, dawning around 1000 AD, brought forth innovations in pottery and agriculture. Native Peoples further made the transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to well-organized tribal societies living in permanent towns.  Further advances in farming practices led Native Americans into the Mississippian Period, with organized chiefdoms touting expansive population growth over many different Native Tribes.

Between 1540 and 1542, Hernando DeSoto led an entourage of 600+ conquistadores on an expedition over the mountains into modern-day eastern Tennessee and encountered the remnants of a flourishing civilization.  Multiple Spanish explorations into Tennessee were led through the 1570’s.  Some 150 years later, French and English incursions found the densely populated valleys and towns of DeSoto’s trips deserted.  Lacking immunity to European-borne contagion brought by explorers and their livestock, it is suspected that diseases like smallpox and measles decimated Native populations long before the Trail of Tears.  In addition to tensions between tribes, Native Peoples stood at odds with pioneers who aimed to move ever westward, procuring land and resources throughout the 17th and 18th Century.   Settlers traveled en masse over the mountains in the east to claim the lands of Tennessee.

Though surely not the first Native Tribe to live in our area, the powerful and expansive Cherokee tribe called the territories in and around Moore County home through the early 1800’s. With a noted past as an Army general leading brutal campaigns against Native Peoples, Andrew Jackson sought to continue with the removal and relocation of Natives from their homelands.  The Indian Removal Act was signed in 1830, and between then and 1850, some 60,000 members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations were forcibly moved from their lands in the southeast to Reservations west of the Mississippi River.  The land that is now Lynchburg touches the Bell Route portion of the Trail of Tears. This section of the trail was led by John Bell and included the forcible removal of over 600 Cherokee persons from the south central Tennessee area.   Even in its time, the Indian Removal Act received a large amount of backlash, including an outspoken defiance by Tennessee’s own Davy Crockett.  In a letter written in 1834, Congressman Crockett wrote:

“I have almost given up the ship as lost... In fact at this time our Republican Government has dwindled almost into insignificancy, our [boasted] land of Liberty have almost Bowed to the yoke of Bondage. Our happy days of Republican principles are near at an end when a few is to transfer the many.”

Though the policies were not changed at the time and the Native People of our region have long been relocated, their contributions to American society and Tennessee culture still remain.  Let us remember the struggles of Native Americans in early American society, and never forget the hundreds of years of conflict that led to the driving of thousands of people out of their homes.