On the wall above a stairway in the west wing of our nation’s Capitol there is a mural that captures a definitive moment in America’s history and vision of itself. Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1861-62, is equally appropriate in reflecting the history and meaning of Tennessee.
The mural is a quintessential representation of the nation’s popular belief summarized in 1845 as “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allocated by Providence.” It departs from the Capitol’s previous grandiose paintings and sculptures depicting European discovery of the “New World” and incorporates no heroic figures of founding fathers or well-draped goddesses brandishing swords of liberty and laurel wreaths of peace. Here, instead, is a searching, exultant scene of Americans fulfilling the rite of passage to claim the great West. Afoot, on horseback, in covered wagons drawn by plodding oxen, these weary and hopeful pioneers have toiled across the plains and up the rugged mountains to reach a pass opening toward California’s distant Golden Gate.
The popular title for the mural echoes the cry not only of this small band of struggling humanity but of the irresistible multitudes to follow. It might have been voiced by one of the leaders–in coonskin cap–who has reached the top of the pass and whose outstretched arm beckons his companions on toward the horizon. Leutze identified that distinctive and optimistic figure as “a frontiere farmer (Tennesseian).”
The German-born Leutze, whose best-known painting was Washington Crossing the Delaware, had done his homework well. That “Tennesseian” and his family represented a new breed of American, those wishing to sever the umbilical cord to Europe and turn westward. Here are the western prototypes: buckskin-clad trapper, eager young adventurer on horseback, hunter well stocked with two rifles, a lad whose wound is perhaps reminder of an Indian encounter.
But above all his mural suggests the migrants’ reach for a place to call home. Bathed in the scene’s clearest shaft of light are a mother and daughter huddled beneath the protective arm of the “Tennesseian” and awestruck by the glorious vision before them. At an earlier point on the crowded trail up the mountains another mother and child lean forward in one of the many covered wagons which, upright or awry, bear the tools and furnishings for future homes. As in the earlier westward thrust across the Appalachians in which Tennesseans had tended to bring their families with them to the frontier, it is the yearning for land as home that provides meaning and energy to overcome all doubt and hardship on the long trail.
Both ominous and promising at the center foreground of the scene, though obscured under deep shadows in contrast to the sunlit faces of the pioneer leaders, a black youth leads a donkey bearing a young Irish immigrant and her infant. Is he already free or does he represent that struggle for emancipation tearing at the nation’s vitals even during the mural’s creation? Is she welcome in America or has she already encountered the rising tension over immigration, especially in some of the growing cities? Whichever the case, these two will remain part of the country’s and Tennessee’s unfolding history.
Conspicuous by their absence are the Native Americans whose spirit nevertheless broods over the scene in several vague figures along the upper border.
Radiant in the “Tennesseian” are the confidence and questing spirit that had driven his people to look westward across the Appalachian barrier long before they sought passage through the Rockies. They were, for the most part, English, Welsh, Scotch, French Huguenot, Germans from the Palatine, and certainly Scots-Irish, hardy souls on a quest for independence. Religious, political, and economic subjugation that had been their lot for generations was no longer tolerable.
The same questing spirit that sent Frenchmen Marquette and Joliet down the Mississippi and Englishmen Needham and Arthur into the Tennessee Valley during the same year of 1663 also motivated, over the next century, traders for lucrative furs and long hunters who sought not only game but good land. In the Revolutionary War this spirit unfolded on the national stage as Tennessee settlers recrossed the Appalachians, joining patriots in the East to meet and destroy a wing of Lord Cornwallis’s superior British force at a place called Kings Mountain just along the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Thomas Jefferson later hailed the “memorable victory” as “the joyful annunciation of that turn of the tide of success which terminated the Revolutionary War with the seal of independence.”
In 1794 the Spanish Governor of Louisiana observed the westward push of these frontiersmen toward his territory and voiced alarm at “the immoderate ambition of these new people, adventurous and hostile to all subjection.” They were “a vast and restless population” whose very character was as formidable to Spain as their arms. After a visit to their state, Aaron Burr said, “Tennesseans, as the breed runs in 1806, can go anywhere and do anything.”
Where they went and what they did grew primarily out of need for land. If Tennessee, not unlike America, can trace the impetus for its founding to one word, that word might be “land.” It was opening of the Old Southwest, Tennessee, that provided Americans their legendary frontier heroes: Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and the earliest scout of the Kentucky and Tennessee “land of the western waters,” Daniel Boone. Restless men who spied out land and then moved on, they broke the paths for those to follow who would accumulate and speculate: the developers.
During the late years of the eighteenth century Francis Asbury, Methodist bishop and saddlebag missionary on the hazardous journeys to the wild country west of the Appalachians, first recognized and warned that it was not ultimately a search for religious freedom that was sending settlers across the Atlantic and over the Appalachians. In a moment of discouragement he confided in his journal: “I am of the opinion it is hard, or harder, for people of the west to gain religion as any other. . . . [W]hen I reflect that not one in a hundred came here to get religion, but rather to get plenty ofgood land, I think it will be well if some or many do not eventually lose their souls.” However, Asbury more often saw this land as replete with souls awaiting a harvest through his ministry. In fact, early in the next century the frontier revivals, or “camp meetings,” of these settlers, would spark the spread of Protestant religion with a new fervor across America.
