Experience the early history of Tennessee on the Tanasi: Rapids to Railroads Trail. You’ll see first-hand how Native American footpaths became roads, how rivers became waterways of travel and commerce, and how the railroads transformed the region and the nation.
ONE - EARLY HISTORY
The documented Cherokee occupation of the area dates to the 1700s. In 1776 Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee War Chief who fought against the colonists in the Chickamauga Wars, moved downriver from the main tribe to help prevent further European settlement in the area.
In 1816, John Ross, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, settled at a site along the Tennessee River above Chattanooga Creek and established Ross's Landing as a trading post. The Tennessee River played a vital role in the culture of both the native Cherokee people and the European settlers, serving as a primary means for food, travel and commerce. Located along Broad Street in present-day Chattanooga, Ross’s Landing became one of the most important centers of the Cherokee Nation.
Ross was an Alabama native who grew up near Lookout Mountain and became an educated and respected businessman. He owned 20 slaves and several businesses, including trading posts and ferry operations, which made him one of the wealthiest men in the Cherokee Nation.
As the Cherokee principal chief, Ross did his best to stop the federal government’s forced removal of the Cherokees. When all efforts failed in 1838, he held the last tribal council near Charleston, and then led the Cherokees west on the Trail of Tears to present-day Tahlequah, Oklahoma. His wife, Quaite, was one of thousands who died on the westward march. At Tahlequah, Ross continued as principal chief until his death in 1866.
Ross’s Landing was given the name “Chattanooga” by the U.S. Post Office in 1838, after the Cherokee were driven from their homes during the Trail of Tears. Today, Ross’s Landing Park on Chattanooga’s Tennessee River waterfront celebrates the heritage of the founder of the city, and is home to “The Passage,” an art installation that symbolizes the path Cherokees took when they were forced to relocate from Chattanooga and other cities in the east to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears. The installation features a series of seven medallions that represent the tribe's history, religious beliefs, and struggles with colonial settlers.
There are several different stories about the name “Chattanooga” and its origin. One late 19th century history says that it was originally the name of a small Native American fishing village near the base of Lookout Mountain, on the bank of Chattanooga Creek. In the Cherokee language “Chattanooga” means "to draw fish out of water.”
Since the European explorers and settlers spelled Cherokee words based on how they sounded when spoken, and because the Cherokee language lacked a system of writing at that time, it was common to have multiple spellings for a single word. The word “Tennessee” is a variation of the spelling of the Cherokee word “Tanasi” (also spelled “Tannassy” or “Tanassee” or “Tenase”), the name of a famous Cherokee village located on the banks of the Little Tennessee River near present-day Vonore. Many historians believe the word Tanasi means “bend in the river,” which would correspond to the river’s sharp bend at the Tanasi village’s location.
A large portion of the Tanasi Trail travels through the area of Tennessee called “the Overhill.” This name, coined by the British, was used to distinguish the upper Cherokee land west of the Blue Ridge Mountains (or “over the hill”) from the middle and lower lands to the east and south.
A well known Cherokee silversmith, blacksmith, and trader, Sequoyah was born around 1770 in the Cherokee town of Tuskegee, once located on the banks of the Little Tennessee River near present-day Knoxville. At that time the Cherokee had a serious disadvantage when dealing with the white settlers: there was no written form of their language. Realizing this, Sequoyah devised an entire system to render the Cherokee language in written form. After much skepticism from fellow Cherokees, the alphabet was officially introduced to the world with the publication of the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper of the Cherokee Nation. Today, Sequoyah’s life and accomplishments are celebrated at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore.
Once home to the Cherokee cities Tellico, Great Tellico, Citico, and Tanasi, Monroe County was established in 1819 shortly after the Cherokee signed the Calhoun Treaty, which relinquished the area to the United States. The Calhoun Treaty ceded all remaining Cherokee claims north of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers, except a narrow strip in the mountains along the North Carolina line, between the Hiwassee River and the Little Tennessee River. This treaty was also known as the Hiwassee Purchase and the lands were to be later known as Hamilton, Bradley, McMinn and Monroe counties of which all were organized in 1819.
Return J. Meigs was a Revolutionary War hero and later the “Cherokee Indian Agent” for the early American government. In 1801 Meigs went to Tennessee to fill the combined position of agent to the Cherokee Nation and military agent for the United States War Department.
