Tennessee Mountain Stories

Good News, Old News

Here’s an excerpt from the book I’m working on now…

As Katherine Ingle busied herself boiling coffee and cutting big slices of last night’s cake, Gracie pulled a tattered newspaper to her.  News was often hard to come by on the mountain and papers were read and shared until the print was practically worn from the pages.  Once illegible, the paper found additional uses around the farm.  The date on this paper was nearly a month ago… 

Photo courtesy of www.

Photo courtesy of www.

I wrote about the newspaper in that story because I needed to convey how news was disseminated way back in Gracie’s day.  Some people say newspapers are dead in this digital world.  I don’t know about that, but I know for sure that historically they were indispensable. 

Gracie’s ‘day’ was when news could not be pulled up online at a moment’s notice and no TV anchorman would read stories at 6:00 every evening.  In that day, the nickel price of a paper was a great deal of money and once spent should be shared as many times as possible.   Even when many of your neighbors weren’t able to read, the owner of a newspaper could still share the stories he’d read and therefore spread news.

This idea of recycling is very en-vogue these days and I’ve mentioned here before that it’s nothing new to the Cumberland Plateau where we’ve been reusing and repurposing from the very beginning.  The thing is that folks what don’t have a whole lot to do with will make do with whatever they’ve got!  And newspapers were something that came around every once in awhile and just like my characters in the book they were read and re-read.  Then they were very often used as insulation – I’ve heard more than one person tell about “reading the walls”.

Now my little boy has just got ahold of the idea that reading is a good thing and he’s reading everything from the cereal box to the road signs.  If we had print on the walls he’d be staring at it everyday.  Did I share back in the Clyde Whittaker series how he was fascinated by his Grandma Key’s house because she had newspapers on the wall and he would read them every time he went there – of course they didn’t change; those same pages would’ve hung there until air creeping through the cracks completely blew threw them.  Ken Taylor had mentioned the same thing about his house – I think there was a room that had been added on and rough-sawn boards were covered with newsprint in lieu of plaster or wallboard.  And what a fascinating cover they would make.

The paper was used elsewhere as well, and you can still find old papers occasionally stuffed into shoes or a purse to keep the wrinkles out – I bought an antique purse a few years ago and was amazed to find papers from a distant city, telling me a little of the journey that purse had made over the fifty-plus years since anyone had really used it.

Of course all kinds of things were wrapped in newspaper – isn’t that the classic fish container?   There weren’t any fish markets on the mountain - since everyone just went to the pond to collect their own fresh fish.

And newspapers make great patterns – dresses and quilt tops were always cut from the large sheets.  They were thin enough to pin through to attach the fabric, flexible for folding up unfinished work and most important of all that kind of paper was available.  String quilts could be sewn right onto the shaped pieces then easily peeled off leaving only the properly sized quilt block.

As I thought about the vanishing newspaper, I tried an internet search for all of its uses. I got fire starter and window washer, garden mulch (which was a new one for me but I’m going to try it!) and moving supplies.  Wonder why nobody on the internet is insulating with the newspaper?


The Natchez Trace

This will be our final installment from Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories. I sure hope you’ve enjoyed it as I have certainly loved sharing it with you.

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One of the most famous highways in U.S. history is the Natchez Trace, that extended from Nashville, Tennessee across the western part of the state, thence across the northwestern tip of Alabama and across the heart of Mississippi to a terminus at Natchez, on the Mississippi River.  The Natchez Trace was the oldest land route of significance in the Trans-Appalachian South.  Between 1785 and 1825, it was also the most heavily traveled road in the part of the South that lay west of the Appalachians.  Several other names were applied to the Trace at various times:  Government Road, Robinson Road, Nashville – Natchez Road.

The Natchez Trace began as an Indian trail (as did spo many American roads) of the Chickasaws and Choctaws.  White traders began to use the trail as they entered the area, and as boat traffic developed in the Cumberland – Ohio – Mississippi system, boatmen began to use the Trace for their return journey overland to Nashville, having gone downriver to New Orleans or Natchez.  Many of these travelers returned on foot, for horses were expensive:  one could cost a month’s pay for a river man.  In 1801, the federal government opened a mail route between Nashville and Natchez; a treaty was effected with the Chickasaws to keep them from molesting travelers on the Trace, and to provide ferries at river crossings.  Various improvements and protective arrangements sprang from these beginnings, and the Natchez Trace soon became the main overland thoroughfare between the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee Valleys on the north, and Natchez and New Orleans in the south.

