The Settlement of Tennessee:
Overcoming Geographic Barriers

GRADES: 4 and 8
(Depending on age group TN4ME can be accessed differently, 4th grade can have a portion of the website or introduction read to them and 8th grade can access the website on their own. Pictures are accessible for both age groups.)
DURATION: 45 minutes



Transportation was a serious issue for settlers. 
Indian Trails and Early Roads:

The Wilderness Road:
Early newcomers to Tennessee came by way of long-established Indian trails. A path over the Appalachian Mountains, called the Wilderness Road, had long been used by the Cherokee and Shawnee.  Daniel Boone used the Wilderness Road to cross the Cumberland Gap from Tennessee into Kentucky. 

Natchez Trace and Avery’s Trace:
The Natchez Trace became an important route for trade between Mississippi and Nashville. Boatmen would float down the Mississippi River to New Orleans with cargo. At New Orleans they would sell the goods and even the boat. They then returned to Tennessee via the Natchez Trace.  
In 1787, a horse path called Avery's Trace was cleared from Knoxville to Nashville. By the time Tennessee became a state in 1796, it was a road carrying more than 300 wagons a day. 

While roads and trails played a role in the development of frontier Tennessee, rivers were even more important. Travelers on the rivers first used dugout canoes, and then flatboats. Because Tennessee’s rivers traveled north and south, different areas of the state were somewhat isolated.   Located on the Mississippi River, Memphis had more in common with New Orleans and St. Louis, while East Tennessee remained culturally connected with mountain communities in bordering states. 

Dugout Canoes:
The dugout canoe got its name because the canoe is made from a large log which was dug out in the middle. Cherokees used the dugout on rivers in East Tennessee where they lived and in Middle Tennessee where they hunted.

The most common boats were flatboats. The flatboat was flat-bottomed, and floated downstream in the current.   Most were made for a trip one way down the river, since traveling upstream was difficult. 

Some river men used keelboats. A keelboat could go down or up stream. They were shallow and pointed at both ends. Boatmen used long poles to help steer the boats. Some had sails.


In 1811, Nicholas Roosevelt took his newly built steamboat up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, proving that the new invention could navigate these rivers. Before the steamboat, 90 percent of Mississippi River traffic was downstream only. Now boats could easily travel upstream with goods.

Guiding Questions: 

  • How did settlers move into what is now Tennessee during the Frontier Era?

Objectives:  Students will 

  1. Understand how people traveled on the frontier
  2. Understand the geographic barriers of the frontier


  • Students will create a salt dough map and discuss the geographic barriers on the frontier.
  • Students will search for and print out images from TN4Me that depict transportation methods used by early settlers. Students will use these to create a poster or model to be displayed that advertises frontier travel. Students will be assessed based on the use of the information on the website and their application of this information on their poster.


Session 1

  1. Have students share the transportation methods they have experienced (automobiles, buses, airplanes, trains, etc.).
  2. Explain that early settlers coming to what is now Tennessee from the east, north, and south faced fast-flowing rivers, mountains, and cliffs.
  3. Show Frontier Era pictures from the Tennessee 4 Me website that show transportation and living conditions on the frontier or allow groups to access this portion of the website.
Who Came/What They Brought and Roads and Rivers
  1. Organize students into teams of “cartographers” (“map-makers”).
  2. Pass out copies of the map from the World Atlas website (or an outline map with the rivers and landforms indicated).
  3. Pass out salt dough (or have teams make their own).
  4. Have teams work to create a “topographic map” showing the Unaka Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau.
  5. Have students imagine trying to travel from the north, east, or south into what is now Tennessee.
  6. Discuss their conclusions. (Settlers could have gone over the Unaka Mountains, but that would have been hard to do. They could have gotten past the Cumberland Mountains by crossing through the Cumberland Gap. They could have traveled on the rivers, but getting to the Nashville area that way would have required going down the Tennessee River to the west and then back upstream on the Cumberland River.)

Session 2:

  1. Students will access the Frontier Era portion of the Tennessee 4 Me website (see links in Section 1) and select photographs that show transportation and geography on the frontier.
  2. Students will be allowed to print off these pictures to be used during a classroom assignment.
  3. Student will use their pictures to create a poster about frontier travel and geographical barriers.Example: Students could create a poster that advertises a Conestoga wagon for sale describing its advantages for travel to Tennessee.
  4. ConestogaWagon: 
  5. Students will share why they chose their picture and the premise of their poster.

Extensions:Have students

  • Have students create models of Conestoga wagons, flatboats, dugout canoes, etc.


    Salt Dough Recipe:
    1 cup salt
    2 cups flour
    1 cup water
    1 tablespoon cooking oil (optional, keeps dough from hardening)
    § Mix the flour, salt, and water together in a bowl.
    § Add a small amount of oil (if desired) to keep the dough from hardening.
    § Add small amounts of water or flour and knead the dough to the desired consistency.



  • Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
    Grade 4 Social Studies:
    4.3.tpi.4. Create salt dough maps to show physical features.
    4.3.tpi.5. Design a diorama depicting a geographic place or significant historical event. (e.g., Cumberland Gap…).
  • Grade 8 Social Studies:
  • 8.5.09 Recognize Tennessee's role within Colonial America.
  • a. Identify Tennessee's natural resources.
  • c. Explain the significance of the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee history.
  • 8.5.13 Identify Tennessee's role within early development of the nation.
  • b. Examine the expansion of settlers into Tennessee.
  • 8.5.tpi.14. Examine Tennessee's role as a frontier in the expansion of the United States…


            National History Standards: Historical Thinking Grades 5-12
STANDARD 2: The student comprehends a variety of historical sources:
Therefore, the student is able to
  1. Draw upon data in historical maps in order to obtain or clarify information on the geographic setting in which the historical event occurred, its relative and absolute location, the distances and directions involved, the natural and man-made features of the place, and critical relationships in the spatial distributions of those features and the historical event occurring there.