Initially his office and the Cherokee Agency were at Fort Southwest Point in what is now Kingston. In 1803 four men from the garrison left the fort and joined the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition across the Louisiana Purchase. In 1807 Meigs relocated the Cherokee agency to a new post further east, named Hiwassee Garrison, near the mouth of the Hiwassee River where it joins the Tennessee River. Meigs promoted the wellbeing of the Cherokee, defended their rights in treaty negotiations, and encouraged Cherokee efforts to establish a republican form of government.
Meigs remained as Cherokee agent on the Hiwassee River until his death on January 28, 1823. He is buried in the Garrison Cemetery in Rhea County, near the site of the former Hiwassee Garrison. Two Tennessee place names honor Meigs: Meigs County, which was formed in 1836 from part of Rhea County, and Meigs Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains were both named in his honor. A marker on Main Street in Calhoun indicates where his home was once located, and Fort Loudoun State Historic Park in Vonore offers a glimpse into 18th-century life in a British fort in the Cherokee Nation.
TWO - NANCY WARD & THE TRAIL OF TEARS
Nancy “Nanyehi” Ward is not only remembered as an important figure to the Cherokee people but is also considered an early pioneer for women in American politics, as she advocated for women’s voices during a turbulent period in Cherokee history. She was designated a "Beloved Woman,” which was the highest honor a Cherokee woman could claim. Her gravesite in Benton is often visited by Cherokee descendants and others who honor her memory and her many contributions to the Cherokee people and to Tennessee.
Ward learned the art of diplomacy from her maternal uncle, the influential chief Attakullakulla. In 1781, when the Cherokee met with an American delegation led by John Sevier to discuss American settlements along the Little Pigeon River, Nancy expressed surprise that there were no female representatives among the Americans. Sevier was equally appalled that such important work should be given to a woman. Ward’s grandson, John Walker, helped to negotiate the Calhoun Treaty of 1819 and also helped to settle the Calhoun area, even laying out the town’s new streets.
In her last years Ward repeatedly had a vision showing a "great line of our people marching on foot. Mothers with babies in their arms. Fathers with small children on their back. Grandmothers and Grandfathers with large bundles on their backs….They left a trail of corpses the weak, the sick who could not survive the journey." Seven years after Ward died in 1822, President Andrew Jackson sought to open these lands to American settlers and began to push for removal of all Native Americans. Southerners especially wanted access to native lands. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
After the federal government’s decision to remove the Native Americans from their land, Charleston and the surrounding area became the site of Fort Cass, a blanket name for the series of encampments of Cherokees that filled the entire valley between Charleston and Cleveland. Established in 1835, the camp was named for U.S. Secretary of War Lewis Cass and served as the official headquarters for the removal operations.
The Trail of Tears was actually a series of routes, some along the Tennessee River beginning at Ross’s Landing in Chattanooga and other overland trails beginning at Fort Cass in Charleston. Both the river and overland routes crisscrossed Tennessee. The first three Cherokee groups left in June 1838. Chief John Ross and the members of the Cherokee Council asked federal officials to delay further travel until the worst of the summer was over and to allow the Cherokee to organize their own removal.
The Cherokee-organized removal, always under the watchful eye of the U.S. Army, involved approximately 13,000 Cherokee, placed into 13 groups organized by kinship. The first detachment left on August 28, 1838, and the final detachment departed on December 5, 1838. Although a definitive number of Cherokees who perished while in the camps, on the Trail of Tears, and shortly after their arrival in the West will likely never be known, historians believe the number who died may have reached as high as 4,000 souls.
THREE - GROWTH OF TANASI TOWNS
From 1832 to 1837, Red Clay served as the last Eastern Council Grounds of the Cherokee Nation. It is here in October 1835 that the proposed removal treaty was unanimously rejected by Chief John Ross and the Cherokees; this is considered by many to be the starting point for the Trail of Tears. Visit the replicated Cherokee farm and council house at Red Clay State Park in Cleveland for a glimpse into Cherokee life 175 years ago.
Cleveland, Tennessee began as a small log cabin known as Taylor’s Place in the heart of the Cherokee Nation. The community came into prominence when the railroad arrived in 1851, providing the means for hauling copper from the mines in Polk County and contributing to the economic boom of the Copper Basin. Though the copper mines have long been closed, the river, railroad and road access still make Cleveland an attractive location for many industries. Today, Cleveland is home to 12 different Fortune 500 companies including Whirlpool, Duracell, and Mars Chocolate North America. All the world’s Twix Bars and more than half the world’s M&M’s are made in Cleveland, so if you’re wondering why the air sometimes smells sweeter in Cleveland, now you know why.