Despite the importance of the Natchez Trace in the commerce of frontier Tennessee and nearby states, the route was not easy and it remained dangerous in places through its history.  Robbers were so troublesome on the Trace that at times, federal troops were dispatched there for the protection of travelers.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, river-boating increased, as for a while, so did Natchez Trace traffic; but the advent of the steamboat on the Mississippi River about 1820, with its capability of upstream navigation, reduced the use of the Trace, and it ceased to exist within a few years.  IN 1937, a federal parkway was begun along the route of the Old Natchez Trace, and part of this historic road has been open to automobile traffic for most of the subsequent years.

One of the interesting but sad stories of the heyday of the Natchez Trace involves the famed American explorer, Merriweather Lewis.  This famous man gained lasting renown as one of the leaders of the Lewis-Clark Expedition to the Northwest, following the Louisiana Purchase.  A U.S. Army captain who was once President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary, Lewis was killed on the Trace in Tennessee, near present-day Hohenwald.  The county in which he was killed now bears his name.

The Trail of Tears and Nancy Ward

Text and Artwork from Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories

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One of the most unhappy stories in Tennessee history involves the removal of Cherokees from East Tennessee by the U.S. Army in 1838, to areas west of the Mississippi River – Oklahoma in particular.  The questionable Treaty of New Echota of 1835 was the legal basis for white claims to Cherokee land, and for the eventual removals of the Indians three years later.

Despite spirited legal opposition by Chief John Ross, other Cherokees, and by some white sympathizers, most Cherokees who remained in Tennessee at that time were uprooted and required to leave under military escort.  [It is an interesting sidelight in the state’s history that only one Tennessee Congressman voted against a bill passed by the U.S. Congress for removal of the Cherokees.  That man was the famous hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, who was promptly defeated in the next election.]  John Ross was among those who took the sad route westward, which came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Some Indian were able to escape the dislocation suffered by the others, by hiding in remote places in the Great Smoky Mountains.  These remaining ones were later aided by a white North Carolinian, one Will Thomas, in obtaining an Indian reservation – the Qualla Reservation – at Cherokee, North Carolina.  Many Cherokees still live there today. 

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Nancy Ward:  Tennessee’s Pocahontas

Nancy Ward is one of the most intriguing women in Tennessee and United States history.  Born about 1740 at Chota (also spelled Chote), the Cherokee capital on the Little Tennessee River, Nancy became the principal female of the Cherokee nation, and an important figure in the story of the Volunteer State.

Nancy was the sister of a Cherokee chief and cousin of Dragging Canoe, a fierce and dangerous war chief.  First married to an Indian, Nancy fought as a warrior in a battle against Creek Indians in northern Georgia, after her husband was slain.  She was given the title of “Beloved Woman” in appreciation of her exploits following the battle.  This title made her the most powerful woman of the Cherokees, with a voice in the nation’s councils, and the ability to pardon prisoners of war.  She was given a swan’s wing as her badge of authority.

In a remarkable incident that is reminiscent of Pocahontas’ rescue of John Smith, Nancy saved Brian Ward, and English trader, from death at the hands of the Cherokees about the time of the fall of Fort Loudoun (1760).  She was friendly to white settlers and saved many through intercession when they were captured.  Those she saved included Lydia Bean, wife of the first permanent white settler at Watauga.  Desiring peace, Nancy did all she could to avoid bloody conflicts between the Indians and whites.  Her late years were spent operating an inn on the Ocoee River near Benton, Tennessee, where the Federal Road crossed the stream.  She died there in 1822.  Her grave is nearby.


The Cherokee in Tennessee

From Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories

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The Cherokees were the “mountaineers” of the southeastern Indian tribes.  Their nation extended from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina northward through the eastern part of Tennessee, western North Carolina, and Virginia as far northward as West Virginia.  The boundaries of their nation were vague, and this was one difficulty in the Cherokees’ attempts to oppose white settlement in their territory.

This tribe’s subsistence involved hunting, gathering, and farming.  The dietary mainstay was corn.  Cherokees lived mainly in small huts and tents.  In a manner that is still difficult for many white people to understand, the Indians lived with a reverence for nature and had established a more viable, conservationist-type of existence, perhaps, than the civilization which replaced them.

