the Initial Tennessee Policy System to 1806

During the decade from 1796 to 1806 the Tennessee frontier policy system, like Kentucky’s described earlier, pursued limited ambitions other than “setting up shop” and responding to often personalistic concerns of its legislature. Since Tennessee was for all practical terms a one-party (D-R) dominated policy system, its politics was characterized by factional rivalries and personalistic-charisma saturated politics, not policy. In the first year (1796-7), with Blount in Philadelphia and Sevier elected to his first term as governor not much changed from the Southwestern District. The State understandably was up to it neck in the start-up housekeeping, personnel appointments, and institutional procedures and defining basic relationships. A great deal of Tennessee’s day-to-day policy needs were handled, all-too-often informally, by county-level officials and personalities.There was little disruption from its past governance.

For Tennessee, the distinction that separated it from Kentucky was sub-state regionalism–and the role the state policy system played in “managing” the rivalry between Middle and eastern Tennessee. Perhaps the most visible symptom of regional competition was the yo-yo-like revolving designation of its state capital. The capitol shifted from Knoxville (eastern Tennessee), to Nashville, several time in the first decades. Regional competition rose out of the differential settlement of the two regions which produced powerful and distinctive political cultures and informal regional policy systems. Each region had already begun is distinctive path to modernity by the time statehood commenced. The second difference was that Tennessee settlement remained more precarious, if not primitive, due to its very recent treaty with Native Americans that avoided all-out war in favor of “institutionalizing” a moderated but still bitter cultural/residential conflict. to that bitter conflict. Of the two states, Tennessee was decidedly the more frontier.

What Tennessee did inherit that further distinguished it from Kentucky was William Blount and his political organization. That however proved to be short-lived. Two years after statehood, Blount was back in Tennessee, expelled from the U.S. Senate, and instead elected as Speaker of the Tennessee Senate. Unexpectedly, he died a short two years later (1800), leaving a huge vacuum within his political organization. It is problematic to suggest that the “mixed bag” that was William Blount did provide a measure of coherence and policy direction to the overall state policy system, but his absence allowed the sub-regional rivalries to fester and develop, and the political weakness of Blount’s successor, the much-beloved John Sevier, deprived Tennessee of  economic and political policy leadership. Sevier was the perfect expression of frontier political leadership, and his lack of organizational and policy skills, plus his reliance on his political home base eastern Kentucky, left a real vacuum in the rapidly growing, exploding is a better word, Middle Tennessee. That vacuum would be filled by none other than Andrew Jackson.

Accordingly, our principal task in this module is to describe the rise of Middle Tennessee and the evolution of Tennessee’s initial years as a frontier policy system.


End of an Era: the Blount Conspiracy and Blount’s Death

In 1796 the state Blount had created, despite its exploding white in-migration stood in stark contrast to the reality that Cherokee and Chickasaw by treaty legally owned more than two-thirds to three-quarters of the state. Settlement-Conquest was far from over, and without doubt Indian relations and the friction generated by increased white migration was the number one issue on Tennessee’s policy agenda. Moreover, unlike the Northwest Territory, the federal government owned few acres, and its policy preferences until Jefferson was President tilted in favor of  Native Americans. The Trade Post and its management of Indian commerce was a sore point in federal-state relationships–and if anything  further increased the level of partisanship within the state–practically cementing the state as one of the most Democrat-Republican states in the nation. The chronically restless, and hard-pressed Indians who lived, hunted, and traveled through the state caused and attracted violence, lawless in hinterland isolated homesteads and small centers.

The non-urban bias of Scots-Irish, and other hardscrabble hinterland farmers, translated into urban centers with shockingly low population. In 1800, for instance, Nashville, Tennessee’s largest “city”, had only about 300 residents. If it weren’t for the state legislative delegation and travelers on the way to someplace else, I’m not sure if Knoxville had a population. Tennessee was still the wild and woolly west–but in 1790 that made 1880’s Tombstone AZ look like civilization personified. The reality within Tennessee is that the land rush continued, and with it constant violent tension with Native Americans resulted. With the state government consumed with housekeeping and simply getting itself organized, there was little coherent institutionalization or formal state-building going on. Whatever else, Tennessee did not need another outburst of the old “Spanish Conspiracy” political diversion that once again reappeared in the First Southwest–in mid-1797 foreign affairs, the Spanish-English and the Napoleonic world wars reentered into domestic Tennessee affairs.