Sweetwater was established in the 1850s along Sweet Water Creek to take advantage of its location on the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad. Step back in time when you visit the historic rail car and unique shops and eateries that make up this charming downtown district. The Sweetwater Heritage Museum is located just off Main Street, and highlights transportation heritage as well as history of the Tennessee Military Academy.
Started in 1892 in nearby Graysville, Seventh-Day Adventist University is today a private college with over 3,000 students located in Collegedale. McKee Foods was founded in Chattanooga in 1934, and their Little Debbie Bakery Store in Collegedale features a huge selection of the bakery’s classic flavors and biggest hits.
Originally known as Mouse Creek, Niota was renamed in 1897 to avoid confusion with a railroad stop in Jefferson City that was also called Mossy Creek. The town’s name was based on the fictional character in a dime novel, a Native American named Nee-o-tah. Niota is famous for being the birthplace and home of Harry T. Burn, who cast the deciding vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives that ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
Built in 1854, the Niota City Hall was once a train depot, and it is now the oldest standing train depot in Tennessee. Gunports created by Union soldiers during the Civil War are still visible in the walls of this classic Antebellum structure.
FOUR - RIVERS & RAILROADS
The Tanasi Trail is rich in natural history, and its rivers are showplaces of scenic beauty. For thousands of years, humans have depended on the rivers of East Tennessee for food, transportation and recreation. In fact, the rivers of the Tanasi Trail are just as much an integral part of the birth of America as the people who farmed the land, built the towns, or fought in the battles of the Civil War.
From prehistoric tribes to the Cherokee people and eventually the white settlers who would later reshape the rivers to harness energy, these waterways have always been vital to human settlement in the Southeast. Early settlements were most often established near a river; the moving water functioned as a sort of highway system until the early 20th century.
This portion of the Tennessee River—the fifth largest river in the country—rivals the Mighty Mississippi on the state’s western border in terms of influence on Tennessee’s culture and history. The river names you’ll encounter in Tanasi—like Ocoee, Hiwassee, and Tellico—are reminders of the native culture that once thrived here.
The Ocoee River is one of Tennessee’s most beloved rivers, attracting more than 300,000 adventure-seekers each year, who come from around the globe to get a taste of its world-class rapids. Since 1939, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has controlled the flow of the river with three dams. The 5-mile “middle section” is especially popular with kayakers, featuring rapids with names like Cat’s Pajamas, Broken Nose and Hell Hole. “Blue holes” form upstream from the Ocoee Whitewater Center in Ducktown when the river is low, allowing water to gather in clear, tranquil pools that appear blue.
Tennessee’s first State Scenic River, the Hiwassee River is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Some say Hiwassee means “Copperhead Snake,” while others say it’s an alternate spelling of Ayuhwasi, Cherokee for “meadow.” At one time, today’s Tennessee River was known as the “River of the Cherokee” and was labeled this way on many early French and British maps of the area. There was already a Tennessee River, which would later be renamed the Little Tennessee River, and eventually impounded by the TVA to help create Tellico Lake. Several major Cherokee towns were located on the banks of the Little Tennessee including Tanasi and Chota.
The state’s fourth largest city, Chattanooga is located on the Tennessee River, and was a center of commerce via the rivers and later, the railroads. With the advent of the steamboat era, goods and passengers could be moved easily down the rivers that connected the new, growing towns of Tennessee.
Like the rivers before them, the railroads in Southeast Tennessee played a vital role in transportation as well as the economic development of this part of the state; many are still in operation. By the mid-1800s, railroads had become the primary means of transporting people and goods in America. Being located on a major river and in a natural gap through the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga found itself in a prime position to capitalize on the new mode of transportation. The city welcomed its first rail line with the arrival of the Western and Atlantic Railroad in 1850 and then in 1858, the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad also arrived in Chattanooga. The city quickly became a railroad hub with industries springing up in the area to take advantage of the new transportation corridors.
This also made Chattanooga very attractive to both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. While East Tennessee favored the Union, Chattanoogans sympathized with the Confederacy; despite their loyalty, the city was taken by federal forces seeking to control the railroad. Many historians believe it was this move that changed the direction of the war. With Chattanooga under its control, the Union would use it to launch its most devastating blow yet: General William T. Sherman’s notorious “March to the Sea.”
