In June of 1796, two decades after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Tennessee was formally recognized as the nation’s 16th state. And while the official state heritage that followed is fascinating, there is also a wealth of history that predates Tennessee’s admittance into the Union.
Leading up to Tennessee’s official creation in the last years of the 18th century, the area that is now Northeast Tennessee was known as the western frontier. Many people who wanted to expand and settle westward from North Carolina, one of the original 13 colonies, moved into or through Northeast Tennessee.
This and other events have made the region an area of great historical significance in many capacities, from colonial times to the Civil War and beyond. Read on to discover some of the wonderful places you can visit to get up close to Northeast Tennessee’s colorful history.
Rocky Mount State Historic Site
At the Rocky Mount State Historic Site, step into the 1790s by taking a walk through a restored log house that once belonged to William Cobb, one of the early settlers of the area. In 1790, President George Washington appointed William Blount to be the governor of the region—then known as the Southwest Territory—and during his term, he lived at Rocky Mount with the Cobb family.
Today the house serves as a living museum with interpreters who tell stories about the Cobbs and Governor Blount and share anecdotes about day-to-day life on the frontier. Be sure to check out the Massengill Overmountain Museum, which houses many regional artifacts and further details about the property.
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park
In addition to its beautiful location along the Watauga River, Sycamore Shoals State Park is known for the Watauga Settlement, the first majority-rule democratic system in the United States. The settlement, the first of its kind outside of the 13 colonies, was formed in 1772 when its members came together to elect five leaders to govern the region.
The park was also the site of the largest private real estate transaction in American history, the Transylvania Purchase of 1775. In this deal, Judge Richard Henderson negotiated an agreement with the Cherokee for 20 million acres of land north of the Cumberland River.
Just five years later, Sycamore Shoals served as the site where the Overmountain Men reported for duty (also called a muster site). The men went on to defeat a group of Tories at the Battle of Kings Mountain and many historians consider this victory as a major contributor to the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
During November, the park hosts the Walking in Frontier Footsteps program, which includes guided interpretive walks. And, in July, Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals (the official outdoor drama of Tennessee) is presented by a cast of local performers against the backdrop of Fort Watauga. Liberty! portrays the significant history of Sycamore Shoals during the late 18th century.
The charming town of Elizabethton was founded in 1799 and named for Landon Carter’s wife, Elizabeth Maclin Carter. Their family home, built by Landon and his father John Carter, stands in downtown Elizabethton and is the oldest intact frame house in Tennessee.
Just west of downtown you’ll find the lovely Doe River Covered Bridge, also known as the Elizabethton covered bridge. The 134-foot white clapboard bridge was constructed in 1882 to allow the town to expand to the other side of the river. Today it is open to pedestrians and bikes and is home to the Annual Covered Bridge Celebration each summer.
Other notable historical buildings in Elizabethton include the Carter County Courthouse, the Barnes-Boring Hardware store and the Bonnie Kate Theater, which began showing films more than 90 years ago.
David Crockett Birthplace State Historic Park
Born in 1786 in relative poverty, David Crockett grew up to become one of Tennessee’s most famous and influential political figures. He moved to Lawrence County in 1817, went on to serve in Congress for several years, and died at the Alamo in 1836. Today he is celebrated for his many achievements as a pioneer, soldier, and politician, and for epitomizing the self-made American man.
David Crockett Birthplace State Historic Park, near Limestone, features a replica of the 18th-century cabin that Crockett was born in and a historic farmstead. Costumed interpreters reenact what his early life would have been like on the banks of the Nolichucky River. The park also has a small museum where visitors will find artifacts from 18th-century life, as well as portraits and documents pertaining to David Crockett.
Andrew Johnson National Historic Site
This 19th-century estate in Greeneville was the home of Andrew Johnson before and after his presidency, which lasted from 1865-1869. Johnson’s presidency was notable for several reasons, the primary one being that he came into the office following Lincoln’s assassination and was faced with rebuilding the nation after the Civil War. As the 17th president, he was the first president who had never been a military hero or a lawyer and was also the first to go through the impeachment process.
Now the homestead is filled with the Johnson family’s belongings and memorabilia, which visitors can walk among to learn about the life of this important man. Johnson is buried nearby in the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery.
Founded in 1779, the small town of Jonesborough has been around longer than the state itself and merrily boasts the title of Tennessee’s oldest town. For a time it served as the capital of the Lost State of Franklin, the name given to Tennessee when it first tried to secede from North Carolina. (Of course, this attempt was unsuccessful, leading to the addition of “Lost” to the name.)
Along Jonesborough’s Main Street, you’ll find the International Storytelling Center, the 18th century Christopher Taylor House, and a historic cemetery where many unnamed cholera victims are buried. Another noteworthy attraction is the Chester Inn State History Site & Museum. Built in 1797, this hotel-turned-museum has a long and rich history.
Written by Madison Eubanks for RootsRated Media in partnership with Northeast Tennessee Tourism.
Featured image provided by DM