Blount, in the U.S. Senate remained a “moderate” D-R  lent support for Federalist John Jay’s unpopular Treaty with the English. Likely Blount believed the English were better positioned and more salient to ensuring Tennessee’s economic growth and access to the Mississippi River. But in 1795 Federalist Charles Pinckney signed a treaty with Spain that had immense repercussions for both Kentucky and Tennessee. The Pinckney Treaty supposedly opened up access to the Mississippi River port city of Natchez (today in the state of Mississippi) controlled by Spain and from Natchez  access to New Orleans. Britain and Spain, then on opposing sides of the Napoleonic war, quarreled for the next several years (1796-1797 )over who in fact controlled the Mississippi River. The United States (and Tennessee) got caught in the middle.

Britain threatened to take over New Orleans, and use Native Americans to control the Mississippi River. That did not materialize, but for a period of time it seemed a serious possibility. A corresponding fear was that to counter the English threat, France might compel Spain to shut down the River. Either way, potential American commerce, Tennessee and Kentucky commerce, were going to suffer. Given that future agricultural-based economic growth was totally tied to access to the Mississippi, both states thought themselves as hostage to not only the European warring nations, but to their own not entirely sympathetic Federalist national government. The Adams’s Federalist administration was, on the whole, more sympathetic to British control than French/Spanish, but conversely feared the British would take advantage and seize Florida as well as New Orleans. It dithered and tried to negotiate a solution–residents of the First Southwest however, favored more direct action–particularly in response to threatened Indian attacks. Jefferson’s D-R tribe, closer to  France, and to the Mississippi River, than the Bostonian Adams took the opposite opinion. Throughout the entire Adams administration foreign policy, directly and indirectly saturated national politics, and by extension, local through Federalist-D-R struggle for supremacy. In this hopeless morass, the usually politically astute Senator Blount got himself into an incredible mess.

The English position went against the Tennessee grain. As Revolutionary War Patriots they were sympathetic to France and her allies, and still distrusted if not hated, George III. Anti-British and prone to handling the Spanish and Native Americans on their own, Tennesseans were also well-aware Federalists were of two minds on whether further movement into the western interior was detrimental to the political and economic path of northern states. The political atmosphere was treacherous and paranoid, and  Blount, forever stupidly opportunistic in pursuing his land schemes, made initiatives and overtures to the British, which were duly leaked and became public. Blount thought the English were preferable–probably thinking trade with the English would be more expansive and profitable–so he made written overtures to them. In fairness and hindsight his overtures were not conspiratorial, but like his previous intrusions regarding Spain, probably reflected his disturbing tendency to turn over every stone in his desire for personal profit. When it was discovered (July 1797), President Adams reacted negatively to Blount’s meddling in foreign policy, and the D-R’s thought Blount’s actions verged of treason. With no allies in sight, Blount technically “resigned”, not “impeached”, but was later formally “expelled”.

So in late 1797, when Blount returned to Tennessee in disgrace, he was quickly elected to the state Senate in 1798. The Senate immediately elected him its Speaker. Talk about a survivor!. With his machine still intact, Blount ran the Tennessee shop from Knoxville, not Philadelphia. But not for long.

At a young fifty years of age, William Blount suddenly died in 1800. The organization he had led, the coalition of such incredible diversity and potential autonomy, broke apart with his death.The “promising” foundation of Tennessee’s first policy system abruptly crumbled as eastern Tennessee-based Governor Sevier assumed state leadership. The rapidly growing Middle Tennessee, Blount’s former stronghold, however, had other ideas. Smoldering, then outright clashes, duels, fights, insults, twitter tweets, and the like ruled for the next nine years. When in 1809 it settled down, Willie Blount, William’s half-brother was governor, Sevier, termed out as governor, was a U.S. Congressman, and the Blount machine had been taken over by Andrew Jackson. The rest is history, which we shall deal with in other modules in later chapters. Our next task is to describe a state policy system as led by Governor John Sevier–considered today as Tennessee’s founding father.