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad (“L&N”) built a new railroad—and a whole town to go with it—in 1906. The New L&N Railroad, and the town of Etowah were located west of the “Old Line.” and stayed clear of the mountainous terrain. You can relieve this romantic era at the L&N Depot and Railroad Museum, a restored 16-room, two-story Victorian passenger station and railroad museum in Etowah that offers exhibits highlighting the history of the town and its relationship to the L&N Railroad.
FIVE - CIVIL WAR in TANASI COUNTRY
As a vital rail hub and important manufacturing center, Chattanooga was a strategic target for the two warring armies of the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War; Chattanooga’s railroad junction connected Nashville and Atlanta to the rest of the South. As the two sides clashed, Chattanooga was the center of a number of battles, collectively referred to as the “Chattanooga Campaign.”
The area also features many caves once used as saltpeter mines during the Civil War. The nitrate-rich cave soil was the primary ingredient for gunpowder. The Lost Sea cave in Monroe County still has remnants of the saltpeter mining that took place there in the Civil War.
In September 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland under Gen. William S. Rosecrans executed a series of maneuvers that forced C.S. Gen. Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee to abandon Chattanooga and withdraw into northern Georgia. Rosecrans pursued Bragg and the two armies collided at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19 – 20, 1863. Bragg achieved a major victory when a gap was opened mistakenly in the Union line and a strong column commanded by C.S. Gen. James Longstreet drove through it and routed a good portion of the Union Army.
By the fall of 1863, the U.S. Army controlled Chattanooga and the Confederates occupied Lookout Mountain, where they could monitor almost all of the Union Army’s activities. After the Battle of Wauhatchie and the Battle Of Lookout Mountain, Union forces under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assaulted Missionary Ridge near modern-day downtown Chattanooga on November 25 and defeated the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The loss of Chattanooga represented a major turning point in the fortunes of the Confederacy. One of the Confederacy's two major armies had been defeated, and the Union now controlled the important transit hub of Chattanooga, the "Gateway to the Lower South."
Chattanooga soon became the base for General William T. Sherman's 1864 Atlanta Campaign, which led directly to the capture of Atlanta and to Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” During the Battle of Chattanooga, the Wiley Memorial United Methodist Church served as a prison for both armies.
Created after the Battles of Chattanooga in 1863, the Chattanooga National Cemetery is the final resting place for many Civil War veterans, including the “Andrews Raiders,” the recipients of the first Medals of Honor as well as veterans from other wars. The cemetery was established in 1863, by an order from Gen. George Henry Thomas after the Battle of Chattanooga, as a place to inter Union soldiers who fell in combat. It was renamed Chattanooga National Cemetery in 1867. By 1870, more than 12,000 people had been buried there, including nearly 1,500 soldiers from the Battle of Chickamauga.
The Andrew's Raiders Monument, located in the Chattanooga National Cemetery, is a bronze replica of a 19th century train steam engine that was the subject of the Great Locomotive Chase, a military raid that occurred during the American Civil War. Volunteers from the Union Army, led by civilian scout James J. Andrews, commandeered a train in Georgia named “The General” and took it northward toward Chattanooga, doing as much damage as possible to the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga as they went. After Confederates captured the raiders and executed some as spies, many of these men were awarded the Medal of Honor by the U.S. Congress for their bravery and contributions to the Union.
SIX - COPPER MINING
This part of the trail comprises a majority of the geological area known as the Copper Basin, named for the rich veins of copper ore found here. Three separate veins of copper run through the southeast corner of Polk County. After the signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1836, the Cherokee had lost much of their land, including the Copper Basin. While prospectors in 1843 had their hearts set on finding gold, they instead found copper—although the Cherokee had been smelting it long before the white man arrived.
Within a few short years, 14 mining operations set up shop and forever changed the landscape. Although the industry provided jobs and a booming economy, it wasn’t without a price. For over a century, the mining wreaked havoc on the environment causing pollution, erosion and almost complete depletion of trees. For Mother Earth’s sake, reclamation efforts have returned trees and vegetation to the basin. The mining industry ceased its operations here in 1987.
