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Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau Nature Trail

Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau Nature Trail


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The History

Photo by Byron JorjorianThe Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee has been home to human culture for many thousands of years. People have lived in this beautiful, rugged upland area since the time of the Paleolithic big game hunters, who left evidence of their passing in their finely crafted Clovis and Cumberland projectile points. They were followed by more sedentary American Indian cultures, and eventually the more widely known historic tribes which, after the Revolutionary War, were displaced by Americans of European ancestry. The story told by all the people who have lived on the Cumberland Plateau is universal; it is a story of adaptability and self-sufficiency.

Anthropologists are uncertain as to how long humans have occupied the area of the greater Appalachian Plateau. Archaeological evidence indicates that early bands of hunters lived in the region as long ago as 15,000 years before present. These people hunted big game in the region until climatic changes necessitated new environmental adaptations. The big game hunters gave way to cultural groups who exploited native plant resources, eventually giving rise to highly developed agricultural societies that cultivated crops such as maze, beans, and squash, while constructing large earthen mounds for religious and ceremonial purposes. Many Indian trails, such as the Chickamauga Path, Tollunteeskee’s Trail, and the East-West Trail crossed the region. These trails and others linked the area to the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, and the Rocky Mountains, allowing for extensive trade networks to be established, adding to the richness and complexity of native culture.



Photo by Byron JorjorianBy the time the first Europeans entered the Cumberland Plateau, historic tribes such as the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Yuchi were using the area for habitation and hunting purposes. The Cumberland Plateau had become a communal hunting ground devoid of any great settlements such as those of the prehistoric period, giving rise to tales of lost civilizations of Mound Builders, a myth that remained popular into the 20th century.

By the mid-1700s, European adventurers were exploring the Cumberland Plateau. Men such as Dr. Thomas Walker of Virginia were among the first to explore the region, and it was he who named the area for the Duke of Cumberland who had recently defeated the Highland Scots at the Battle of Culloden. Walker was closely followed by groups of Long Hunters, so-called because of their extended hunting and exploration forays into the backcountry. These men were the prototypical backwoodsmen, who became famous in American history and were largely responsible for the creation of the ideal of the self-reliant American acting as an implement of Providence, or divine destiny. These men included such characters as Daniel Boone, Kasper Mansker, and Thomas Sharp Spencer.



By the end of the 18th century, most Indian lands on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee had been ceded to the U.S. Government, allowing permanent European settlement in the region. By 1805, with the signing of the Third Treaty of Tellico, in which the Cherokees relinquished all claims to land in the Upper Cumberland Plateau, the entire area was opened to large-scale permanent settlement. Revolutionary War veterans from the Carolinas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania moved into the area to establish permanent homes, farms, and communities.

The European settlers of Cumberland Plateau were primarily of German and British ancestry, including English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, and Ulster Scots. They brought with them new crops and farming techniques, the quintessential frontier symbol, the log cabin, and the art of whiskey making. They also brought a distinctive dialect, descended from several British forms, and a powerful, fundamental brand of Calvinist Protestantism. They adapted to the environment, adopted Indian life-ways to augment their own, and amalgamated these elements into an aspect of the greater American frontier culture that is still identifiable on the Cumberland Plateau today.

Randal D. Williams
Historic Preservation Planner
Upper Cumberland Development District

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