Governor John Sevier

Born in 1745 VA, his French grandfather, probably a Huguenot, fled to England. Blount’s father, Valentine, immigrated from London in 1740 and wound up in western VA. Sevier, a military hero at the Battle of Kings Mountain, an original Watauga Compact settler and leader, a multi-decade Indian fighter, the only elected governor of the state of Franklin, and a major-general in Blount’s SW Territory, served six terms as governor (two sets of three terms as specified by the state constitution). Given Blount’s rather two-edged career, history textbooks afford Sevier the title of Tennessee’s founding father,  After 1809, termed out, Sevier in 1811-till his death in 1815 served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sevier has been a regular in our Tennessee history thus far was more than just associated with the Blount organization, he was a member of it–yet given his charisma and Indian-fighting independent of it. One cannot assume he ever “took orders” from Blount. Theirs was an alliance of mutual convenience–and mutual profit–but it necessarily included a considerable level of mutual respect. Sevier was an active participant in Blount’s constant land schemes-especially in the Georgia Muscle Shoals venture– and I confess I see little difference on land speculation between the two.

Unlike Blount, Sevier was a true second generation American frontiersman in its golden age. Growth was his agenda–and that meant dealing with Indians. More than anything it was his consistent leadership in the resisting Indian attacks. He was foremost in advocating a Roman-style preventive-defense, or, offence is the best defense, in his Indian resistance policy. For him the best way to stop Cherokee raiding on white settlements was to burn down their towns (kill the inhabitants) and destroy corn fields/livestock. It is hard to separate Sevier’s Native American resistance from his land speculation. In regards to slavery, Sevier was a consistent defender of fugitive slave laws, and his private letters contained passages which by any standards were racist–more to the point Sevier owned household and plantation slaves [1]. 

Sevier’s land speculation in his later years was more land manipulation than speculation. While governor he was deeply involved in two large-scale land frauds–one of which was semi-exposed by his arch-rival Jackson and the cause of their famous quasi-duel. To be fair, Jackson himself was deeply and consistently involved in land speculation–as a politician, businessman, and even general. If the reader is one of those prone to America’s innate evilness of “land grabbing”, then in these modules there is much fuel for your fire.This is what privately led frontier economic development looked like in a western trans-Appalachian settlement [2]. As we relate aspects of his period as governor below, the reader might keep in mind a summary of Sevier by one of Tennessee’s most noted historians, Thomas Perkins Abernethy

[Sevier] was a frontier Indian fighter rather than a politician, and he never came to understand the methods by which a democracy is governed. For all its enthusiasm, his following was a mere personal clique, with no coherence and no directive leadership. There was no organization, there were no policies, and there was no real politics. With the other group [Blount’s, Middle Tennessee organization] the situation was exactly the reverse [3]

For him, as always, land speculation, which necessarily involved Native Americans and settlement, was his primary ED agenda–and darn close to being the only item on it. It was hard not to link the three because the tribes (Cherokee and Chickasaw) legally owned “large chunks of eastern and middle Tennessee and virtually the entire western third of the state–in toto Native Americans in 1796 “owned” three fourths of Tennessee’s land area [4]. If this were not sufficient, white settlement in the post-statehood period significantly increased, and since boundaries were not only flexible, but largely unmarked if not precisely unknown, was the cause of much of Tennessee’s violence, crime, and dysfunction. Punishment of offenders, either white or Native Americans, was more than “a constant source of friction”; it was pouring salt on an open wound. Cynically, a map of Tennessee would suggest white settlements were “islands” in a sea of tribal territory–access to which necessarily meant intruding into Indian land. Although the Cherokee War as then over, and nobody wanted its return, this was not a sustainable foundation to conduct economic development or to grow the economy.

To remedy this impossible situation, Governor Sevier initiated a formal survey in 1797, and that only made things worse. Recognizing early on that the survey lines favored Native American tribes, Sevier aggressively defended white settler interests, taking the case to the Department of War in Philadelphia where Native Americans were viewed more favorably. In one correspondence we can see Sevier trying to walk the politically correct line when the wrote to the Secretary of War that “Tennessee would observe all federal treaties with the Indians ‘so far as they are not pernicious, odious, not iniquitous‘” .When the Legislature attempted to tax the Indian lands (to force either its sale or foreclosure due to nonpayment), Sevier had to back-peddle and stop the legislation so as not to activate the federal government on the matter.[5]. The constant meddling of Spain and Britain only complicated this matter horribly, but infused it with Tennessee resident’s patriotism.

Amazingly, Sevier was able to work out a compromise with Federalist President Adams–and the Indians A federally negotiated treaty, the Tellico Blockhouse Treaty of 1798 [6] was signed just in time to create sufficient wiggle room for Tennessee’s post-statehood growth. In the four years between Tennessee’s statehood to 1800, the state’s population increased from about 80,000 to over 105,000–including the arrival of nearly 13,600 slaves into Middle Tennessee. It would appear, during Sevier’s tenure, that Middle Tennessee plantations were flourishing. With about 15% of the state’s population in 1796, by 1800, it had more than doubled to 33%. [7].


