Tennessee Mountain Stories

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.

Part 2 of Those Wild Tennessee Place Names

From Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories, this article is lengthy so I’m only sharing excerpts and have broken those into 2 weeks.

The tools of everyday life are honored in Tennessee place names.  The Sawteeth, ridges in The Great Smokies of Sevier County, are an example.  Tilthammer Shoals in Sullivan County recalls the heavy drop hammers of the many forges that once were numerous on the landscape.  …Whetstone Mountain in Morgan County and Grindstone Hollow in Coffee County recall the times, not long past, when virtually everyone sharpened his own knives and other tools.  Slabtown Branch in Johnson County brings to mind sawmill villages that once were found in the state, as does Sawblade Road in Cheatham County.

Sometimes, Tennessee place names commemorate hard and unpleasant times.  Difficult and Defeated in Smith County certainly indicate as much, as does Troublesome Hollow in Sullivan County.  So, too do these:  Poorhouse Branch in Robertson County; Dismal Gap in Anderson County; Penitentiary Gulf in Bledsoe County; …Calfkiller River in Putnam and White Counties; …No Pone Ridge in Meigs County and Burnt Pone Creek in Campbell County; Starve Pond in Lake County.

Even names of cemeteries in Tennessee are at times quite amusing, whether accidentally or by intent.  An example is Faint Hope Cemetery in Hardin County; others are Ruffian Cemetery in Hardeman County; Coward Cemetery (and who is not, about being “planted there!), in Hawkins County; Scratchunder Cemetery in Haywood County, Hotwater Cemetery in Hamilton County; Poor House Cemetery in Warren County…Moulden (Mouldin’?) Cemetery in Knox County;…Humble Cemetery in Bledsoe County; …Not to mention Freewill (whose?!!) Cemetery in Lake County!

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 A sense of mystery and superstition ore observable in some place names:  Booger Hill and Booger Swamp in Jackson and Putnam Counties, respectively; Hoodoo Community in Coffee County; The Deadening and Black Drowning Creek in Cumberland County; Dark Hollow and Haunted Hollow in Johnson County; Scary Hollow and Hall Deadening Hollow in Perry County.  A number of places’ names indicate things devilish – old Beelzebub himself, or his fiery place of destruction:  Devil’s Backbone (Marshall County and Cocke County); Devil’s Kitchen Branch and Devil’s Elbow in Greene County (the latter also in Smith County); Devil’s Nose Mountain (Hawkins County); Hell Hole (White County); Devil’s Looking Glass (Unicoi County)…

The pleased palate is remembered in the names of numerous locations:  Fattynbread Branch and Pumpkin Avenue (Dickson County); Hushpuppy Lake (Dyer County): Yum Yum Community (Fayette County); Sorghum Patch Hollow and Sugartime Springs (Franklin County); Slay Bacon Area (Sevier County – we thought all bacon had been “pre-slain”!); Onionbed Ridge (Sullivan County); …Poke Patch Creek (Cumberland County); Buttermilk Road and Cabbage Island (Knox County); …Okra Community and Tater Hill (Pickett County); and Lickskillet Branch (Hawkins County).

In which of these Tennessee streams would you prefer to swim:  Ebbing and Flowing Spring or Washboard Creek (Hawkins County); Greasy Creek (Henderson County): Scarce Grease Branch (Grundy County), or Big Fiery Gizzard Creek (Grundy County)?  Or perhaps Briarpatch Lake (Henry County)?

Among the more memorable names in the states are several given in honor of old ladies in families, or other relatives.  These include Granny White Pike (Davidson County); Aunt Sal Hollow (Jackson County); Grandma Hollow and Grandaddy Hill (Campbell County); Mammy’s Creek and Daddy’s Creek (Cumberland County); Aunt Lude Ridge (Lewis County); Granny Branch (Benton County); Aunt Jane Hollow (Hamblen County); Daddy Ridge (Overton County); and Granny Scot Hollow (Wayne County).

