American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1900


KNOXVILLE
THE METROPOLIS OF EASTERN TENNESSEE
BY JOSHUA W. CALDWELL


THE beginnings of Knoxville were Scotch-Irish. Its founder was James White, a Scotch-Irishman from North Carolina. Its first place of worship was a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian Church, wherein the faith of the Covenant was preached without mitigation, to the edification and uplifting of the community. The dominant element of its population until after the Civil War was Presbyterian, and it is still strong.

The first effort of the white men to possess themselves of any part of Tennessee was in 1756, when old Fort Loudon was erected about thirty miles west of where Knoxville now stands. Fort Loudon did not long resist the Cherokees. Its short story is one of the most romantic and one of the most tragic in the early history of the Southwest.

Twelve years later, the first permanent settlement in Tennessee was made upon the waters of the Watauga in the northeast corner of the State. This little community became, soon afterwards, the Watauga Association, a practically independent government, with a written constitution; indisputably the first of the kind that was formed on this continent, by men of American birth, and inspired by American sentiment. Its leaders were James Robertson, afterwards the founder of Nashville, a typical Scotch-Irish pioneer; John Sevier, afterwards the first Governor of Tennessee, a man of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Huguenot descent, and of extraordinary abilities, who became a resident of Knoxville; and John Carter, presumably descended from the noted Virginia family of that name, many of whose descendants are citizens of Knoxville.

About the year 1787, the settlements having extended gradually down the Holston, we find James White living upon the site of Knoxville and owning, then or later, much of the land now covered by the city. If traditionary statements are to be trusted, a part at least of the first house erected by James White is still standing, its original sturdy and loopholed logs protected and preserved by a sheathing of boards. The name first given the settlement was "White's Fort."

In 1790, North Carolina having ceded her possessions west of the Alleghanies to the United States, the "Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio" was created, and President Washington named as its Governor his friend William Blount, of North Carolina. In 1791, Governor Blount decided to make White's Fort, which was by that time called Knoxville in honor of General Henry Knox, the capital of the territory, and the town site was surveyed in part and laid off into lots by its owner, James White, in that year.

The location is on the north bank of the Holston, four miles south of the junction of the French Broad and Holston rivers, giving to the last stream the name to which it is entitled, without regard to many temporary, ineffective and indefensible changes of river nomenclature in East Tennessee by legislation. Between two creeks, once clear and vigorous, but now defiled and depleted by many civilized uses, rises a plateau of about two hundred and fifty acres, of diversified but comparatively level surface. Where this elevation slopes to the river on the southeast, the town made its beginning, and climbed slowly up the hill until it reached the highest point overlooking the river, which was crowned with a blockhouse known as the barracks, where a scanty garrison of regulars was intended to protect the settlers and to overawe the Cherokees. The barracks boasted at least one great gun, which was fired morning and evening with punctuality and impressiveness.

The coming of Governor Blount was the beginning of the greatness of Knoxville. Blount was a notable man. He had been a silent but respected and not uninfluential member of the convention that framed the Federal Constitution. He was the friend of Washington, and his lineage was most ancient and most honorable, reaching back to the time of William the Conqueror, in whose train, and among the beneficiaries of whose bounty, was one of his ancestors. The family had been settled long, in opulent circumstances and in social and political prominence, in North Carolina. The Governor was a man of education, of fine presence, of graceful and winning manners and of unfailing, if dignified, urbanity. He was unquestionably the first gentleman as well as the chief magistrate of the "Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio," although neither honorable lineages nor good manners were wanting there. In addition to all this his Excellency was most fortunate in his wife. The praises of the lovely and accomplished Mary Grainger Blount were in the mouths of all men, and even of many women in those days. It was a memorable occasion when the Governor brought his gracious lady from North Carolina to Knoxville, and placed her at the head of his court, which was conducted with no little circumstance and dignity.

It is said that he imported, likewise, weatherboarding, wherewith he encased the logs of a great house which he had constructed as a home for his wife, and that no sooner had this attractive and expensive transformation been accomplished, than the front yard was converted into a flower garden, the first of its kind in the town, and certainly one of the most admired anywhere.

In July, 1791, Governor Blount made at Knoxville a treaty with the Cherokees. Nearly fifteen hundred Indians were present, including forty one chiefs. The Governor had caused to be erected in a conspicuous place on a hillside overlooking the river a large tent, wherein he remained withdrawn until all the expected company had assembled. Then the doors of the tent were thrown open and he stood forth, arrayed in splendor, and surrounded by the chief civil and military notables of the territory. The resplendency of his Excellency's dress sword, laced coat and cocked hat are much commented on by historians. Second in splendor of raiment and dignity of deportment to the Governor only, was James Armstrong, known as "Trooper," formerly a dragoon in his Britannic Majesty's service, and versed in the ways of courts. The Annalist of Tennessee characterizes him, for this occasion, as "arbiter elegantiarum." The Governor stood upon a platform, and one by one in due order the Cherokee chiefs were presented by Mr. Armstrong, while the assembled warriors gazed in awe upon the imposing ceremony. A treaty was solemnly entered into, and was speedily broken by both whites and Indians.