Jackson Takes Over Blount’s Middle Tennessee Machine

When Blount died, Sevier distanced himself from the Blount administration and “squared off” against a loyal adherent and beneficiary, thirty-three year old Middle Tennessee’s state attorney general, former Congressman and Senator, Andrew Jackson. Jackson had taken the Attorney General appointment after a brief stint in 1797 as U.S. Senator. Jackson.a rabid Jeffersonian D-R, made several unpopular inflammatory statements disrespecting George Washington–and was a hostile and aggressive opponent to President John Adams. Likely confronting financial problems, Jackson resigned and returned to his plantation and land speculation in Nashville. The rivalry started in 1796 when Sevier rejected Jackson’s request to be appointed major-general (commander-in-chief) of Tennessee’s militia in favor of a better qualified, but close friend of the governor. The two worked it out and coexisted until Blount’s 1800 death. In 1801, however, a critical wedge between the two sprang up. A scandal developed from a North Carolina Attorney General’s investigation of old land grab transactions/claims/warrants that implicated Sevier and a goodly number of well-known  speculators, including a Jackson friend, and Blount himself. Sevier blocked North Carolina’s transmission of the documents to preclude their investigation in Tennessee. Jackson, a Justice on the state Supreme Court, acquired copies–which he kept secret. But not for long.

The matter exploded in a series of events after Sevier, termed out and replaced as Governor by Jackson’s close friend and ally Archibald Roane. Sevier, looking for a job, wanted Roane to appoint him major general of the Tennessee militia. Guess who also wanted it (Jackson)? Guess who got it: Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson was now General Jackson (this is his real start as a military leader). Guess who was really, really mad (Sevier)? When Roane ran a second time for Governor in 1803, Sevier ran also. At that point, somehow the North Carolina documents were published and became generally known. A major scandal and press frenzy followed with public attacks and private statements, often in bars and taverns. It never dented Sevier’s popularity so he was easily reelected to a third term as Governor [8].

A week after his inauguration, Sevier ran into Jackson on a Knoxville street. A general discussion on the matter followed; a discussion during which Sevier proclaimed Jackson’s “service” to the state of Tennessee was “undistinguished”, excepting Jackson’s “taking a trip to Natchez with another man’s wife” (Jackson’s wife Rachael). Each drew their pistols, fired shots scattering the crowd–and then set up a formal duel. Sevier arrived late at the duel, and a returning Jackson encountered him on the road, drew his guns and demanded a duel on the spot. Convinced to put the guns down, Jackson then threatened Sevier with “caning”–beating him with his walking stick (which he later did to a Congressman in the federal Capitol building). Sevier drew his sword, scaring away his horse which carried his two guns. Jackson redrew his guns. Sevier hid behind a tree. Sevier’s son drew his gun on Jackson. Somehow the matter was resolved without further confrontation [9].

As one might suspect, this was a chasm that never healed–a chasm whose implications further hardened Tennessee sub-regional rivalries and conflicts. Sevier mostly unconcerned about maintaining Blount’s organization, let Jackson fill the vacuum in Middle Tennessee.  That several additional duels and confrontations, including a major one with Senator Thomas Hart Benton, were to follow. This is not an isolated event. In any event, the episode has been described in detail as it provides in no uncertain terms a description of the rough and tumble character of Tennessee state policy-making in Tennessee’s version of frontier policy system as late as 1805. In any case, Sevier and Jackson remained bitter enemies until Sevier died in 1815.

We will return to Jackson in future modules and pick up his story–clue, as a land speculator he was among the three founding fathers of 1819 Memphis Tennessee.


Tennessee, Kentucky Trans-Appalachian Frontier Economic Development

Did anything of value to our history of economic development rise out of Tennessee’s  pre-1800 post-statehood frontier policy system?

Land, in all its aspects legal and fertile was the basic unit of the economy. Land speculation and occupational sectors associated with land became the most wealth creation/accumulation drivers of the local economy. But there is a more comprehensive economic base developing in these frontier trans-Appalachian economies, and that is what we want to focus upon in the remainder of this module.


