This state park in Carter County preserves and interprets the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River, a National Historic Landmark that was one of the most significant early settlement areas on the western frontier. Here in 1772 residents established the Watauga Association, recognized as the first majority-rule system of American democratic government. In 1775 land speculator Richard Henderson negotiated with the Cherokee Indians for the purchase of a huge land tract of 20 million acres–known as the Transylvania Purchase–at Sycamore Shoals. Reportedly twelve hundred Native Americans attended the negotiations, but Dragging Canoe strongly denounced the deal as unfair and unwise. The following year, 1776, Cherokees attacked the upper East Tennessee settlements. At Sycamore Shoals, settlers constructed Fort Watauga for defense. One Cherokee group, led by Old Abram, laid siege to the fort for two weeks that summer, but when they were unable to force a surrender, the Cherokees retreated.
Important trails connected the Shoals to settlements in western North Carolina and Virginia as well as to all of the primary Tennessee settlements such as Fort Patrick Henry, Fort Robinson, and Sapling Grove. Therefore, in 1780, when the leaders of the Overmountain Men looked for a place to assemble before marching to the battle of Kings Mountain, they chose Sycamore Shoals. Their muster on September 25, 1780, involved about one hundred men; eleven days later the Overmountain Men decisively defeated British General Patrick Ferguson at Kings Mountain.
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area contains a visitor center, trails, picnic facilities, and a reconstruction of Fort Watauga. Special events include the Overmountain Victory Trail Celebration held every September. Park rangers also manage the Carter Mansion in Elizabethton. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Carter Mansion is one of the important and impressive pieces of vernacular architecture, both in its construction techniques and its interior decorative painting and craftsmanship, remaining from the early settlement era.