But the good bishop also had reason to be troubled. Balanced against the courage and vigor of the legacy shaped by these seekers for home and roots was the destruction inherent in their reach for land. Eventually they would gather a rich diversity of forests, fields, mountains, and rivers in the 42,244-square-mile domain of Tennessee. In its getting, one race of people would be uprooted and sent from the place they had known “time out of mind,” while another race of people would be transported from a distant African homeland, enslaved to work for others. It was the character of the land that defined both tragedies.
And what a land it was, inviting and forbidding, watered by cold, bubbling springs and majestic rivers, its mountain ranges blanketed with forests of virgin evergreens and hardwoods, its grasslands and canebrakes and wide plains fertile with loam of centuries, a land host to great herds of buffalo, elk and deer, wolf and panthers and bear, and all manner of furbearers and smaller mammals. Along its multitude of waterways beavers and fish were plentiful. Birds of both northern and southern latitudes nested here, ranging from the lordly bald eagle to the matronly bobwhite and cheerful mockingbird to the most dramatic of all, the vast migratory flights of passenger pigeons so numerous that their approach could be heard for miles. The artist John James Audubon compared their passing to clouds that darkened the day at noontime. Soon the settlers would learn how delectable the pigeons were, and they and their swine would feed on harvests of the plump, easily slaughtered birds. The passenger pigeon was extinct by early in the twentieth century.
In the hill country woods, maple, hickory, oak, and monarchs of yellow poplar turned each autumn landscape into a Persian carpet of color before pine and hemlock and Frazier fir gentled winter’s stark landscape with their green cover. In swampy bottomlands to the west, the largest of all the splendid trees was the cypress, standing in quiet, mysterious water with hollow “knees” upthrust permitting the roots to “breathe.”
Most varied of all the life on this land were its plants, 1,500 species with at least 300 of medicinal value, as the Native Americans already knew. From mountain thickets of rhododendron, azalea, and laurel in brilliant springtime bloom and hidden patches of coveted ginseng in the east, across the cedar groves and bluegrass grazing region of the Central Basin to the lilies and orchids and rye grasses of the West Tennessee woodlands, there were flowers, vines, bushes, and grasses providing food for people and animals, as well as healing and beauty.
To a person whose ancestor might have been deported from the Old World for breaking a twig in the King’s forest or poaching a rabbit on a royal preserve, such bounty for the taking must have made this land seem a Garden of Eden. An eighteenth-century British visitor tried to describe the fertility of the earth along the Mississippi: “The land is so rich and the soil so deep that in many places one may run a soldier’s pike up to the head without meeting a rock or stone and capable of producing everything.”
This country was not empty of people. For many generations, from the headwaters of the Tennessee to the Mississippi, this had been the Land of Peaceful Hunting for Native American parties as distant as Iroquois of the Great Lakes and Choctaws from the Gulf Coast. Later, for the Cherokees in the mountains and the Chickasaws near the Mississippi, this became their settled heartland. To these people living in villages along streams and rivers, farming, hunting, and following ways of their ancestors, the world was one unit of land, and all life upon it was inseparable. No individual “owned” the land but all used it, knew its gifts and dangers and the Old Ones’ stories attending each stream and rock, every cave below, and the starry sky above. All that lived–human, plant, and animal, bird and fish–was part of a great whole from which no one was separate.
But to the European settler uprooted from the Old World and perhaps still dispossessed in the New, the bountiful country beyond the Appalachians was land waiting to be dismembered, to be parceled into their homes and farms and industries. These two philosophies of “ownership” of the land met in the Tennessee country. And their most prophetic encounter came not on a battlefield but on a trading ground.
Following the French and Indian War which left Great Britain in control of all former French possessions, King George III attempted to keep his native and European American subjects separate. A proclamation of 1763 drew a boundary down the spine of the Appalachians from Maine to Georgia and prohibited any white colonist from crossing this line. It was, however, little more than a line on a map. His Majesty had limited means of enforcing his ruling, and his government was confronted with more pressing colonial problems. Restless settlers pushed into river valleys in East Tennessee, sometimes unsure as to whether their homestead was in the Virginia or North Carolina colony.
A dramatic augury of future land transfers not only in Tennessee but across the nation occurred in 1775. In London, Edmund Burke warned his government on March 22 that the Americans “have already topp’d the Appalachian mountains” and called attention to bold settlers who had defied the King’s Proclamation and were claiming land by “the robust title of Occupancy.”
About the time that Burke was making his speech in London a great council was taking place on the Watauga River in East Tennessee. In that same season when citizens in a Massachusetts town were throwing a tea party challenging King George’s authority, a less celebrated enterprise in the broad river valley at the Sycamore Shoals was defying his Proclamation Line of a dozen years earlier.
On a chilly March day a group of settlers who had already “topp’d the mountains” and followed Daniel Boone into the wilderness, building cabins, planting crops, and even forming a democratic government of their own, were gathered at the call of a North Carolina lawyer, Judge Richard Henderson. At his home in the Piedmont, Henderson had heard Boone’s glowing descriptions of the backcountry and had made an exploratory journey to discover for himself its potential worth. His response was as extravagant as the fertile land spread before him. He formed the Transylvania Land Company and invited the Cherokees to a council. His proposal was to pay 10,000 English pounds or, if they chose, a cabin filled with English goods, in exchange for some 20 million acres of land.
The Transylvania Land Company was a gigantic speculation enterprise. The Cherokees who responded to this invitation pondered the offer, examining the cabin full of trade goods; this was an experience without precedent. For many days they gathered, twelve hundred proud, curious men, women, and children. Smoke from their council fire and campfires rose like a blue haze in the crisp spring air, blending with the rich aroma of beef (provided by Henderson) roasting over glowing hardwood coals.
