Located on the Tennessee River between Meigs and Rhea Counties, Blythe Ferry dates to about 1809 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its original owner and operator was William Blythe, a mixed-ancestry Native American with both European and Cherokee antecedents. He married Nancy Fields, the daughter of Cherokee leader Richard Fields, in 1809, and they had six children. Other wealthy, mixed-ancestry Cherokee men, such as John Ross, John Brown, and Joseph Vann, also owned considerable landholdings and operated ferries. Ferry ownership offered the Cherokee power and wealth, and conferred economic privilege. The adoption of Euro-American lifestyle traits and business practices was financially rewarding for these Cherokee men and reflected their belief that acculturation served as the key to their collective survival.
In return for signing the Treaty of 1819, Blythe received a 640-acre reservation at the mouth of the Hiwassee River and a few hundred yards north of the ferry landing. By 1836, Blythe’s holdings were valued at fourteen thousand dollars and included the following: two ferries, thirteen slaves, fifteen cabins or “negro homes,” a mill, a cotton gin, two thousand peach and apple trees, a threshing machine, several barns, a blacksmith shop, a hen house, and other outbuildings.
Blythe Ferry is one of the state’s most important landmarks of the Trail of Tears and the process of the Cherokee Removal in 1838-39. The sheer number of Cherokees using the ferry, some 9,839 in all, with their 3,868 horses and 490 wagons, surely caused long waits, much to the dismay of detachment leaders. Detachments crossing at Blythe Ferry were led by Hair Conrad, Elijah Hicks, Jesse Bushyhead, John Benge, Situwakee, Old Field, Moses Daniel, Choowalooka, George Hicks, and Peter Hildebrand. Previous accounts written by Grant Foreman and James Mooney suggest these detachments crossed the Hiwassee River at Gunstocker Creek and the Tennessee River at Tucker’s Ferry. However, letters from those who participated in the removal reveal that these detachments actually crossed at Blythe Ferry.
Sometime after the last Cherokee detachments departed for the West, probably in 1839 or 1840, Blythe was forced to give up his business and landholdings and move his wife and family to Indian Territory. Blythe died in present-day Oklahoma in 1856. The ferry passed through several hands following Blythe’s departure. Alfred, William, and Charles Hutcheson III acquired the ferry from Blythe, and by 1842 Burton Holman (and later W. Napoleon Holman) operated the ferry. During the Civil War, a company of the Fifth Tennessee Infantry Regiment was stationed for over a year at the ferry to guard the mouth of the Hiwassee River. The war’s official records note a skirmish at Blythe Ferry on November 13, 1863.
By 1900, George Spivey began operating the ferry; Spivey owned the ferry until the 1940s. At that time Chickamauga Lake was created, but this resulted in little change in the ferry’s setting. Situated on the tail-waters of the lake, where the level of the river has been raised seven feet, only the western landing of the ferry has been affected. Melvin Hall owned the ferry from 1960 to 1968, as did James Sinclair from 1968 to 1969, Stanley Brady from 1969 to 1973, and Wilford Caraway in 1973.
Blythe Ferry was one of the last four operating ferries on the Tennessee River (one of only five remaining ferries in the state) before being replaced by a bridge in 1994.
Grant Foreman, Indian Removal (1956); Tony Holmes, “Early Cherokee Ferry Crossings of the Eastern Tennessee River Basin,” Journal of East Tennessee History 62 (1990): 54-79; Benjamin C. Nance, The Trail of Tears in Tennessee: A Study of the Routes Used During the Cherokee Removal of 1838 (2001); Philip Thomason and Sara Parker, Historic and Historical Archaeological Resources of the Cherokee Trail of Tears (2003)