The name “Cherokee”, interestingly, is not a word in the Cherokee language.  The English explorers of the early 1700’s began the use of the word, it seems.  The name the Cherokees gave themselves was Ani-Yunwiya, that is, “principal people.”  This they believed themselves to be, as the largest tribe in the southeastern portion of this country.  The Cherokees had four major groups of towns, of which one – the Upper of Overhill (i.e. located across the mountains from the Caroline settlements) towns – were in Tennessee exclusively.  These towns were primarily along the Little Tennessee, Tellico, and Hiwassee Rivers.  There seems to be some confusion about the ”Lower” Towns, however – some sources indicating South Carolina – Georgia location, others signifying Tennessee – Georgia – Alabama – South Carolina positions.  The map at the right indicates the Lower Towns in the arrangement portrayed in Alderman’s and Andrews’ The Overmountain Men.  The towns shown were attacked by white militiamen in 1794, in the “Nickajack Expedition” following a series of Indian troubles.   The result was a considerable reduction in Cherokee hostilities.

Conflicts between whites and Cherokees had begun almost as soon as Europeans had pushed across the mountains from the east.  The Indians naturally opposed white claims to lands that had been used as Cherokee hunting grounds for generations, and the troubles were intensified by Spanish, French and last British agitation of the Indians – Creeks and Shawnees as well as Cherokees.

The siege of Fort Loudoun in 1760 was the first large-scale engagement in Tennessee between Cherokees and whites.  This fort was situated on the Little Tennessee River.  It was built by the British in their effort to gain control of the area – not to offer protection to settlers, for at that time, no serious settlement by whites had begun.  In fact, William Bean is usually stated to be the first permanent white settler of Tennessee in 1769.  A British garrison of Fort Loudoun was starved into submission by a Cherokee siege in 1760, and the troops were attacked, with many killed, as they were marched away from the fort following surrender.  This seems to have been a retaliatory act by the Cherokees for an earlier execution of Cherokee hostages by British soldiers.  In any case, the result was the so-called “Cherokee War,” in which a number of Cherokee towns were destroyed and about half of all their warriors were lost.

Bloody conflicts between white settlers and the Cherokees continued in Tennessee until the end of the eighteenth century.  General John Sevier, who became the first governor of Tennessee, gained fame in his contests against the Cherokees; in some 35 battles, Sevier never lost.  He was a hero in the King’s Mountain battle against the British.

The Coves of East Tennessee and Gold in Coker Creek

We’ve talked here before about Gold in Tennessee - but Mr. Lane’s work revealed a new location for me - there’s just no telin’ what’s in our moutains!


The northwest side of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee displays the features known as coves.  These are basins on that side of the mountains that have resulted from special geological circumstances.  Here, old faults (cracks in the earth’s crust, with movement along the cracks) onto rocks of younger age.  The total overthrust movement was as much as 35 miles.  Erosion has since broken through the older, overlying crystalline rocks to expose the younger limestones beneath.  The limestone has, upon being weathered, produced good soil that has made possible a productive agriculture in the coves.  Geologist call this type of cove a “fenster”, the German word for window; the holes eroded in the overlying rocks provide just that – a “window” through which the lower rocks may be viewed.

The best known of the coves of the Smokies is Cades Cove, in Blount County, a spot of rare beauty.  Cades Cove is accessible to tourists.  It is of special interest not only for its beauty, but also because of the preservation there of farmsteads as they appeared in bygone days, together with the traditional tools and agricultural practices.  Other coves of the Smokies include Wear, Bumpass, and Tuckaleechee.

At Coker Creek in the Blue Ridge of southeastern Tennessee, gold mining was once significant enough that there was a “rush” of sorts to the area in the first half of the nineteenth century  Discovery of gold occurred there in 1827; commercial mining only lasted four years, however, from 1856 – 1860

The gold mined from Coker Creek was found largely by the “placer” or washing method.  The amount of gold mined here was not large, total production amounting to only a quarter-million dollars or so – and the relatively “lean” ore never brought riches to the miners, as did the discoveries in California and some other area.  Still, this episode makes an interesting “byway” in the path of Tennessee history.  Gold excites the imagination, and even today, amateur prospectors may be found from time to time, panning in Coker Creek for the thrill of “color” – the brilliant golden flash that quickens the pulse, no matter how small the amount and value of the flakes.  Coker Creek is located in the southeastern end of Monroe County.  It is north of Ironsburg and southeast of Tellico Plains.