Moving through the assembly were Oconostota, the Great Warrior, chief of all the Cherokees, tall and powerful, along with the smaller Attakullakulla, favorite of the white people who called him the Little Carpenter because of the many treaties he had cobbled together, and the gentle Old Tassel, admired for his eloquent oratory. But perhaps most commanding of all was Attakullakulla’s son, Dragging Canoe, a stern, suspicious warrior, his face deeply pocked by the scourge of smallpox that had arrived with the white man’s blankets. Daniel Boone, familiar to both the settlers and the Cherokees, waited awkwardly in the background. Palaver was not one of his skills.
For three days they talked, looked at the goods “Carolina Dick” had brought in six heavy wagons lurching and lumbering through the mountains. Here were guns and ammunition, hatchets, shirts and wristbands, brooches, ribbons, rum, and several kinds of blankets, all manner of English wares to be exchanged for an empire embracing the land that would become the state of Kentucky and that part of Tennessee drained by the Cumberland River and its tributaries. It was a trade described as “the most colossal transaction in lands by individuals or a private corporation that America has ever seen.”
As negotiations drew to a close, the Cherokees indicated their readiness to sign the treaty. Attakullakulla spoke of past treaties with the white man. Old Tassel accepted the trade that had been set forth. There were nods and sounds of agreement. Then Dragging Canoe, son of Attakullakulla, rose and faced his people. In words as fierce as his pocked countenance he denounced his father and all others who would sell, at any price, the hunting grounds of their ancestors. There were those who said that he confronted Henderson. Others remembered that he grasped Boone by the arm. But all agreed on the curse he pronounced: “You have bought a fair land, but there is a cloud hanging over it. You will find its settlement dark and bloody.” And with a group of younger warriors who shared his resistance Dragging Canoe strode from the council ground. Never again did he enter into any peace negotiation with the white Americans.
The signing of the treaty went forth with all solemnity, but even before it was finally accomplished Henderson took Daniel Boone aside and sent the ready scout and a party of axmen on their way to begin blazing a trail westward. For his part, the impatient speculator did not linger at Sycamore Shoals to hear some of the disappointment now voiced by many Cherokees receiving their share of the trade goods. One warrior, given a shirt as his portion of the treasure, spoke for many: “We have sold the land, and I would have killed more deer upon it in a day than would have bought such a shirt.”
< p> This first of Tennessee’s great land speculators was not entirely successful. The governors of Virginia and North Carolina were angered by Henderson’s “illegal designs.” Virginia refused to recognize the Transylvania Company’s title to much of the Kentucky land. However, as consolation prize for his services rendered toward settling the west, Henderson was allowed to keep some 200,000 acres. These included the Cumberland Valley settlements, to which he now turned his attention.
Henderson first made sure that the French Lick, site of an early French trading post and eventually the site of Nashville, was not in Virginia. Then he set about pursuing large plans for settlement penetrating this fruitful expanse of real estate. Two of his colleagues soon lived up to their reputation as frontier heroes. In 1779 James Robertson and 200 men drove an assortment of livestock overland to arrive in a cold December at the encampment along the Cumberland River. John Donelson and a flotilla of women, children, and additional men arrived the following April after a harrowing river journey. Earlier settlers had found that good land, but Henderson now led in establishing government and naming the settlement Nashborough after a North Carolina friend and casualty of the Revolution.
For his part Dragging Canoe made sure that Henderson and his companions did not forget his prophecy at Sycamore Shoals. He and followers, now called the Chickamaugas after their retreat along the great bend of the Tennessee River, terrorized small, scattered forts and settlers bound for the area that would be Nashville. The savagery of efforts on both sides in the struggle to take and hold this land was appalling in its revelation of the human need for place, for territory.
Even before Sycamore Shoals, Dragging Canoe had said that Cherokee land was melting away “like balls of snow in the sun” before the white man’s advance. During the first half of the nineteenth century, as Tennessee began to play a major role on the national scene, the final “melting away” began.
In 1818 the last of the Chickasaw land between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers was purchased from that tribe whose staunch friendship for the English had been crucial in rivalries against French and Spanish expansion. Following that purchase the influx of settlers into West Tennessee was so great that the price of corn rose in one season from onedollar to four and five dollars. Within six years after being cleared for white settlement, sixteen counties and the town of Memphis had been established. It was called the Western District or the Jackson Purchase, commemorating the leader who had directed the acquisition.
Twenty years later, in 1838, the long struggle over land between the United Sates and the Cherokees came to an end. Despite the fact that many Cherokees had adopted the dress, the commerce , even the religion of the white people surrounding them, they would not be allowed to remain in their homeland. In concert with Georgia, Tennessee removed by force of arms some 14,000 Native Americans from their mountains and valleys and rivers along a route where so many died that it became known as the Trail of Tears. Winding across the Mississippi to the Oklahoma country, the Trail of Tears might be seen as a dark counterpart to the Leutze mural, the finale to a long process that began at Sycamore Shoals.
