The song in the heart of Tennessee was sung by pioneers and slaves, by soldiers and settlers. Find your own song of Tennessee as you journey along old Rocky Top’s historic highways and byways, through former Appalachian villages and Civil War sites, back to early pioneer settlements, log cabins, and even the hunting grounds of the original Native American inhabitants.
ONE - Prehistory to Pioneers
The first known humans to have lived in the East Tennessee area developed settlements here between 1,000 B.C. and 1,000 A.D. The first known road in the East Tennessee area was likely made by migrating bison, and later worn by Native Americans as they hunted in the area’s deep forests. Called the “Wilderness Road,” this ancient pathway became the primary road for settlers to the new lands of the west, and is now called the “East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway.”
The Cherokee had used the valley where Pigeon Forge is now located as hunting grounds for centuries. A Cherokee footpath known as the Indian Gap Trail crossed the Great Smokies from North Carolina, and passed through the Pigeon Forge; it was this path that also brought the first Europeans to the Pigeon Forge area in the 18th century.
The first Europeans to visit the Knoxville area were members of the Henry Timberlake expedition, which passed through in December 1761. Isaac Thomas, an early fur trapper and trader, would become the first white settler in what would become Sevierville. He opened a successful trading post and tavern there in 1783. It is believed that Thomas even lived among the most important Cherokee leaders for a time, earning their respect as a hunter and woodsman.
Sometime after 1783, Colonel Samuel Wear became the first permanent white settler in the Pigeon Forge area. Wear, a veteran of the American Revolution, built a simple fort near the Little Pigeon River. The fort was a frequent safe stop for early pioneers, who were often attacked by wary natives.
After the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Dumplin Creek with the Americans in 1785, releasing their claim to much of what is now Sevier County, permanent settlers began to arrive. Among the first to settle there was Robert Shields, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, who established a small fort along Middle Creek near present-day Dollywood.
By 1786, James White, a Revolutionary War officer, had built a fort near the mouth of First Creek. President George Washington appointed North Carolina surveyor William Blount governor of the newly created Territory South of the River Ohio in 1790. One of Blount's first tasks was to resolve territorial issues between settlers and the Native Americans, which was accomplished with the Treaty of Holston, negotiated and signed at White's Fort in 1791.
Blount chose White's Fort as the territorial capital, and renamed it Knoxville after Revolutionary War general and Secretary of War Henry Knox. Blount helped to lead Tennessee to statehood in 1796, and was elected to represent the new state in the U.S. Senate.
John Sevier, a close political ally of William Blount, is often referred to as the “Father of Tennessee” for his instrumental role in shaping Tennessee’s statehood. Sevier was a Revolutionary War hero, governor of the lost state of Franklin, and the first Governor of Tennessee. Sevier was also a bitter rival of President Andrew Jackson; the two nearly fought a gun duel in downtown Knoxville in 1803 over Sevier’s disparaging remarks about the President’s new wife. Sevier County and the town of Sevierville are named after him, and his home and frontier dwellings at Marble Springs have been preserved in Knoxville.
TWO - East Tennessee and The Civil War
In the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, the citizens of East Tennessee were predominately against both slavery and secession from the Union. Plantation crops were not as successful as they were in the western part of the state, so slavery was not only unpopular but economically unnecessary.
Although the state became a part of the Confederacy, strong pro-Union sentiment was ever present, so in 1861 Confederate troops under Brigadier General Felix Zollicoffer were sent to occupy East Tennessee and prevent secession from the Confederacy.
In early 1863, General Simon Buckner took command of Confederate forces in Knoxville. Anticipating a Union invasion, Buckner fortified Fort Loudon in western Knoxville and began constructing earthworks throughout the city. However, the approach of Union forces under Ambrose Burnside in the summer of 1863 forced Buckner to evacuate Knoxville before the earthworks were completed.
The Union forces entered Knoxville and further fortified Fort Loudon, and established another 12 forts and batteries as well as formidable entrenchments around the city. On November 3, 1863, General James Longstreet led his Confederate soldiers to attack Knoxville. Though outnumbered, the Union defenders endured the Siege of Knoxville by Longstreet, and when 25,000 Union reinforcements under General William T. Sherman arrived a few days later all hopes of Confederate reoccupation of Knoxville were lost forever.
On November 29, 1863, the Battle of Fort Sanders would bring about the end of the Siege of Knoxville by the Confederate forces. The battle has been described as "cruel and gruesome even by 19th century standards" as Union soldiers unleashed musketry, canister, and artillery shells thrown as hand grenades down upon the confederate soldiers attempting to conquer the insurmountable and unscalable wall defending the fort. After 20 minutes of slaughter, Longstreet called off the attack. The battle proved disastrous for the Confederates, who suffered 813 casualties compared to the Union, who suffered a mere 13 casualties in the attack.