The obvious starting point had to center on agriculture–the state’s economic base was overwhelmingly agriculture. In the decade before and after 1800 its Tennessee agriculture rested on the household farm; plantations were just starting out, but did not gather momentum until after 1800. Tennessee’s subsistence/hardscrabble household lived and worked in an isolated hinterland  local economy. Producing for the household and for barter in that local economy, what export to Philadelphia there was, was annual and amounted to an opportunity to acquire paper species. Corn and livestock (hogs, horses and cattle) were the chief commodities and the latter were exported to the east by the 1790’s. In anticipation of future Texas cattle drives, Tennesseans drove their hogs and cattle to eastern markets in Baltimore and Philadelphia. There was one known “turkey drive” from Clarksville than collectively in an once in a lifetime transported its fowl to New Orleans. It was a foul affair at best and not repeated [10].

Both Kentucky and Tennessee developed an early fascination with horses, horse raising and trading, and horse races.  Horses became a sign of social status. By the 1830’s, with the rise of the Cotton Belt, cotton was also exported–chiefly from Memphis. Middle Tennessee, had cotton plantations (John Donelson planted cotton in Nashville in 1780) but in Middle Tennessee, its economy diversified, tobacco was the dominant plantation crop. Tobacco was exported in the 1790’s and its export made Clarksville an Ohio River port city, although Nashville remained the regions economic and political hub. Rivers, the Ohio, Kentucky and Mississippi, quickly became a major avenue for goods transport–with the Mike Fink pole-driven keelboat mode of transportation the chief mode of river transportation–until the steamboat took over during the 1820’s and 1830’s.

East Tennessee on the other hand, by nature of its soil and typography, never was suitable for a serious plantation cluster; its yeoman farmers raised corn, wheat, oats, barley, flax, hemp, rye, vegetables and the like. Corn was the most common and the easiest grown. Corn also was used to fuel distilleries and feed the livestock. Servicing and living off its hinterland farms, were merchants and trading goods stores, usually with a bar, and a post office drop box. these consumer service sectors became the core of a small town/settlement. Little appreciated today, these merchants relying on barter, account-lending, hard dollar exchanges, transformed their retail-based companies into frontier banking institutions. Tennessee–and Kentucky–incorporated their very first formal bank only in 1806-7–and eastern style banking took off much later. In Tennessee there was no second bank until 1811 [11]. Blacksmiths/gun makers/repair were the next most common service sector. From this basic overview, it is easy to surmise that economics, and the distinctive economic base of Tennessee’s regions, reinforced its political bias to regional development and competition. As Middle Tennessee grew and developed its economic base, it also developed along these lines.

Let’s move on to manufacturing–which as the reader instinctively knows in 1790’s trans-Appalachia was  “a babe in the woods”.

Tennessee included an exemption from taxes in its 1796 constitution. Why? That does not sound agricultural, nor does it correspond with many a perception that manufacturing was discouraged in the Jeffersonian era South –hating Hamiltonian industrial D-R capitalism as they did. Kentucky,s constitution was silent on manufacturing, but in its case the dog that didn’t bark is insightful.  Kentucky, especially. began to develop a cluster, an agglomeration it used to be called, without a formal government policy. Its private entrepreneurs just did it.

Most manufacturing histories start out with gristmills and early iron furnaces,  because they are “bridge” manufacturing sectors that were vital to agriculture, but with some creativity could be centers of innovation and expertise which turned out machine tools and the like. One could add barrel-making to this. The making of rope from hemp and flax would be an early and very important product for export. Kentucky, Lexington especially developed an agglomeration around this product. Gristmills ground flour, but cotton mills were also found, and the invention of the cotton gin in 1795 Georgia spread small-scale cotton mills across the South. There were small ironworks in eastern Tennessee during the 1790’s. These early forges and furnaces produced for the local economy–pots, pans, nails, wagon rims, plows, shovels, pitchforks. Towns (like Forge Creek and Pigeon Forge grew around them. John Sevier owned one, as did James Robertson.  On the whole eastern Tennessee attracted more ironworks and manufacturing. Most of this “took off” after 1820, but one can find in these early years, examples of nearly every type of mill or machining facility. Agriculture used manufacturing, and depended on it. When we move North, as we eventually will, the issue with manufacturing was business structure, scale, transportation, and market size–not the complete dearth of manufacturing in one region and the exclusive production in another.