The Tennessean whose life gave substance to that cry was the state’s most famous, most controversial son. It is difficult to understand Tennessee without some acquaintance with its frontier hero, Andrew Jackson. Discord over land accompanied the fiery, unflinching, charismatic leader since birth. Even his birthplace was on land disputed between the two Carolinas (and determined to be in North Carolina only when he was five years old.) From his Scots-Irish mother he heard bitter stories of Irish laborers oppressed by the landowning aristocracy; after he moved to Tennessee, his natural affinity for land intensified on a frontier where no other possession was so highly prized by those who had recently “topp’d the Appalachians” and where land speculation was often synonymous with political leadership. For Jackson, conquest of the land, to which he contributed as a lawyer, military leader, and politician, was the ultimate symbol for opportunity.
But by the time Jackson became president, the nature of opportunity had broadened. Land was no longer significant only as wealth in itself but also as a stimulus for settlement, trade, and a widening number of professions. This vision of the land was possible above all because of the new ability to communicate across it. In Leutze’s mural the “Tennesseian’s” son stands by his family, holding his father’s gun upright and gazing confidently, in Leutze’s words, “into the future,” seemingly oblivious to the moving figures around him. Tucked securely in his pocket is an item of equal significance to the gun–a newspaper. Newspapers and books, achieving much greater distribution through the new steam press, were now accessible to the average person, as were the recently invented steamboat, railroad, and soon-to-be telegraph.
Mass communications fueled a change in many established vocations, most dramatically perhaps in political parties whose power was concentrated among the elite. When the new technology was matched with the dynamism of Andrew Jackson the effect was electric. Toughness on the battlefield had earned him the affectionate name “Old Hickory,” an ideal persona for winning political battles. To the dismay of Virginia and New England dynasties that had held the presidency since their country’s founding, here in 1829 was a wind from the West, the first president whose family name meant only what he himself could make it mean.
Jackson looked beyond the overarching institutions of American life, linked as they were to inherited wealth. He challenged the power of eastern banks, thereby making credit more available to the West while resisting threats of secession from the “aristocracy” of the Deep South. By promoting the West and by holding America together, Jackson set a course for the common man within the nation. After Jackson’s presidency, candidates running for office searched in their backgrounds not for degrees from the University of Virginia or Harvard but for a log cabin to incorporate in their campaign oratory.
The common man, represented in the mural by the “Tennesseian’s” son (“the young American” as Leutze called him), was expected to receive spiritual guidance from his mother (who now shared influence with the new plainspoken denominational faiths) and yet to discover his profession independently of his father before founding his own home. Such nuclear families were the new building blocks of the communities, the states, and the nation–in Leutze’s mural the Tennessee family’s pyramidal shape on a nearby rock is echoed by the larger pyramid of the entire mass of struggling pioneers which is crowned by two men preparing to set the American flag on a distant crag.
With the age of Jackson, the new self-made men and their families, autonomous units set apart from tradition, were free to change residence or profession, a freedom symbolized by the western landscape. But Jackson’s diligent attention to both land and the common white man reached a questionable climax in 1838 with that forced removal to the west of the Cherokees, people whose land had provided them spiritual as well as material sustenance but which was increasingly coveted by the white settlers around them. Eight years later the nation’s “Indian Reservation System” for Native Americans’ homelands was established.
It was natural that the next Tennessean to become president of the United States would be an “expansionist” campaigning to bring Western states into the national fold. The symbols of the young American and the nuclear family were now joined by manifest destiny, as America’s drive westward took on a religious zeal and instilled a new nationalism, a pride in America as one nation in possession of its continental boundaries (Leutze’s mural, with the flag being planted at the passage to the Pacific, attests to this achievement). Under James K. Polk’s administration more land–including Texas, Oregon, California, and New Mexico–was added to the United States than under any other president. Addition of California was achieved only after a war with Mexico.
During the Mexican War many “men of the western waters” rushed to fight for new national territory. Their reach for land was so spirited that when the government called for 2,800 Tennesseans as their quota, 30,000 presented themselves for enlistment in the service of their country. Some of those who were turned away reportedly offered $250 for the opportunity to join the fight. Their readiness to take up arms confirmed Tennessee’s reputation, dating from the War of 1812, as the Volunteer State, which has endured not only through subsequent wars but has become the identifying slogan for much of the state’s athletic, social, commercial, and political life.
Through Polk Tennessee symbolically fulfilled its unifying role of linking East and West, a process that began when trappers, hunters, and settlers crossed Great Britain’s Proclamation Line and continued with Jackson’s glorification of the common man–the multitude of politicians, preachers, and tradesmen who spread government, religion, and wealth across America.
But Tennessee was twice a border state. Ironically, manifest destiny was at its height during the same years when the maelstrom of sectional controversy was unleashed. “Our Federal Union, it must be preserved!” Andrew Jackson had thundered in response to the separatism preached by his enemy John C. Calhoun. States’ rights and other issues entered the debate over Southern states’ secession, as they had done under Jackson, but at its heart now lay the question of slavery. It was disingenuous for a people so jealous of their own independence to oppose the right of other human beings to be free.
Competition over whether new territories would permit or exclude slavery now rivaled the desire to extend the nation. The annexation of Texas and Oregon had a bitter aspect, for northerners felt that Polk’s efforts to acquire Oregon did not match his attention to Texas. And there was wide-ranging debate over how much land the United States should realize from Mexico.
Like the new territories and the nation as a whole, Tennessee was self-divided. From its beginning the land that would be Tennessee was visited by black Americans. Two “Negro slaves” were with Daniel Boone on the frontier. Several of the patriot colonels at Kings Mountain were accompanied by “servants” who took up arms against the British in the heat of battle. James Robertson and John Donelson brought slaves on their journeys to the Cumberland River country. Slavery, its existence and growth, reflected Tennessee’s geography. Where the land was tilted along mountainsides and valleys were narrow, there was little profit in owning slaves, but where bluegrass meadows flourished and wide river bottoms unfolded, labor intensive crops yielded rich returns.
