Tennessee is particularly rich in official state symbols. As of 1998 the list includes the flag, capitol and seal, two birds, two flowers, two fish, two rocks, two trees, eight songs, a poem, four insects, a reptile, an amphibian, a gem, a wild animal, and a folk dance–thirty-one in all. We know of no state with more.
Tennessee gained its symbols slowly. It had no permanent capitol for more than fifty years after achieving statehood and no flag for more than a century. Its first state flower was chosen in 1919, and more than half its symbols have been added since 1965.
These symbols, made official by the general assembly, serve several functions. They symbolize the state’s ideals, strength, and unity. They also speak of its natural beauty and its cultural and commercial heritage. In one very real sense, many are simply the means by which we celebrate those aspects of life in Tennessee that we hold dear.
Only one symbol could be considered vital to the day-to-day operation of government, and that is our first–the state seal, required by the state’s 1796 constitution. It was not until 1802, though, that a seal was produced; in the meantime, governors John Sevier and Archibald Roane used their personal seals on state documents. Today, the seal bears the words “Agriculture” and “Commerce” and the phrase “The Great Seal of the State of Tennessee” as well as the year of the state’s admission to the Union, “1796,” and the Roman numeral “XVI,” signifying Tennessee’s position as the sixteenth state.
Construction of the State Capitol was begun in 1845, shortly after Nashville was chosen as its site. It was designed by architect William Strickland, who also oversaw its construction. Cost overruns, labor troubles, squabbles between Strickland and the building commission, and even graffiti problems plagued the construction. Nevertheless, the result is acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece. Built to house all three branches of state government, it is a striking showpiece of nineteenth-century Greek Revival architecture.
Of the eight state songs, the first was “Tennessee,” written by A. J. Holt to the tune of “Beulah Land” and first used at the state’s Centennial celebration. The five legislated state songs are “My Homeland, Tennessee” (1925), “When It’s Iris Time in Tennessee” (1935), “My Tennessee” (1955), “Tennessee Waltz” (1965), and “Rocky Top” (1982). Two Bicentennial songs were adopted in honor of the nation’s bicentennial: “The Tennessee Salute” (1975) and “Fly, Eagle, Fly” (1976).
Tennessee’s flag was designed by Captain Lee Roy Reeves, a Johnson City lawyer who organized Company F of the Tennessee National Guard’s Third Regiment. It was made official in 1905. Its three stars represent the grand divisions of the state. They are bound together by the endless circle of the blue field. The white and blue stripes on the free end of the flag are there to enhance the design.
In 1919 the legislature asked schoolchildren to select a state flower. They chose the passionflower, or maypop, a lovely purple and white flower which grows as a weed in farm fields and forest edges. Then, in 1933, the legislature also named the iris state flower. A long-running battle over the choice raged for years, with garden clubs and newspapers taking sides. The matter was not resolved officially until 1973, when the legislature named the passionflower state wildflower and the iris state cultivated flower.
The mockingbird is a highly visible and widespread resident of Tennessee. Renowned for its marvelous singing voice and its ability to imitate the songs of other birds, it is also a fearless protector of its nest and territory. It was named state bird in a statewide vote held in 1933. The bobwhite quail, whose territorial two-note call is a common springtime sound, was named state game bird in 1987.
The tulip poplar, a tree which proved highly useful to Tennessee’s pioneers, was named state tree in 1947. In 1991 the legislature designated the yellowwood, used often as an ornamental tree, as state Bicentennial tree.
In 1969 the legislature named agate, a semiprecious gemstone found in several areas, as state rock. A decade later, at the urging of sixth-graders in Martin, it added limestone, an important building material which underlies much of the state.
The raccoon, a familiar nocturnal visitor to many campsites and rural homes and an animal associated with frontier legend Davy Crockett, was named state wild animal in 1971.
“Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee” was written in 1971 by then-Commander William Lawrence while he was a prisoner of war after being shot down over North Vietnam. It was adopted as state poem in 1973.
Tennessee has three state insects–four if you count the butterfly. The ladybug, a natural “pesticide” with a voracious appetite for crop pests, was chosen in 1975. The firefly, or lightning bug, a beetle whose natural taillight makes it a summer delight, was named the same year. The honeybee, whose worth as a pollinator makes it an economic powerhouse in Tennessee, was named agricultural insect in 1990.
The freshwater pearl is found in mussels, which were once ubiquitous in Tennessee waterways. The pearl is now harvested commercially at mussel “farms” and was named state gem in 1979.
The square dance, a popular pastime for many Tennesseans, was adopted as official state folk dance in 1980.
Ricky Chadwick and Jason Mobley, seventh-graders at Erin Elementary School in 1987, suggested that a state fish be adopted. In 1988 Tennessee adopted two–the channel catfish as commercial fish and the largemouth bass as game fish.
The state butterfly, the zebra swallowtail, was chosen by a biology class at Gallatin High School and made official by the legislature in 1994.
In 1995 the legislature named the box turtle, a relatively common inhabitant of rural and suburban areas, as state reptile. That same year, the Tennessee cave salamander, a rare resident of a handful of caves in Tennessee and Alabama, was named state amphibian.
Rob Simbeck, Tennessee State Symbols: The Fascinating Stories Behind Our Flag and Capitol, the Mockingbird, Iris and Other Official Emblems (1995)