Early Settlements in Tennessee

DURATION: 1 or more sessions

  • Computers with Internet Connections


(Source: Where They Lived  
The first colonial people to come into what is now Tennessee were the longhunters.  They came in parties of two or three men looking for game to kill.  They were called longhunters because they would stay gone for months, collecting animal skins and drying meat to sell back in the eastern colonies. As these longhunters returned to the colonies, they told people about the abundant land west of the Appalachian Mountain chain.  People, starting with William Bean in 1769, began to move to Tennessee.

Some settlers used flatboats to float down the river to create settlements. The best known of these is the Donelson party who traveled in a flotilla of flatboats commanded by John Donelson in 1779/1780. They floated down the Tennessee River in East Tennessee, then up the Cumberland River to join a party of men led by James Robertson.  There they established Fort Nashborough, later the city of Nashville.

East Tennessee:
The first settlers moved into East Tennessee in violation of the Proclamation of 1763, which stated that land west of the proclamation line (most of what is now Tennessee) was reserved for Indians, in this case the Cherokee.  The first group of white settlers moved into the Watauga or Sycamore Shoals area (now Elizabethton in Carter County) around 1768. William Bean and James Robertson were the early leaders of this group. 

The first settler in the area that is now Knoxville was James White in 1786. He and James Connor built a fort named White’s Fort on the banks of First Creek. In 1790 White’s son-in-law, Charles McClung, drew up lots for the establishment of a town. It included land for a school chartered as Blount College—which later became the University of Tennessee.

Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina and his friends formed a land company called the Transylvania Company. Their purpose was to obtain large tracts of land in Kentucky and Middle Tennessee from Indian tribes. This land would then be sold to settlers. In a 1775 meeting at Sycamore Shoals with more than 1,200 Indians, Henderson persuaded the Cherokees to sign a treaty giving his company 20 million acres. 

Dragging Canoe, the son of one of the Cherokee leaders who signed the treaty, tried to talk the leaders out of signing the treaty. He, correctly as it turned out, warned the Indians that they were signing away their ancestral lands and that the whites would want more and more land. He supposedly told the whites that they were purchasing a “dark and bloody ground.”

Conflict between the settlers and Indians broke out the following year. Dragging Canoe led an unsuccessful attack on the North Holston settlement. Others attacked settlements at Carter’s Valley and Watauga. All were turned back. 

Settlers built forts as protection against Indian attacks. In East Tennessee, settlers fled to the nearest fort until the danger passed. They then returned to their homes. 

Middle Tennessee:
Although many called his Sycamore Shoals treaty illegal (and eventually the Virginia Assembly voided it in 1776), Henderson persuaded James Robertsonand John Donelson to establish a settlement on the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee. The men decided on French Lick (now Nashville) as a good location. Robertson took about 100 men by horseback in 1779 to the site to build shelters for their families coming by river.

John Donelson led the party of 200 men, women, and children on boats by water. Donelson had about 30 to 40 boats of different sizes including his boat, a large flatboat he named The Adventure. The group left East Tennessee in December of 1779 and arrived in Nashville four months later. Along the way they had to battle smallpox, frostbite, and an Indian attack

In Middle Tennessee, most of the settlers lived in forts every day for safety from 1780 until around 1795. Many of the families lived in or near the fort built by Robertson (named Fort Nashborough) because of the danger from Indian attacks. 

Charlotte Robertson was proclaimed the heroine of the Battle of the Bluffs fought at the fort in 1781. When Indians attacked the fort, she realized that they were between the fort’s men out in the woods and the fort. She released the dogs which attacked the Indians, allowing time for the men to return safely. 

Casper Mansker was an early explorer of the Cumberland Valley. Mansker came to the Cumberland River on hunting trips in 1769 and 1771. He returned to the area in 1779 and built a fort near Mansker’s Lick.  Mansker described his hunting trips to the French Lick, a salt lick that drew in “the greatest number of buffaloes and wild game that I ever beheld in my life at one place.”

West Tennessee:
Settlement didn’t begin in West Tennessee until the 1818 Jackson Purchase, negotiated by Andrew Jackson and Isaac Shelby. The treaty paid the Chickasaws $300,000, to be paid over 20 years, for 10,700 square miles of land between the Mississippi River and the Tennessee River (now West Tennessee). The city of Memphis was surveyed in 1819; there were 50 residents.

Guiding Questions:

  • When were East, Middle, and West Tennessee first settled?
  • Who were some of the significant figures in the settlement of what is now Tennessee?


  1. Students will learn about the settlement of one of the regions of Tennessee.
  2. Students will be able to name significant figures in the settlement of Tennessee and their roles.


  • Students should be able create a rationale for their travel soundtracks based on the information discussed in class and on the website.


  1. Using the TN 4 Me website, introduce information about Tennessee settlers and early settlements, specifically John Donelson and Charlotte Robertson: http://www.tn4me.org/article.cfm/a_id/251/minor_id/79/major_id/25/era_id/3  http://www.tn4me.org/article.cfm/a_id/249/minor_id/79/major_id/25/era_id/3  http://www.tn4me.org/sapage.cfm/sa_id/226/era_id/3
  1. With a PowerPoint or printed copies, show students a copy of John Donelson’s journal. Lead students in a discussion, based on the information read/introduced earlier about Tennessee settlers, about the voyage (hardships, motivation, etc).
  1. Pose the question of why Donelson felt the need to write a journal.
After reading discussing both early settlers, have students begin to brainstorm about songs they would use to make a soundtrack for either John or Charlotte’s trip.
Think about these questions:
·         What songs do they listen to when they’re happy, sad, excited, or tired?
·         If the technology would have existed in frontier times, what present day songs might John or Charlotte have listened to on their voyage or during their time on the frontier?
  1. Students can begin to create a soundtrack at home, bring in lyrics to songs they select, or burn a cd to share in class
Student must also create a rationale for the songs they choose. They must back up their songs with facts from the website.


  • Tennessee Social Studies Standards: Grade 8 Social Studies:
  • 8.3.tpi.18. Create a map of Tennessee featuring the three geographic regions and major landforms.
  • 8.5.17 Identify Tennessee's role within expansion of the nation.
  • a. Discuss the growth of Tennessee's cities and regions.
  • b. Evaluate the differences among Tennessee's three grand divisions.
  • c. Study the impact on Tennessee's history made by individuals.
  • 8.5.spi.3. Differentiate between a primary and secondary source.

            National Historical Thinking Standards, Grades 5-12:
STANDARD 4  The student conducts historical research:
Therefore, the student is able to
Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.
Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.