The Copper Basin’s ore is three deep seams and could only be extracted by deep shaft mining, a dangerous activity. Dynamite charges used to loosen ore could cause cave-ins and many miners lost their lives in the mines. In 189l the open roast heap smelting process of copper was begun. This process, and the high sulfur content in Polk County copper, created sulfuric acid fumes which, combined with the timber cut as fuel, destroyed vegetation in the Basin.
Two lawsuits involving the Basin Copper industry occurred in the early 1900s, when landowners and then the State of Georgia sued the Tennessee Copper Company (TCC) over pollution and sovereign rights. The Court found for Georgia but did not issue the injunction because by then TCC had begun construction of an acid reclamation plant near Copperhill. Eventually, sulfuric acid replaced copper as the company’s major product. Within two decades of the ruling the first efforts would be made to reclaim the barren landscape. Those efforts would be continued until the early 21st Century when the entire proposed area was finally reclaimed.
SEVEN - VOTING RIGHTS AND HONEST ELECTIONS
The Nineteenth Amendment, which would grant women the right to vote, could not become law without the ratification of a minimum 36 of the then 48 states. By the summer of 1920, 35 of the 48 states had ratified the amendment, with a further four states called upon to hold legislative voting sessions on the issue. The Tennessee Senate ratified the amendment, but the House delayed, finally calling a vote that resulted in a tie.
Harry Burn, a Republican from McMinn County and native of Niota, was listed as undecided, though many in his home district opposed giving granting women the right to vote. When his name was called, Harry Burn voted yes, breaking the tie in favor of ratifying the amendment.
Burn had originally made clear his intention to vote "nay" in any session. However, a letter from his mother asking him to vote in favor of the amendment helped to change his mind. Mrs. J. L. Burn of Niota, Tennessee, had written a letter to her son reminding him to be a “good boy,” a copy of which he held during the voting session on August 18, 1920. After he cast his historic vote, Burns was forced to hide in the attic of the capitol until mobs of angry anti-suffragists had dispersed. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was proclaimed as ratified and part of the United States Constitution.
While it may sound like it was an event during the Civil War, “The Battle of Athens” was actually the culmination of a political conflict between returning World War II veterans and an entrenched local political machine. After years of corruption in the office of the County Sheriff, it wasn’t until the end of World War II when 3,000 veterans returned home to Athens and Etowah in McMinn County that things really began to change.
For the 1946 county election, the veterans created the “GI Non-Partisan League” and backed nominees who were committed to an honest and open election process, stamping out corruption, and reforming the local government.
When the polls opened, about 200 armed deputies were present to “patrol the precincts,” but were really there to intimidate the opposition. Once the polls closed, the deputies suddenly seized the ballot boxes and took them to the county jail. Fearing that the sheriff’s men and the local political machine would fraudulently steal the election by throwing out opposition ballots, veterans broke into the local armory, armed themselves, and marched to the jail.
The veterans demanded that the ballots be handed over for public inspection and counting, but the sheriff refused. The veterans opened fire on the jail with hand guns and semi-automatic rifles, and even used dynamite to blast open the front door. Once the veterans had breached the door and made it clear they weren’t leaving without the ballots, the deputies surrendered their arms—and the ballot boxes.
A fair and open count of the vote proved that the veterans’ slate of county officers had swept the election. Deputies of the former administration were forced to resign in shame. Illegal gambling operations tied to the old regime were raided and destroyed, and many other reforms were instituted to prevent corruption and improve local government.
EIGHT - THE SOUNDS OF TANASI
Cleveland is one of the epicenters of traditional gospel music. The Tennessee Music and Printing Company, based in Cleveland, is the music publishing arm of the Church of God and one of the leading penecostal music publishers of the 20th century. Under the leadership of Connor Hall (1916-1992) the company became a powerful force in gospel music, especially after acquiring the James D. Vaughan Music Company. Hundreds of songs sung weekly in churches across the world come from Cleveland, Tennessee. The Dixon Penecostal Research Center at Lee University has collections and exhibits about the region’s rich musical legacies. The annual Blue Springs Valley Gospel Singing in Cleveland every summer features the Singing Echoes, a giant among southern gospel groups for over 40 years.
Five rivers that run deep with natural and human history, towns where the Cherokee built great a river civilization, sites of Civil War skirmishes and major battles, and the starting point of the bitter Trail of Tears are all here. Explore the culture and the legacy of the early Native Americans, experience the life of the settlers, and relive the excitement of discovery on river and rail on the Tanasi Trail.