Thus, when the Civil War began, Tennessee was in many ways a paradox. When North Carolina ceded its Over-Mountain territory to the United States in 1784 it had specified “that no regulations made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate slaves.” Apparently there was some suspicion about their offspring’s dedication to the cause of slavery, a suspicion confirmed a few years later when the Knoxville Gazette urged that an abolition society should be organized. A Manumission Society of Tennessee formed in 1815 in Jefferson Country was followed by several antislavery newspapers, and by 1827 East Tennessee contained nearly one-fifth of all antislavery societies in the United States.
But the rest of the state dictated the course that Tennessee would take. Only one person in East Tennessee owned more than one hundred slaves while in West Tennessee there were eighty-six owners who could claim that many. Overall, slaves were more than one-fourth of Tennessee’s total population.
Although Tennessee joined the Confederacy, its natural and human resources as a border state helped the Union as well as the South. There were an estimated 100,000 to 135,000 Confederate volunteers (their number exceeded by no other state), but Tennessee also sent 35,000 to 50,000 volunteers to the Union cause, and some 20,000 black Tennesseans served in the war. Critical to both sides were such landscape features as railroads, the Cumberland Gap (through which Union volunteers made their way north), and the rivers that helped make the valley of East Tennessee a breadbasket (a Richmond newspaper referred to East Tennessee as “the keystone of the Southern arch”). It is not surprising that battles and skirmishes ranging from Cumberland Gap on its northern border with Kentucky to Fort Pillow on the Mississippi would leave Tennessee outnumbered only by Virginia in Civil War engagements on its soil.
From Shiloh in the spring of 1862 to the winter of 1864 in the upper Tennessee Valley, crossing and recrossing Tennessee, the suffering, often hungry, usually ill-shod soldiers wounded the land as well as each other. Fields were stripped of crops; fence rails were used for firewood; woodlands were devastated. A traveler across the state after the war found the land “a womb of desolation.” To another visitor it was “one wide, wild, and dreary wasteland.”
Still divided in geography and politics and now economically devastated by the destruction of farms and the loss on investments in slave labor, Tennesseans moved from war to uneasy peace and a new era. With money scarce for everyone, especially the freed slaves, and credit coming from distant banks, a vicious system of farm tenancy eventually yoked most of the ex-slaves and many small white farmers as well to the land.
Even while this new kind of rural bondage was evolving, capitalists from other regions of the country, some of whom had seen the Tennessee country while serving in the Union army, were moving to join local entrepreneurs in developing commercial and industrial enterprises across the state. Only two months after Appomattox, petroleum, coal, mining, and manufacturing companies had received state charters and by 1869 one-sixth of Knoxville’s business properties were owned by northern businessmen. Chattanooga was energized by an industrial growth described by one newspaper editor as “the frozen fingers of the North” being laid “in the warm palms of the South.” Only the toll of a yellow fever epidemic claiming thousands of lives delayed Memphis for a decade in joining Nashville and the other urban centers in their growth.
Gradually Tennessee was beginning its long turn from rural roots in the land to an urban, industrial state, a new frontier. It was not an easy turning, and many of the industries took advantage of the abundant natural resources and the continued poverty of many of the people that invited exploitation. Cycles of prosperity and panic, as in America as a whole, culminated in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
By this time the state’s major cities had appalling numbers of people needing food, clothing, and medicine, but an even more formidable problem plagued owners and tenants still dependent on the land. The cost of growing crops–including land taxes and interest on money borrowed for seed and labor–remained fixed while markets plummeted. In thirty-six counties of Middle and West Tennessee prices for King Cotton declined in 1932 from thirty-five cents a pound to six cents. Meanwhile, in the hardscrabble mountain country of East Tennessee and the Cumberlands, the old motto of “make do or do without” took on urgent new meaning. New mining and textile industries brought jobs but also brutal labor wars, with convicts sometimes used to replace striking workers.
An essential ingredient for survival on old and new frontiers, during good times and bad, was always music. Leutze understood this when he swung a fiddle and bow across the back of one of his young westerners. And the land that Tennesseans claimed by blood and survey and deed of ownership they also made theirs by song and story. Here, too, their varied geography, their exuberance as a border people between East and West, North and South, brought forth a diversity of voices. Several would become national icons.
In the Tennessee mountains, neighbor to North Carolina and Virginia and Kentucky, singing was said to be “more common and universal than in any other area of equal geographic size in the country.” Ballads brought from Scottish highlands and the British Isles by people who lived close to the land preserved and adapted stories of unrequited love, murder, and all human passions. When labor and racial conflict erupted in East Tennessee in the 1890s, the Coal Creek Wars provided situations and emotions for a new kind of ballad. People told their stories in “Coal Creek Troubles” and “Coal Creek March.”
Hard work across the land found voice when black convicts in the Cumberlands created “Lone Rock Song” and black railroad workers in upper East Tennessee chanted “Nine-Pound Hammer.” A deadly plague to the cotton crop in Middle and West Tennessee was lamented in “The Boll Weevil.” These were among the many songs that grew out of daily, sometimes deadly, labor in fields and underground.