Finally, as one might imagine, an uncommonly robust manufacturing sector was gunpowder and weapon production. Gunpowder was a real concern–without it the Indian tomahawk and bow and arrow was the superior technology. Lead for bullets/shot was also critical–and lead mines were a big deal. Salt was essential as a winter preservative and salt mines were another absolutely needed commodity. Salt works in eastern Tennessee would emerge by the 1830’s. In their absence it was necessary to bring these in from other states and regions–and this was an important driver to establish what would prove a very critical sectors to both Kentucky and Tennessee, traders, wholesalers, and logistics. Their borderland status made their location more valuable and central as they served as brokers in vital goods in high demand, as well as conduit for exports/import.


Distilleries, I think, could easily have been Kentucky and Tennessee’s first cluster. Two bushels of corn produced about five gallons of whisky. Tourist departments aren’t kidding when they advertise their whiskey or bourbon “trails”. Both Kentucky and Tennessee have long carved out niches in whiskey, bourbon, sour mash and the like. The first known trans-Appalachian distillery probably was in 1776 Nelson County (Kentucky), and the first recorded distillery was in 1783 Louisville–established by Evan Williams. James Garrard (the second governor) is known to have flirted with selling the stuff–Baptist though he was. Other early entrepreneurs, Robert Samuels (Maker’s Mark, 1780), Elijah Pepper (Old Crow, 1776), and Jacob Beam who in 1788 put his first casks into storage for sale in 1795 [12]. Tennessee got off to a later start, and its venture into whisky distilleries probably began in Middle Tennessee Robertson County–brought into the area by its Scots-Irish settlers. [13]. Distilleries once started just kept on growing. Apparently long before there was a “craft beer” cluster gazelle, there was a “craft whiskey/bourbon” gazelle.

The 1840 census lists 1426 of them … employing 1341 …production was 1.1 million gallons… Distilling was the state’s most widespread manufacturing industry. Out of seventy-two counties, only five–four in west Tennessee and one in Middle Tennessee–reported no such businesses. Middle Tennessee also had six small breweries which produced 1,835 gallons of beer[14].

One very critical reason I start with whiskey distillation is that as we discovered earlier in our tale on the Pennsylvania Whiskey Rebellion (1794-6) that whiskey was arguably the principal barter and trade currency of the western and trans-Appalachian west. Until 1794 the Northwest and Southwest Territory was exempt from the tax, but once imposed it generated the same outrage as it had earlier in western Pennsylvania and Virginia. Washington and Hamilton fielded an army of 12,000 to crush the rebellion. The uproar generated by Washington/Hamilton 1791 whisky tax proved to be a decisive factor in the rise of of Jefferson’s D-R Tribe–a warning to Federalists, Whigs, Progressives (20th and 21st century varieties) and Prohibitionists do themselves no service when they taxed whiskey or sin. It may well have been the first “third rail” of politics and through the centuries moral reform has triggered the fall of many local and state policy systems. In the 1790’s the refugees from Washington/Hamilton’s army found their way into Kentucky and Tennessee. While whiskey/bourbon distilleries may be a cute story for our history, it is a long-lasting one; there were no state taxes on these growth industries until the 1861 Confederacy. It was easier for these southern states to tax slaves owned by plantations, which they did, than distilleries their entrepreneurs.


Roads and Trails–Frontier developmental infrastructure

A pre-1800 equivalent of space travel was crossing the Appalachians. Talk about off-season, obviously winter and even spring travel was out of the question. Existing transportation technology for such a feat, usually were “feet” , on a horse, an definitely not a wagon. There were no wagon trains this early. Rivers were wet, expensive, often circuitous, time-consuming and no more safer than walking through territory inhabited by hostile, or raiding Indians. Plus you had to contend with Mike Fink-type characters. Having crossed over the mountains, your transportation worries were not over. Secondary mountain ranges, constant “grade issues in foothills still meant feet and horses, portages, river crossings, mud. and hostile Indians. Getting to Middle Tennessee, even from Watauga and eastern Tennessee until 1788 or so, meant going through Boone’s Cumberland Gap, into central Kentucky, then west, and turn south to head down for Nashville. That’s not how the crow would fly it. It could take months to travel it. Many did not survive.

In this module, the reader is sensitized to the realities of frontier transportation. Obviously tens of thousands braved the dangers and discomfiture and arrived at their destination  in what passed for hordes in 1780’s and 1790’s United States. But after a section detailing the state’s formation of an economic base, the reader will wonder how it was possible, given the lack of reasonable access into the interior. With no meaningful urbanization to speak of, Middle Tennessee was essentially wilderness-carved hinterland, and very small settlements/stations. One can easily understand why Native Americans were able to stymie the European onslaught, with relatively few numbers. Hit and run tactics could be devastating, and a farm and field destroyed effectively ended the household’s tenure on the land. The state Constitution’s answer to this transportation crisis was to make access to travel on the Mississippi River an individual right, which presumably the state had some obligation to satisfy. But this did not deal with access from the east into Tennessee’s interior.

