Middle Tennessee History Coalition Columns

Historic Columns

Tennessee’s Lost Civilization

Did you know that Tennessee was once part of a great civilization? From roughly 1000-1450 AD the Mississippian Culture Empire was vast, stretching from Cahokia, IL in the north, down to the Gulf of Mexico in the south. From west to east it held sway from Spiro, OK all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Its trade influence was even greater, with artifacts from Tennessee being found as far north as Michigan, and vice versa. Much like Ancient Greece, the Mississippian Empire was probably controlled by powerful city-states instead of having a single centralized government. Some of the most important cities that we know of were Cahokia, Spiro, Etowah, Moundville, and Mound Bottom.

            These cities were huge, some with over 10,000 inhabitants living in the immediate area. They would have been encircled by massive palisade walls, and had great earthen mounds dominating the landscape. On top of these mounds they would have built ceremonial structures and houses for the elite or ruling class. Many of the mounds can still be seen today, some looking like low hills, with the most impressive ones resembling pyramids with flat tops.

            At the heart of this sprawling civilization lay the land we now know as Middle Tennessee. Unlike the pristine and seemingly untouched woodland forests that the first Europeans found when they arrived to this area in the 1700s, Middle Tennessee was once dotted with hundreds of villages bustling with activity. Hunting, fishing, and farming dominated daily life. Trade was also extremely important. The diverse ecosystem, rich natural resources, and extensive waterways made this area a perfect spot for all this to occur. Some of the villages grew and became major trading hubs and centers of power. Several of the most important ones in Middle TN were Mound Bottom in Cheatham Co., Castalian Springs in Sumner Co., and the Link Farm Site in Humphreys Co. The artifacts found at these sites attest to the skill and craftsmanship of the artisans who worked and traded there.

            Almost all of these sites are found on waterways. Rivers were used as the main means of travel and were the principal trade routes. Tennessee rivers 750 years ago would have been full of canoes brimming with food and trade goods. Pottery, copper, galena, shell gorgets, and highly prized Dover flint were just a few of the items traded all throughout the Southeast and beyond.

            Suddenly around 1450, the Mississippian Culture in Middle Tennessee vanished. Everyone either left the area or died out. The once great cities fell into ruin. While the Mississippian Culture continued on in other areas for another hundred years, what happened here in Middle Tennessee remains a mystery. When Europeans came to the area 250 years later, all that remained of this once great civilization were the moldering mounds and graveyards with all their artifacts buried within.

            We have one station on the Tennessee History Trail dedicated to Pre-Contact Native Americans. Our signature event is held every October at Bledsoe Creek State Park, with supplemental programming offered throughout the year. Click on the Tennessee History Trail link on the main menu to learn more.

Bibliography

Albright, Edward. Early History of Middle Tennessee. Nashville, Tenn.: Brandon Printing Company, 1909.

Fundaburk, Emma Lila. Sun Circles and Human Hands: The Southeastern Indians- Art and Industry. Edited by Emma Lila Fundaburk and Mary Douglass Fundaburk Foreman. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Thruston, Gates. Antiquities of Tennessee. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Robert Clarke Company, 1897. Reprinted, 1972.  

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Colonial Fur Trade

The Colonial Fur Trade

Before the first European traders came to North America, no Indian had slept on a wool blanket. They had never worn a cloth shirt or silver jewelry nor tasted rum. Their hunters had never used a musket or a steel knife nor had they ever used a flint and steel to start a fire. Clay pots were used for cooking, animal hides for cloths and shoes, maple sugar was harvested from the trees.

Even before the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English established colonies they began to trade with the local Indians. The fur trade in North America began in the early 1600s and eventually came to be a huge part of the colonial economy for three reasons:

  1. There was an almost limitless supply of furs and hides in North America. As an example, the annual export of hides from Charlestown between 1739 and 1762 was between 130,000 and 350,000 hides a year. Between 1755 and 1773 nearly 600,000 deer hides were sent to England from Savannah, Georgia.
  2. The American Indians were very motivated to trade because they wanted European goods. The Indians wanted things like axes, pots, knives, and clothing, and the settlers wanted animal furs and hides. The Indians wanted some of these things because they were better- a metal pot lasted longer than a clay pot, but also because they were very easily acquired. Making a clay pot for cooking took a long time and resulted in a fragile item. Half dressing a deer hide could be done in a day or less. So, the metal pot actually cost less in time and materials.
  3. There was a huge demand for furs and hides in Europe. Much of the game had been hunted to near extinction, and there were no great herds of cattle like we have today. Beaver hats were all the rage, and the only source of leather was from the colonies.

The fur trade was big business in colonial America. Yearly exports of furs and hides to England could exceed $30 million (present value). Traders, merchants, clothiers, hat makers, blanket makers, lead foundries, gun smiths, and blacksmiths all made money off of the fur trade, and both the Woodland Indians and the colonist eagerly participated in it. For example, in 1750 a trader from the colony of Pennsylvania loaded 80 pack horses with trade goods and headed out to trade with the Cherokee. Those packs equated to nearly twenty-five thousand pounds of goods.