…A considerable number of Tennessee names may be attributed simply to humorous imaginations.  Spankem Branch (Moore County); Bona Factus Branch (Morgan County): Screamer Community and She Boss Church (Maury  County); Black Ankle Creek (Meigs County); Jackass Hollow (Montgomery County); Pulltight Hollow (Hamilton County); Bucksnort Community (Hickman and Gibson Counties); Ugly Hollow (Greene County); Squeeze Up Bluff (Wayne County); Henpeck Lane (Williamson County)_; Wild Bill Road (Wilson County); Graball Community and Doodle Hollow (Sumner County); Random Shot Landing (Tipton County);l…Wallop Hollow (Union County); Fuss Hollow and Bugtussle Hollow (Lincoln County); Scratch Ankle Hollow (Marion County); …Big He Creek (Sequatchie County); Steep Gut Hollow (Claiborne Country); …Shakerag Hollow, Falling Over Branch, and Pinchgut Hollow (Jackson County); Rotten Fork School (Fentress County); How Come You Creek (Cumberland County).  And yes, folks, there really is a Grinders Switch in Hickman County, as Minnie Pearl has so often indicated  and – a Hootin Hollow (“Holler”) in Bradley County!

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Those Wild Tennessee Place Names!

Part 1

From Harry Lane’s Tennessee Memories, this article is lengthy so I’m sharing excerpts this week and next.

All of the artwork in Tennessee Memories are original creations by Mr. Harry Lane.

All of the artwork in Tennessee Memories are original creations by Mr. Harry Lane.

A careful look through a volume of place-names that actually appear on Tennessee maps, reals a large number of names that are fascinating, for various reason:  some are very beautiful, many are hilarious, others are puzzling, still others reveal something significant in the history of the state.  Many of the place names discussed in this article produce this in common – a sense of wonder in the author as to how they came to be used.  Probably most of these, and other place names, “sort of happen.”  Someone with a sense of humor refers to a place by an amusing name, and it catches on.  Someone else with an appreciation of history, or of things esthetic, etc., might give a very different sort of name to the same place.  In this more or less accidental manner, as in so much of human experience, place names come to be used for generation.  Now and again one is changed, and it is perhaps mysterious that this doesn’t happen more often – especially when a name is unattractive or even derogatory to those who live there.  People are creatures of habit, and possibly have a better wit than might be thought s- even to the point of finding “far out” names for their own dwelling places…

If your taste runs primarily to things serious and beautiful, esthetically unimpeachable perhaps, then there is much to please you in Tennessee place names.  To wit: Bluebird Ridge in Anderson County, Bluewind Community in Cannon County,…Birdsong Greek in Benton County,… Cerulean Knob in Blount County, Periwinkle Spring and Lavender Knob in Cumberland  County.  Other names of beauty include:  …Lovely Spring Branch (Fentress County);...

Still other names that indicate pleasant memories are: Summer Shade Church and Happy Hollow (Overton County); …View Tree Knob (Scott County); Painters Knob  and Rainbow Falls (Sevier County); Feather Ridge (Sullivan County); Lindamood Hollow (Union County); Honeysuckle Lane (Trousdale County).

For those who treasure the excitement and romance of adventures here and in faraway places (and who does not?), these Tennessee place names should appeal: Lebanon; Sparta; Athens; Egypt; Carthage; Paris; Bordeaux; Moscow; Belfast; Bogata; Monterey; Cuba; India. The historical side of an area’s settlement is nearly always suggested by its name, of course, in one way or another, but in some names the “winds of history” blow more strongly than in others.  The history suggested may be of local interest only, but the fascination such names may hold is not diminished by this condition – for instance, Bark Legging Lead is a spot in Polk County that implies much about the days of the Cherokees and white frontiersmen in the county.

Sevier County has several places whose names suggest the days of Indian dangers to white settlers. (The reverse danger does not enter the place name situation, since the whites were the victors!)  Fighting Creek Gap, Fort Harry (point), Hostility Branch, and Tomahawk Prong are the best of these.

There are many place names of strictly Indian origin, so it is evident that the white settlers did not hold their Native American adversaries in such contempt as to remove their every stamp of identity from the land.  (In this regard, it is also worth noting that a great many American whites claim with pride to have Indian ancestors.)  Among the many Indian names that dot the Tennessee landscape is the name of the state itself, and others like these:  Chattanooga, Ocoee; Hatchie; Tuckaleechee; Sequatchie; Hiawassee; Etowah; Sewanee; Watauga; Tellico; Chilhowee; Chickamauga; Nolichucky; Mississippi; Loosahatchie; Chickasaw; and Cherokee.

Burnt House Spring in Scott County may recall a time when the Indian-white conflict troubled the area, but in any case, the event of the burning must have been prominent in people’s minds to result in the place name.  ON a lighter note, Ball Play community in Polk County records in its name a pastime that undoubtedly brought pleasure to many of the area’s inhabitants – and may do so yet.

…These also indicate our agricultural background…Wheatbread Hollow (Hawkins County); Bellcow Mountain (Greene County); …and Brown Mare Branch (Sevier County)