So in 1787, the North Carolina legislature authorized a state lottery [see Footnote 1299], which was a common finance tool used instead of state debt issuance. The lottery was intended to enhance transportation access, to construct a “trace” or trail from the Cumberland Valley, in more a less straight line across to Nashville, through the Wilderness, into intermittently hostile Indian lands, anchored by a series of existing stations or forts. The lottery came to naught, and so the legislature authorized a land grant to recruit Tennessee militia for one year’s service in constructing the trail. Three hundred soldiers picked up on the option for 800 acres and Peter Avery, a hunter was hired to manage the project. A ten foot wide, 300 mile path was cut, complete with “blazed” or marked trees was the result: “Avery’s Trace”. Since the Trace was so rugged and steep, wagons were out of the question, and horses were necessary. Thank you state of North Carolina.

Through most of the Southwest District pre-statehood period, caravans were accompanied by militia cavalry. General Sevier was responsible for it and for garrisons at the five fort-stations. The last fort was Nashville. An estimated 102 travelers were killed on the road during one Cherokee War period. Eventually, the Trace was “improved”, by the Southwest Territory selling some public salt licks so that wagons could be used (1795). If you were in a hurry, and had the money to pay for food and stuff at the forts along the way, this was the way to go. Otherwise, you were stuck with the old Cumberland Gap-Kentucky route and hope the Indians were someplace else.

That is the situation Tennessee inherited upon statehood. In 1796, the first year of statehood, about 28,000 paid a toll to use a ferry to cross over onto the Trail. Impressed by the numbers, the Tennessee legislature authorized completion of unfinished segments, and further improvements (fifteen foot wide, level the grade, bridges, and tree stumps removed) to make it usable. It was approved by then Speaker of the Tennessee Senate, William Blount, as a “toll-road” financed and managed by a public-private state-chartered corporation (headed by  one of its surveyors William Walton, and other partners), the Cumberland Turnpike Company, hacked a roughly one hundred mile turnpike known as the Cumberland Turnpike or Walton’s Road. It formally opened in 1801 [15]. Walton’s Road became the most used route into Middle and west Tennessee. It was not, however, maintained, the bane of all infrastructure which continues to our present day, and its success evaporated. In 1801, the Jefferson’s federal government began construction on a road (the Columbian Highway, better known as the Natchez Trace) from Nashville to Natchez Mississippi. That Trace would be completed officially in 1809–the same year as another “passable road” opened up from Nashville south to today’s Chattanooga area. The bottom line is Avery’s Trace was the main drag for Tennessee’s interior until 1809, and it was only after that Nashville was “connected” to the outside world.

Without realizing it, the reader has in the above paragraph a description of how Tennessee confronted its transportation dilemma by using state powers to create a public-private corporation which constructed the Trace and whose debt would be paid off through future tolls paid by travelers. This is a rather typical example of 1790’s state level developmental infrastructure strategy–found throughout the nation, in every state. What the reader might not appreciate, is that despite Tennessee’s rather extreme transportation crisis, the response by the state, nothing after Blount, was lack luster at best; most other states were far more aggressive in road and bridge-building during this period. “Ultimately, it was the responsibility of the State of Tennessee and its citizens to take the initiative for internal improvements so if Tennessee government, either local or state, did not take the lead–nothing was done. Tennessee was all talk and no roads. Between statehood and the late 1830’s the Tennessee General Assembly deliberated about incorporating private turnpike companies, improving the navigability of rivers, building canals, and conducting railroad surveys” but until the 1830’s however, none were approved. So, the burden or task fell on the major cities such as Knoxville and Louisville. DTIS, strategies in Tennessee were primarily local. For a short review of early Tennessee’s DTIS state efforts, see John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers [16].