France and England eventually squeezed out the Spanish and Dutch from North America, and they both tried to use the fur and hide trade as a form of economic warfare against each other. This constant jockeying for position lead to a series of wars between England and France; King William’s War in 1689, Queen Anne’s War in 1702, King George’s War in 1744, and the French and Indian War in 1754 which ended with the English in control of North America. Once England took control after the Seven Years War, the Indians only had one partner to trade with and that was the English. That meant England set the rules for trade.

The Fur Trade was vital to the economy of Colonial America, but it was also the beginning of the end for the American Indians. They became dependent on European trade goods like knives, guns, powder and ball. That dependence had an extremely negative impact on their way of life. They could not alter this after they became dependent on Europeans for trade, and once England forced the other European countries out of North America, the Indians had no one else to trade with except the English. The fur trade was also the precursor for further exploration and eventually settlement by colonists. This forced the Indians in the area into smaller and smaller territories, and in 1838 the last of the Indians were removed by the United States government over what we know today as the Trail of Tears.

We have three stations on the Tennessee History Trail dedicated to the fur trade and its impact on native populations. Our signature event is held each October at Bledsoe Creek State Park, with supplemental programming offered throughout the year. Click Here to learn more.

Bibliography

Albright, Edward. Early History of Middle Tennessee. Nashville, Tenn.: Brandon Printing Company, 1909.

Anderson, Fred, Crucible of War: The Seven Years War and the Fate of Empire in British North America

Andrews, Charles. Anglo-French Commercial Rivalry, 1700-1750: The Western Phase, I. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

Barrett, Carole. American Indian History. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 2003.

Carlos, Ann and Lewis, Frank. Exchange among Native Americans and Europeans before 1800: Strategies and Interactions. University of Colorado, Boulder. 2012

Hamer, Phillip, Tennessee: A History, 1673-1932 (New York: The American Historical Society, 1933)

Hamilton, Emory, Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia, Publication 5: The Long Hunters (1970) http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vaschs2/long_hunters.htm (accessed Dec 26th, 2015)

Henderson, Archibald. The Conquest of the Old Southwest. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2007

Innis, Harold, and Arthur J. Ray. The Fur Trade in Canada an Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Louis, Wm. Roger. The Oxford History of the British Empire the Origins of Empire. British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Nicholas Canny and Alaine Low. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Millward, Robert. 2010. How could a beaver start a war? The History Teacher 43 (2): 275-82.

The Draper Manuscript Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, Mf. 29, Microfilm, Tennessee State Library and Archive

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My Two Cents

I am often asked the question, “Who was on the frontier and why?”. However, that question, in and of itself, is far too broad to allow for a concise answer.   I first have to determine what frontier I am being asked about.  Is it the frontier of the Roman Empire, or maybe it is the frontier between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire?  Of course, usually people are asking about the American frontier, but even that question is tough to answer without more clarity.  Most of Colonial and United States history in North America includes a frontier.  From 1607 to the 1890s, the history of America was the history of pushing back that “frontier” at the expense of some and to the benefit of others.  This is a good example of the importance of pointed and specific questions when researching the past.  Without clear and

For the sake of this blog, I will limit the scope of the original question to frontier Tennessee and Kentucky. Even then, it is a tough question to answer.  The people that migrated here came from every background.  There were Germans, Scotts-Irish, Welsh, French, Scottish, and Irish to name a few.  They came from every class of society; wealthy, poor, and in between.  Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the indigenous people that lived in and around Tennessee and Kentucky.  They played a significant role in shaping how we live today.  I have found that in spite of my years of observation, research, and experimental archaeology, my view of the people that came to the Tennessee frontier is still evolving because they were incredibly diverse. I firmly believe that I will never know “everything” about them, but that is what I like about history; there is always another layer of the onion to peel back.

Now to the question at hand. To really understand the settlers who came here and why, I suggest researching what their lives were like before they came.  Going back to not only their colonial lives, but examining their history before they left Europe.  Learning how they lived their lives, and the trials they faced as a people in Europe might shed some light on why they came to Tennessee and how they managed to carve out a life here.

Through a series of blog posts, I hope to explore how the diverse population of early Tennessee and Kentucky lived their lives in day to day terms. I am sure I will make mistakes along the way, but that is how we learn.  I plan on posting once each quarter, the next one coming in May.  I hope you will join me on this journey, and in the process learn a little more about yourself.  So, to borrow a phrase from Captain Kirk; “Set a course for the past Mr. Sulu, warp speed ahead!

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The Great Indian Warpath

Long before the arrival of humans there was a series of animal trails scattered across Tennessee. The game trails used by large game such as bison and elk attracted nomadic, prehistoric humans in search of food.

The Great Indian Warpath was part of the network of trails in eastern North America developed and used by American Indians and ran through the Great Appalachian Valley branching out east and west as it went north. Offshoots of the trail stretched to present day Nashville and connected to other trails farther west and south via what we now call the Natchez Trace.

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Cumberland Compact: Beginnings of Democracy or a simple contract?

The Cumberland Compact has long been portrayed romantically as the beginning of democratic government in the early settlements in middle Tennessee. It is even viewed by some as the glue that held the settlements together under great duress and others as the foundation of the Tennessee State Constitution.  There is much to be admired about the early settlers of middle Tennessee. They were hardy, self-reliant, people who gambled everything for a chance at prosperity.   So it is not surprising that anything they did would be looked on with some reverence.

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