Before there was a Tennessee

“The only thing we don’t know is the history we never learned.” President Harry S. Truman

Folks who study the history of East Tennessee tend to begin with English-speaking pioneers who settled in upper East Tennessee around 1769, less than three 90-year lifetimes placed end-to-end. A few English speaking longhunters and traders had come in from Virginia and South Carolina before then, along with some French traders. Another few Spanish expeditions would pass through East Tennessee, most likely with disastrous results, beginning in 1540. Those early Europeans, along with some Africans, would represent only a brief speck in the time that human beings have lived in this area.

The idea for this story came when Mike and Cathy Richardson notified me a tree similar to one of the old Native American Indian “trail trees” was located on their property. While an original trail tree would have to be many hundred years old, the Richardson’s tree from a later time has similar characteristics. Their query on their tree put me on a track to think back on what we know about those who were here long before us.

That quest led me to my friend Bob Jarnagin. Bob has the H.B. Jarnigan and Company business on Dandridge’s Main Street and is also the official Jefferson County historian. His lineage goes back to Revolutionary War Capt. Thomas Jarnagin, who was one of Jefferson’s earliest settlers and the owner of large tracts of regional land. Bob can also trace his lineage to the Isaac Barton family. Bob’s Wake Forest education is also an asset which, added to his drive and work ethic, has left him with an immense knowledge of his home county.

A Dandridge native, Bob is the son of banker and businessman H.B. Jarnagin and his wife Nancy Johnston Jarnagin, alongside sisters Mary and Betsy. After attending Dandridge Elementary and Maury High Schools, he graduated from Wake Forest University in 1976. Married to the former Susie Blanc, they have a daughter Jenny and son Wesley.

“George Bauman and my dad got me started by doing founding festivals in the 80s,” Bob says. “I started reading books and going to the courthouse to research old documents and would learn where my ancestor Capt. Thomas Jarnagin had a 640-acre land grant that went from Long Creek to the Nolichucky River. He also had several other pieces of land including some on Richland Creek in Grainger County. After George Bauman and Dr. Estle Muncy had served as county historians, Lu Hinchy put my name in for the job in 2006. At the time I was the youngest county historian in the state. Every county is required by the state to have a county historian, and it’s an honorary degree and a non-paid job. My official duty is to be member of the Records Keeping Commission which decides which records to keep. I have fun working in the archives and doing deed research, and enjoy helping and meeting people.”

Bob agreed to meet with us and along with my Army buddies Ronnie Yount and Eddie Woods we met at the Taste of Dandridge Restaurant to plan our study. Bob reminded us Native Americans have been in the local area for 10,000 years, with artifacts having been found from the Paleolithic Indians who lived here from 10,000 to 8,000 B.C. Coming afterward were the Archaic Indians, who lived from 8,000 to 1,000 B.C. Following the Archaic peoples were the Woodland Indians, who lived here from 1,000 B.C. until 1,000 A.D. when the Mississippian Indians became prominent and lead to the Indians that our history is more familiar with. Especially impressive was the mound building civilization which covered the present Southeastern U.S. and extended into Ohio. Huge mounds, some of which can still be seen, started as burial mounds and soon supported temples surrounded by large villages which connected with far away villages over a long trail system.

While the Great Indian Warpath is a familiar term to many, few realize that when they travel Interstate 81, they’re traveling near a trail which has been traveled for thousands of years. Bob related the trails had been started by animals and added to by humans.

“The Great Indian War Path started in the Creek Nation in Georgia and Alabama and came up through Chattanooga and Maryville to Boyd’s Creek on to the French Broad River. After crossing the river at Buckingham Island the trail would pick up on Dumplin Creek and follow it to its headwaters where it crosses a gap in Bays Mountain to the headwaters of Long Creek where Standing Rock is. The path then follows Long Creek to the Bend of the Chucky. Rural Mount, Alexander Outlaw’s house, is still standing nearby and it’s one of the most historically significant places in the area. The path then crosses the Holston at Dodson’s Ford south of Rogersville and goes up the Holston to the Shenandoah Valley and on up to upstate New York, where it hooked up with the Iroquois nation and with a branch going toward Ohio.”

The Cherokees lived in this area, while the Creeks lived to the southwest and the Shawnees were west of here. The Yuchis were a small but very warlike tribe that lived around the Little Tennessee River and were feared for their tactics. There are stories that the Creeks moved them in between them and the Cherokees as a protective buffer. The Great War Path was not always a war path and in peace time it was used as a trade route. The Spanish explorer DeSoto came here and stayed two weeks at Chiaha on Zimmerman’s Island where a main chief had other tribes under him. When DeSoto tried to get native men to carry his loads and women to go along on the journey, the natives became unfriendly. Some people think that the Melungeons are the offspring of some of DeSoto’s men. The Indians had no immunity to the European diseases and it’s a strong theory that that was what wiped the mound builders out. In 1776 an army of 1,800 men under William Christian came through here, and in 1780 John Sevier brought another army through.

“This is how I found Standing Rock, which is a major point on the war path. Joe Swann has been working on a book about David Crockett’s early life for many years and was looking for the land where a McQuistion ancestor lived on Long Creek. We found a deed that called for a point on Standing Rock. We found where his land was and put the whole neighborhood of deeds together where we were within four or five square miles of the rock. I came across the only rock outcropping in an area where the property line went right through it and could see where an old roadbed went through it that parallels Interstate 81. A Martin fellow let me on the land and I called Joe to tell him that I think I’d found it.”

Bob then gave us an extra treat when he loaded us into his truck to tour some of the known points where the Great War Path passed through Jefferson County. Our first stop was at Jefferson County High School where a DAR marker marked a crossing point on Dumplin Creek. A second known point for the path is at the beautifully restored Martin’s Mill, where the path crossed just above the millrun.

Near the intersection of Sam Martin and Valley Home Road we could look down on the Standing Rock, which had been used as a trail marker for time far before English-speaking people were in the area. The Allendale Farm on Rankin Road had been a part of the Blackburn land grant, and was also a crossing point as well as a possible campsite. A stop at the Shady Grove Cemetery includes the marker of Josiah Leath which, with the date 1787, is the oldest known inscribed monument in Jefferson County. Shady Grove, formerly known as Stoney Bluff, looks down on the now lake-covered Zimmerman Island and with Mount LeConte and the Smoky Mountains in the background marks the original eastern boundary of Jefferson County.

-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.