The first explorations by Europeans in what is now Tennessee took place in 1540, when a Spanish expedition under the command of Hernando de Soto entered the region from the southeast. Soto had set out from Florida the year before with 625 men in search of gold and other treasures, hoping to duplicate the success of earlier Spanish expeditions in Central and South America. The exact route of the Soto expedition through Tennessee is unclear, but it is likely that they crossed the Appalachian Mountains somewhere to the north of the Great Smokies and followed the French Broad River down to what later was southeast Tennessee. There are some indications that later Spanish expeditions built forts in the vicinity of Dandridge and Chattanooga, a likely event as the presence of their forces was seen as a threat by many Native Americans.
Failing to find the treasures he sought, Soto apparently turned back to the southwest before heading north again and entering the bounds of Tennessee south of Memphis. He crossed the Mississippi River and continued exploring to the west. As the health and morale of his party deteriorated, Soto brought them back to the Mississippi River, where he died from a fever. His troubled expedition returned to the coast.
Another Spanish expedition under Juan Pardo explored the western portion of North Carolina and some areas of Tennessee in 1566-67. Like Soto, Pardo sought gold, but he also wanted to establish alliances with native tribes. He failed, however, in both of these objectives. While the Spanish expeditions maintained detailed accounts of their explorations in Tennessee, including the earliest written description of the land and its inhabitants, the failure to locate anything of material value discouraged the Spanish from additional expeditions into the region.
More than a century later, in 1673, a French expedition under the command of Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary, and Louis Joliet, a fur trader, descended the Mississippi River, stopping along the way at Chickasaw Bluffs near Memphis. In 1682 another French expedition, led by Robert Cavelier de la Salle, also explored the Mississippi River and built a fort near the mouth of the Hatchie River, naming it Fort Prudhomme in honor of a comrade who was briefly lost from the rest of the group. La Salle's explorations paved the way for the French to extend their trading network into the interior of the continent. By 1692 French traders had established posts along the Cumberland River near a salt springs, a site which later became known as the French Lick and in 1780 served as the nucleus for the Nashville settlements. From this location, the French maintained an active fur trade with the Shawnees until 1714, when the Shawnees were driven out by a coalition of Cherokees and Chickasaws.
The English began their explorations in Tennessee when Abraham Wood, who operated a trading firm in Virginia, sent James Needham and Gabriel Arthur into what is now upper East Tennessee to establish trading relations with the Cherokees. Needham and Arthur arrived in Cherokee territory in 1673, the same year that the first French expedition sailed down the Mississippi. Although the Cherokees killed Needham soon after his arrival, Arthur remained with the tribe for over a year, initiating a commercial relationship that would continue through the next century. Similarly, the colony of South Carolina sent trade representatives into Tennessee and the Southeast. Among these was James Adair, who had begun extensive travels among the southeastern tribes by 1730 and whose interests extended well beyond trade. His observations regarding Cherokee traditions and customs were eventually published and provide a unique insight into this early period of relations with the tribe.
Eventually, Virginia and South Carolina developed an intense rivalry for the lucrative Cherokee fur trade. Their efforts to dominate trade relations with the tribe sent numerous traders from each colony into the area during the early 1700s, all of whom brought back information about the land and its potential. Their accounts encouraged land speculators to sponsor further exploration of the trans-Appalachian West.
One of the earliest explorers was Dr. Thomas Walker, who was sent by the Loyal Land Company in 1749 to locate and claim western lands for future settlement. Departing from southwestern Virginia, Walker and six companions passed through the Cumberland Gap, crossed the Cumberland Plateau, and proceeded down the Cumberland River, all of which he named in honor of the Duke of Cumberland. The group returned to Virginia by an overland route through Kentucky.
On a return visit to Kentucky in 1760, Walker explored the intervening Clinch and Powell River valleys, but by that time, there were other explorers in the vicinity. Collectively known as “Long Hunters,” these individuals had ventured across the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains by the 1750s. Like the traders who preceded them, the long hunters sought furs; unlike the traders, they did not engage in barter with the Native Americans. Instead, they concentrated in extensive hunting and trapping expeditions. The best-known long hunter was Daniel Boone; others included Kasper Mansker, who would become a leading citizen in the Cumberland settlements, and Thomas Sharp “Bigfoot” Spencer, whose wilderness prowess and physical strength became legendary.
While some long hunters worked alone or in small groups, they frequently traveled in parties of a dozen or more, both for security and to increase their profits. As their name implies, the time away from home for the long hunters sometimes extended over periods of months or years. It was not unusual for long hunters to work in partnership with land speculators, who financed trips in exchange for information on the land. For this reason, certain long hunters were also surveyors, and they became the best sources of information about the trans-Appalachia.
The primary objective of the long hunters was the acquisition of furs for the lucrative international fur market. By 1770 prices ranged from one dollar for deerskins to as much as five dollars for otter pelts. The risks were not insignificant. Long hunters struggled for survival with the wilderness environment as well as with Native Americans. At times, Native Americans confiscated the furs and equipment of the long hunters, whom they viewed as trespassers and thieves, men who offered nothing in exchange for the furs they removed.
From another perspective, the long hunters represented the first essential steps in the settlement process. They located the best access routes into the trans-Appalachian West and the most suitable land for settlement. They identified springs for water and sources of salt, traveled through valleys and mountain passes, and trapped along countless rivers and streams. Their names are well known–Boone, Mansker, Bledsoe, Stone, and Spencer–and became place names in the areas where they once hunted and explored.
A final source of information about the region came as the result of political objectives, as was the case in the construction of Fort Loudoun, which was begun on the Little Tennessee River in 1756. British military engineers explored different sites on the Little Tennessee before deciding on the final location. Even after the fall of Fort Loudoun, British officers and delegations continued to move among the Cherokees and explore the region of East Tennessee; their reports were often very detailed and informative. Most notable are the memoirs of Lieutenant Henry Timberlake, who visited the Cherokees in 1761-62 and produced one of the region's earliest known maps.
The information and knowledge gained by early explorers encouraged migration into the region. In particular, the stories of rich land and plentiful game were instrumental in stimulating the rush of settlement which began before the Revolution and continued through the 1780s. When territorial administration began in 1790, numerous settlements were in the Tennessee country. By the 1820s very little unclaimed marketable land existed in the state, although exploration of some of the more remote areas would continue for years to come.
Samuel C. Williams, Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, 1541-1776 (1937) and Early Travels in the Tennessee Country, 1540-1800 (1928)