Music that found echoes around the world was called the blues. Up the Tennessee River from Alabama and up the Mississippi from the Delta, the father of the blues, W. C. Handy, brought memories on hearing laborers sing along the riverbanks. His “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” became classics, and when he sang in “Joe Turner’s Blues” that “Sometimes I feel like somethin’ throwed away,” he captured the mood of many fellow Americans. His remedy was to get his guitar and “play the blues all day.”
Tennessee’s widest influence on the music world came with the birth of a new way to carry its sound to the rest of America–the radio–and the radio’s marriage to country music in the capital city of Nashville. As its name “country” professed, this music was rooted in the country, the rural heartland of Tennessee, in the same way that ballads had risen from the mountains and the blues from river bottomlands. Its stars never abandoned that appeal. Most of the male and female musicians who have made up the Grand Ole Opry were born in the country, knowing its harshness as well as its beauty, its loneliness and longings as well as its richness. Even the most legendary of stars, Elvis Presley, whose career moved him from a little frame rural birthplace in Mississippi to a Memphis mansion and who could blend rhythm with blues and sing country with a beat, somehow remained a “Hound Dog” country boy to fans around the world.
Words sung, spoken, or written have been everlastingly important to Tennesseans. Bellowed forth at religious camp meetings, expounded at political rallies, gathered in storytellings around a winter fire or at summer family reunions, or printed in newspapers, broadsides, and books, words have shaped and interpreted the life of the land. African Americans cherished those who could interpret their ambivalence of rage and laughter, of acceptance and resistance to the rigors of their lives. Their rich culture was eventually collected in anthologies and songbooks and used in fiction by African Americans and others alike. The Cherokees knew the power of words and held their orators in as high esteem as their warriors. Sequoyah did what no other individual in human history had accomplished when he invented a written language for his people, making them literate–with their own written constitution and newspaper–almost overnight.
When the stern Presbyterian Reverend Samuel Doak came to Tennessee before it was even a state, he brought with him the first books in the backcountry, walking beside his horse while the books rode safely in sturdy saddlebags. But at their constitutional convention in 1796, Tennesseans made no provision for public education. Unlike New England, where as early as 1637 any township with as many as a hundred households was ordered to set up a grammar school to fit youth for the university, in Tennessee the system was reversed, with the college provided first, leaving it up to the individual to prepare for admission the best way he could, usually by private tutor.
Blount College, established in 1794, eventually became the land-grant University of Tennessee with campuses from Knoxville to Memphis, but it would be 1853 before Governor Andrew Johnson, illiterate himself until he married and was tutored by his wife, pointed out the inadequacy of common–also called “pauper’s” schools–and overwhelmed powerful opponents to hustle through the legislature in 1854 a bill to levy and tax “from the people of the Whole state” for public schools.
Public education made great strides–and then became a casualty of war. During the Civil War and its aftermath people who could barely eke out from the land sufficient food, shelter, and clothing to keep them alive gave little thought to the “three Rs.” By 1872 fewer than one-fifth of Tennessee’s school-age children had access to any means of education. It would be a quarter century and longer before every county could claim tax-supported schools. The costly injustice of a dual system requiring separate buildings, teachers, and facilities to meet the laws of segregation left black students doubly handicapped, with appropriations only a fraction of those allowed for their white counterparts.
But Tennessee did make contributions to our nation’s cultural life not only in music but in literature that grew out of long attachment to the land. The variety of their voices reached special significance in the 1930s, when in Nashville a literary discussion was initiated whose echoes may be heard today. Its theme was the tension between a life lived close to the land and a life sacrificed to less satisfying industrial progress. The name its twelve contributors based at Vanderbilt University gave themselves was, appropriately, the Agrarians. They included talented poets, novelists, historians who spoke for the survival of an agrarian way of life that was being threatened by an impersonal, centralized, technology society. In a collection of personal testimonials, I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930, these articulate spokesmen (no women included) saw the southern past as an ideal of self-sufficiency represented by the small farmer who cherished the land and his own individuality. Overwhelming him was a technological juggernaut which threatened to create a standardized culture attuned to commercial outside influences, mostly from the North.
This carefully crafted credo aroused debate not only in Tennessee but across the nation as people sought renewed prosperity and financial security without sacrificing old values, sought to solve racial and economic inequities while encouraging distinctive cultural vitality. Critics labeled the Agrarians “champions of a second Lost Cause” motivated by elitist nostalgia.
Presenting a personal view of those living on a subsistence level closest to the land during those Depression years was Tennessee-born James Agee. In his unique book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he loosed his array of talents as poet, novelist, journalist, dramatist, and social commentator in an all-encompassing effort to capture the daily experience of tenant farmers. Commissioned as a magazine article, it grew into a book. Accompanied by Walker Evans’s starkly sensitive photographs, Let Us Now Praise Famous Menwas and continues to be a searing indictment of generations of exploitation of both land and people, in Alabama in this case, but reflecting conditions across much of rural Tennessee and the South.
Three years before Agee began work on this landmark book, Fortune magazine had published his article about an innovative new government agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority. In two famous sentences he captured the essential geography, history, rhythm and power of the river: “The Tennessee River system begins on the worn magnificent crests of the southern Appalachians, among the earth’s older mountains, and the Tennessee River shapes its valley into the form of a boomerang, bowing its seep through seven states. Near Knoxville the streams still fresh from the mountains are linked and thence the master stream spreads the valley most richly southward, swims past Chattanooga and bends down into Alabama to roar like blown smoke through the flood-gates of Wilson Dam, to slide becalmed along the crop-cleansed fields of Shiloh, to march due north across the high diminished plains of Tennessee and through Kentucky spreading marshes toward the valley’s end where, finally, at the toes of Paducah, in one wide glassy golden swarm the water stoops forward and continuously dies into the Ohio.”