The reasons that explain “why” DTIS was not high on Tennessee’s state policy agenda will be further discussed in future chapters. Briefly put, the limited D-R led government in western and Deep South states, supported by its predominant Scots-Irish constituency, did not press for roads and other “internal improvements”, and was that the latter were deeply suspicious of the “Federalist” aristocratic-led state-chartered corporation, the only workable public-private investment vehicle of the Early Republic period. Also to the point, the isolation of the western wilderness hinterland was often viewed by many of these hinterland residents as vastly more preferable than losing their freedom, low taxes, personal autonomy, economy and lifestyle–which seemed to them implicitly threatened by opening them to the outside world. I am willing to bet the reader is somewhat surprised–and uncertain about this rather unexpected insight into a critical future topic. As we go forward, the case for distinctive policy outputs by specific ethnic cultures will be extensively developed.



[1] .

[2] Ironically, Blount, like Sevier, made tons of money in land speculation–and lost it in land speculation (as did Daniel Boone and Richard Henderson). Like Robert Morris who who did the same in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and who slept in a Philadelphia debtor’s prison while Sevier was governor, land speculation was what the entrepreneur did to make his fortune. It reads better in history books than lived. Sevier  actually died surveying lands in Alabama which he had just “acquired” from Creeks; his successors reaped the benefits of his legacy. When it suited their purposes, his descendants dug up his Alabama grave and moved him, complete with speeches, monuments, and name on buildings and in textbooks back to Tennessee.

[3] Thomas Perkins Abernethy, From Frontier to Plantation, p. 164

[4] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition (Indiana University Press, 2001), p. 203

[5] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers, p. 203

[6] The treaty was further amended in 1805 by one other than President Thomas Jefferson in which thirty-three Cherokee leaders further ceded a great deal of whatever remained of their legal land holdings in eastern and Middle Tennessee. The 1805, 1806 treaties were so controversial within the Cherokee that the chief held most responsible was assassinated, and other chiefs used the treaties to gather advantages which tore the heart and soul of Cherokee politics, economics, society and culture Finger, p. 218], and created “free and open access to the Mississippi River and New Orleans at about one and one-half cents per acre. All that remained in Cherokee hands was western Tennessee, resulted in the forty-one tribal signatories ceded significant land acreage, and allowing construction of “free and open” roads and trails, and either “opening up for settlement” or providing a clear title for all owned land east of Nashville. Sadly, this was not to be the last word on the subject of Tennessee-Native American relationships, however.

[7] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers, p. 210-11

[8] The most complete description of the matter and scandal is found in Abernethy’s, From Frontier to Plantation, pp. 170-9

[9] Phillip Langsdon, Tennessee: a Political History (Hillsboro Press, 2000), pp. 34-5; see also John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers, p. 215

[10] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, pp. 188-9

[11] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, p. 184-5


[13] Kay Baker Gaston, Robertson County Distilleries, 1796-1909 (Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring-1984), pp. 49-67)

[14] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers,  p.181-2

[15] see Tennessee Encyclopedia

[16] John R. Finger, Tennessee Frontiers, pp. 197-201; see also; Susan Douglas Wilson, Transportation in Early Middle Tennessee, Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy & History, vol. VII, No. 4 Spring, 1994, pp. 148-52


[1299] Today it is hard for us to understand Early Republic state-level fiscal and financing tools. Without a banking system, or a designated state-level bank, state debt-issuance imitates today’s private placement of a debt obligation than conventional revenue-bond or government obligation bond. Private placement often from foreign lenders individually subscribed to the bond issuance in return for specified interest payments, and repayment of debt at the end of its generally short term. Other than issue debt, the state government would tax or enact an incredibly unpopular fee/tariff. Another tool method was the state lottery. The first known colonial state lottery, 1745 Massachusetts, paid off military-related war debts. A state lottery was structured to suit the immediate needs at hand, and therefore considerable variation among states ( larger cities), and eventually by state-chartered corporations followed. State-chartered corporation lotteries often took the form of public purchase of corporate shares in accordance with state legislation or charter. If an Early Republic state government conducted a lottery for its own purposes, developmental infrastructure project or program/strategy was often its chief purpose, Such a lottery could resemble today’s lottery, with a portion of the proceeds paid to “winners” (which BTW were usually taxed), and the remainder of the proceeds used to finance the project as detailed in the lottery collateral material and legislation. In one Tennessee case, a series of lottery tickets were authorized, the first of which paid for road construction from a fixed location until the funds were exhausted; a second lottery repeated the process from another location, and a third funded construction to connect the two roads. Lotteries were attempted by the Articles of Confederation but given the polarization and chaos associated with the war, they failed miserably. George Washington later authorized a lottery for the construction of buildings associated with his national capital, the Federal City, but they were mishandled, and proved to be a serious embarrassment