The Battle of Dandridge took place on January 17, 1864, after Union forces advanced to cross the river and occupy the town. Upon hearing that Dandridge was occupied by Federals, General Longstreet moved 61 regiments of Infantry and 18 regiments of Cavalry with 20 pieces of artillery into position east of Dandridge. Hunger loomed in the cold January and Longstreet wanted to make sure his troops would continue to have access to the good foraging grounds around Dandridge. If Dandridge were to fall to the Union, Longstreet’s nearby winter camp would be likely be lost as well.
Fearing that Longstreet's entire force was now massing against them, the Union forces retreated to New Market. The Confederates pursued into the night, but lacking ammunition and equipment they fell back toward Dandridge. On the morning of January 18th, Longstreet recaptured Dandridge without incident. Longstreet’s army would survive the winter, and Union forces would not return to the area until near the end of the war.
THREE - Arts & Parks, Electrification and Preservation
The invention of the band saw and the logging railroad led to a boom in the lumber industry in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, no sustainable forestry practices existed then so lumber companies simply cut down an entire forest and then moved on to the next, encroaching ever deeper into the Appalachian highlands in order to keep up with demand. By 1901, lumber interests had begun buying rights to wide areas of forest in the Smokies. Local residents supplemented their income by providing lodging to loggers, and tourists also began to arrive to see the area’s natural wonders.
Tennessee became the crossroads of America in the early 20th century. The Dixie Highway (now part of the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway) provided a convenient route from the Midwestern states to Florida, while the Lee Highway, named for Confederate Robert E. Lee, was the nation’s first series of roads that ran from the east coast to California. Like Interstates 40 and 75 do today, these early American highways met and merged in Knoxville. Knoxville’s location on the Dixie Highway was approximately halfway between the Midwestern states and Florida, making it an ideal overnight stop for Florida-bound tourists. Just southwest of Knoxville, Dixie Lee Junction offered travelers a final opportunity for fuel and food before they entered the rural and then amenity-free portion of the highway that led to Chattanooga.
As more people began to journey across the nation in automobiles, and as demand increased for preservation of the country’s natural, cultural, and historic locations, a movement began to preserve the unique natural character of the region within a national park. In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill that established Great Smoky Mountains National Park, now the most visited national park in the country.
But before the park was an international attraction, it was the location of a chain of mountain villages. When the Federal government claimed the land for the park, there was a sizable population of farmers and loggers living there who didn’t take kindly to outsiders, and who were not receptive to the idea of the government seizing their land—no matter how much they were compensated.
Though some families saw the relocation as an opportunity to escape the poverty of the mountainsides, many more felt their land and their heritage were being stolen from them. Many small communities were uprooted and scattered during the relocation. Remnants of these communities can still be seen today throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where homes and other farming buildings have been preserved as part of the park’s history. The John Ownby Cabin near the Sugarland Visitor Center is among the last remaining buildings from the valley's pre-park communities.
By the early twentieth century, poor farming practices had left soil eroded and depleted of nutrients throughout Tennessee, while the logging industry had decimated the forests. As a result, the economy was already unstable, and then the Great Depression occurred making life in the state even more difficult.
To help address the severe economic problems facing the mostly agrarian region, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska led the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which taught farmers how to improve crop yields, replanted forests, and created a series of dam systems to generate electricity and help control flooding.
The plentiful and inexpensive electricity attracted many new industries to the region, dramatically boosting employment and improving the quality of life for all residents, though many people were displaced and forced to relocate when their property was seized by the government and flooded to create the artificial lakes required to operate the dam system.
Just as the movement to preserve the natural areas that would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park grew from tourists visiting the area, so to did a new market for Appalachian arts and crafts. The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts was established in 1912 by the Pi Beta Phi women's fraternity to address educational needs of local children and promote the teaching of Appalachian crafts and traditions.
Along with providing basic education to children in the area, the school helped to grow the market for local crafts. By 1926, 30 families were weaving for the school, and the next year the Arrowcraft Shop, named after Pi Beta Phi's official symbol, the arrow, opened on the school's campus to display and sell the beautiful crafts created by Appalachian artisans.
The Arrowmont campus contains the oldest buildings in Gatlinburg, and is also part of two national historic districts; the school provided the only public education for children in the Gatlinburg area until the early 1940s. Now the oldest and most respected craft school in Tennessee, Arrowmont offers workshops in woodworking, glassblowing, basket weaving, metalworking, and more.
The beauty of Gatlinburg is also the inspiration for the most popular Tennessee state song, Rocky Top. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were already a successful husband-and-wife songwriting team with hits like “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love” when the couple vacationed at the Gatlinburg Inn. The spectacular view there inspired them to write “Rocky Top,” now the unofficial anthem of the Smoky Mountains and fight song of the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Enjoy Appalachian culture and arts, Civil War history, mountain music, natural wonders, and the very best of Tennessee when you explore the Rocky Top trail.