This exceptional valley which had once beckoned pioneers westward to its fertile land teeming with all manner of life was by 1930 the most poverty-stricken river basin in the United States. Floods ravaged its fields and cities and also those of the Ohio and Mississippi, rivers swollen by the Tennessee’s waters. There was little navigation on the Tennessee or its tributaries and access to electric power was limited or nonexistent. Fields were in a poor state of cultivation, and hills stripped of their forest cover were scarred by erosion. Where the land suffered, people suffered: the annual personal income was less than half the national average. The equation of the human condition with the condition of the landscape was simple and obvious, but the solution had to be complex and challenging.
A Nebraska senator, George W. Norris, had become interested in the possible usefulness of an abandoned hydroelectric plant built at the wild Muscle Shoals rapids in northwest Alabama during World War I. Discussion with President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the potential of this asset led to a historic message sent to Congress on April 10, 1933. The president deplored “the continued idleness of a great national investment” and asked Congress to enlarge the small Muscle Shoals development to include the entire Tennessee River.
The plan, specific and bold, was for “legislation to create a Tennessee Valley Authority–a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise.”
The TVA, as it came to be known, stood for a broad utilization of resources: hydroelectric power, flood control, soil erosion, reforestation, elimination of marginal lands from agricultural use, and industrial development. As Roosevelt concluded, the TVA involved “national planning for a complete watershed involving many States and the future lives and welfare of millions. It touches and gives life to all forms of human concerns.” In a state where the word “plan,” especially if initiated by “outsiders,” was often considered a bad word, one of history’s most comprehensive resource planning efforts was under way.
A giant stairway of dams and reservoirs changed the face of the land by creating the “Great Lakes of the South” and through the years held back floods whose cost would have been in the billions. River navigation increased. Electric power flowed into remote rural areas, fed metropolitan growth, and attracted a variety of industries. Improvement of the wounded land and forests was linked to a vast fertilizer development project and, at a social level, to community leadership programs. Meanwhile, visitors from around the world came to learn how they might adapt the TVA’s concept of multifaceted development of an entire regional entity to their own resource situations.
Its very success made the TVA controversial. From its beginning private power companies viewed it as an unfair competitor. Eventually the use of strip-mined coal in its steam plants and a heavy investment in nuclear power brought into question the TVA’s environmental commitments and lessened public support. Once seen as radical in the extreme, it was now labeled reactionary. The balance between power plants and all they represented and care of the land and all it involved was indeed a delicate one to maintain.
TVA electric power took on a worldwide significance when it helped release the only recently discovered power of the atom. Born in mystery, the Manhattan Project was located in East Tennessee due to the available electricity, the labor supply, and especially the terrain. Secrecy demanded an inland location while possible hazardous contamination meant that it should be surrounded by valleys and ridges.
At a place called the Black Oak Ridge–later Oak Ridge–the vision of Albert Einstein for harnessing the power of the atom and a simple “O.K.” by President Roosevelt appropriating two billion dollars came together to create the nation’s first uranium purifying plant. Known only by the code name “Y-12,” it represented a new unknown frontier.
Oak Ridge’s residents were brilliant scientists and engineers gathered from universities and laboratories around the world. They were generals from the armed services, administrators, and in a great horde they were laborers laying down roads and streets in winter mud and summer dust, constructing dormitories and barracks, single and multifamily homes, trailers, stores–a city. Where there were woods and fields and scattered farmhouses a few months earlier, miles of bristling fences appeared. Questions and rumors were forbidden.
On August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, Oak Ridge learned the immediate purpose of its existence while the world entered a new age of human existence.
Continuing research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory addressed both war and peace and stirred some of the old mystery that surrounded its beginning. Conclusions reached by J. H. Rush, a physicist who worked on the atomic project, remain relevant today. Rush believed that “the specific horror of atomic war had obscured the real meaning of the Manhattan District Project. What the project signified was that mankind was moving into a new order of power over itself and the environment, that henceforth the consequences of man’s acts must be weighed with utmost caution.”
Self-discipline and the wise use of nature: if the first is a supreme reminder posed by Oak Ridge, the other is best exemplified by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are physically separated by an hour’s drive but when the last descendant of a pioneer family still living in the national park was asked by a visitor, “How far is it from the Great Smokies to Oak Ridge?” she replied, “About a hundred years.”
Her figure was off by several million years, but the spirit of her answer was accurate in the Tennessee way of measuring distances between places and people by time as well as space, by personal experience as well as by immediate appearance. Perhaps just as pathbreaking as Oak Ridge in the way it links people and nature, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the first national park (dedicated in 1940) not granted by Washington from its public lands but rather bought by the people themselves. Tennessee and North Carolina’s state funds, philanthropic gifts of the wealthy, schoolchildren’s nickels and dimes–all became a legacy for future generations. For years it has attracted more visitors than any of our other national parks. Here is a green kingdom of more varieties of trees than in all of Europe, where birds can migrate vertically from the valleys to high pinnacles rather than migrating to a distant habitat, where the diversity of animal and aquatic life reaches from the lordly black bear to the lowly salamander, each claiming its own territory.
Cabins, farms, a mill, a schoolhouse, and a church still stand in the park as witness to the hard, independent, often rewarding life of those early settlers in this land of the western waters. And along its western boundary a segment of the Cherokee still live on the special reservation won after fierce guerrilla resistance to removal.
Outside the park the spirit of Richard Henderson flourishes. Land speculation measures the acres in fractions rather than seven digits. Noise pollutes the air. Luxury and tawdriness vie for space and dollars. But in the quiet, fresh depths of the Great Smokies we are as close to Eden as we shall ever be in Tennessee. There is no still water in the Smokies, no lakes or ponds, only the sight and sound and smell of springs born fresh from the earth and the streams they feed that gather into rushing rivers. The great source of nourishment for all other life in the park is thereby continually revealed. This interdependence of all life on the land is also repeated in many inviting and informative ways in the smaller but nonetheless distinctive state parks established to arouse in the people of Tennessee a deeper appreciation of their special land.
Inspired by the bountiful land across the state are noteworthy sites where dedicated idealists once sought to enlarge the old sense of family by creating Edenic communities separate from the stale or corrupt practices of long-settled societies they had fled. In 1763 German linguist Christian Priber brought books and pen and paper to found a Kingdom of Paradise among the Cherokee mountain villages most remote from the coastal cities. He prospered until the British saw his kingdom as a threat to their own. Captured, he was imprisoned in Fort Frederica on the Carolina coast where he died. In the country that is now West Tennessee Philadelphia merchant Samuel Hazard proposed in 1772 establishment of a vast colony dedicated to freedom of worship–for Protestants only! Further east an agrarian paradise far from the noise and strife of the complex industrial society perhaps foreshadowed later creations of suburbs and movements “back to the land.” But Julius Wayland’s Ruskin Colony, founded in Dickson County in 1894, was also doomed to failure.
The most wide-ranging utopias, planned earlier in the century than Wayland’s, emblematized their founders’ fears concerning the tremendous growth of Eastern cities. Though new technological developments could help organize America, they would not benefit those who were not fully part of the society and could foster impersonal relationships and even civil strife. These utopias represented not merely escapes from the city but attempts, on a small scale, to balance society’s complexities.
English author Thomas Hughes established his colony of Rugby in the Cumberland Mountains about 1880 to attract the English gentry’s younger sons. Reared as aristocrats, they were denied the preparation necessary to maintain their gentility and earn a livelihood. In Rugby they would compete to raise the best crops and to “write the best books . . . teach best, govern best” and all this “without the risks of shop-keeping and the tricks of trade” of the city. Furthermore, Hughes felt that “a good stream of Englishmen into the Southern states” might heal some of the bitterness left from the Civil War.
Unfortunately, far from reconciling conflict within the surrounding society, Rugby itself became embroiled in disputes over land titles and government by an absentee corporation, and it suffered from the unaccustomed warm climate and an epidemic of typhoid fever. More importantly, since the young aristocrats remained aloof from their Tennessee neighbors, they were perceived as being short on the “guts, grit, and gizzard” necessary to be farmers on this land. Thomas Hughes left Rugby in 1887, never to return.
Frances (“Fanny”) Wright, a wealthy Scotswoman born in 1795, fell in love with America and Tennessee and promoted ideas to make them better–ideas so advanced that wherever she went she made headlines. Economic and political reforms, women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and universal public education all burgeoned in her speeches and under her pen. Seeking to put her ideas into practice, she established a farm called Nashoba in 1825 on the Wolf River near Memphis. Her primary aim was to allow slaves to work the land, simultaneously paying off their purchase price and learning to become productive citizens.
As one would expect, Nashoba encountered hostility from the surrounding slave-owning society, a hostility that deepened when Wright decided to change social relations even further by creating what would be called today open marriage and no-fault divorce. “Affection,” she said, “shall form the only marriage.”
But deeper problems lay within the community itself. White people had conceived and directed the plan without regard to the views of the blacks. Wright felt that another problem was that “there is nothing more difficult than to make men work in these parts.” She sardonically summed up Nashoba’s dilemma in a letter to a friend, a feeling probably shared by many of the new dwellers of America’s emerging big cities: “Cooperation has well nigh killed us all.” In January 1830 she sailed for New Orleans with the entire black population of Nashoba and resettled them in Haiti.
Yet Wright also stated in that year that her purpose had been “to develop all the intellectual and physical powers of all human beings, without regard to sex of physical condition, class, race, nation, or color.” That message, recalling the mural’s inclusion of black youth and Irish immigrant, remains on our agenda today. Indeed, although Tennessee’s proposed Edens were motivated in part by the old, continuing appetite for land that brought the frontier people topping the mountains, Appalachian or Rocky, across the nation, this appetite was enlightened by the equally old desire for spiritual and civic fulfillment. This desire has persisted in Tennessee and the nation even after 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared that America’s frontier was closed.
If Leutze were creating his mural today, the outstretched arm of the farmer–the “Tennesseian”–urging his companions westward might be turned back toward Tennessee. Here, from Oak Ridge to medical and distribution complexes in Memphis, the challenging frontier of science and technology beckons. Here, from the Great Smokies to the Mississippi, the awesome diversity and fragility of life opens before us each day. New realms of scientific and social and spiritual possibilities await exploration. Tennessee’s significance is no longer as a border state between East and West or North and South but as a borderland between yesterday and tomorrow.
Wilma Dykeman and Dykeman Stokely, Newport