In 1794, an act of the territorial Legislature was passed, which after reciting the founding, in 1791, of a town named Knoxville in honor of Major General Henry Knox, "said town consisting of sixty four lots, numbered from one to sixty four consecutively," enacts in solemn form, that a town be established on the spot indicated, and names commissioners for its government. In 1797, fifty nine more lots with necessary streets were added. In 1799, the town was authorized by law to elect its commissioners, but for two years the act seems to have been ineffective. The commissioners when finally elected entered promptly upon a course of vigorous municipal legislation and administration. Among other things a town sergeant was elected, and required to patrol the streets three nights a week, or oftener at his option. Slaughter pens within the town limits, wooden chimneys, hogs upon the streets, dead or alive, and the firing of guns and pistols within the corporate limits were declared nuisances, punishable by fine, fifty cents being the highest lawful fine. Two of the offences for which this highest fine was prescribed were drunkenness and Sabbath breaking. A few years later, presumably under pressure of popular demand, the hog ordinance was repealed, but the provision against wooden chimneys seems to have been rigorously enforced. In 1815, the town was empowered to elect a Mayor, and Thomas Emmerson, afterwards a Judge of the Supreme Court of the State, became the first Mayor.

That the name Knoxville had been adopted before November 5, 1791, is made certain by the fact that on that day appeared the initial number of the Knoxville Gazette, the first newspaper published within the bounds of Tennessee. Its publisher was one George' Roulstone, a native of New England, whose Yankee enterprise appeared in the fact that while the paper from the first was called the Knoxville Gazette, it was for some time published at Rogersville, an older town, seventy miles east of Knoxville. It is supposed that the publisher was prevented by difficulties of transportation from moving his press to Knoxville. The Gazette was a three column paper of four pages. It had not many advertisements and very little local news, but was filled with accounts of the French Revolution and of European affairs in general. It gave much space to questions of ethics, and reprinted many political and patriotic speeches.

The first and only Legislature of the Territory met at Knoxville in February, 1794. Among the acts passed was one establishing a college near Knoxville, to be called Blount College, in honor of the Governor. This it is believed was the first strictly non sectarian institution of higher learning established in the United States. It was afterwards successively named East Tennessee College, East Tennessee University, and the University of Tennessee, under which last name it now exists and flourishes. It is unsurpassed among Southern institutions of learning for its thoroughness, and in respect of its beautiful situation is almost unequaled in the whole country.

The treaty made by Governor Blount in 1791 bound the whites to refrain from encroachments on the Indian lands, and pledged the Indians to desist from hostilities. The whites did not all act in good faith, while the Indians, with characteristic treachery, failed from the outset to regard the treaty. At first the Cherokees contented themselves with occasional outrages, but in the year 1793 it was known that the whole nation was in arms. The Indians were emboldened by the avowedly pacific policy of the Federal Government. Governor Blount had received specific instructions to act only on the defensive. Arson and murder were of daily occurrence and went unpunished. It was with genuine relief, therefore, that the whites received news, late in the summer of 1793, that the Indians had, in effect, declared war. On the night of the 24th of September, 1793, a body of more than a thousand warriors crossed the Tennessee River some twenty five miles below Knoxville and marched in the direction of that place. Seven hundred of this invading force were Creeks and the remainder Cherokees, and, strangely enough, one hundred of the Creeks were mounted. It was the intention to reach and to attack Knoxville at daylight, but they found difficulty in crossing the river, and were further delayed by a consultation among the leaders upon an interesting question. This was whether they should kill all the people of Knoxville, or only the men. The discussion of this nice question of casuistry proved so attractive, or provoked so many differences, that daylight seems to have found it still unsettled.

At sunrise on the 25th the Indians heard the morning gun at the barracks at Knoxville and concluded that it was an alarm signal. Halting near Cavet's blockhouse, eight miles from the village, they entertained themselves by decoying and butchering the inmates. Their coming had been made known on the 24th to the people of Knoxville, who prepared with courage and energy to resist them. The total fighting strength of the whites was forty men. It was determined to waylay the Indians, and after firing upon them to retreat to the barracks. Accordingly, leaving two old men with the women and children, the remaining thirty eight spent the night concealed on a wooded ridge west of the town, fearlessly awaiting a foe outnumbering them more than twenty to one. Early on the morning of the 25th, however, a messenger brought the news that the Indians had lost heart after the affair at Cavet's and were in full retreat.

In this little band of defenders was the Rev. Samuel Carrick, a Presbyterian minister, afterwards the first President of Blount College, of whose conduct on this occasion there is a pleasing and honorable tradition. It is said that when news of the invasion came he was preparing to bury his wife, who had just died, but, putting aside his grief, and leaving her beloved remains to be buried by the women of the neighborhood, he seized his rifle and hastened to take his post at the front.

A month later the Tennessee militia, led by Sevier, were in the heart of the Indian country, and the battle of Etowah, on the 17th of October, 1793, ended the campaign and cowed the savages.

From this time until the Civil War, Knoxville was outside the current of important public events. From 1792 to 1796, it was the capital of the "Territory South of the River Ohio"; from 1796 to 1811, except for a little while in 1807, it was the capital of Tennessee. About this time the capital of the State became peripatetic, on account of the westward trend of population. As late as 1834, we find a member of the Constitutional Convention of that year introducing a resolution for the ascertainment of the "centre of gravity" of the State, with a view to the permanent location of the capital upon it. It will be interesting to know that the official to whom the question was referred reported the centre of gravity to be identical with the geographical centre. The capital was finally fixed at Nashville, which is not on the centre of gravity, but is otherwise fully entitled to the honor. Meanwhile, in 1817, the capital returned for a brief stay at Knoxville, and then finally departed westward.

The Constitutional Convention of 1796 met at Knoxville in January of that year with William Blount as President, and promulgated the first Constitution of Tennessee. John Sevier was the first Governor and took up his abode at Knoxville. He began to build a large brick house, but hospitality and every form of liberality exhausted his means and he removed to the country before the first story of the house had been constructed. The house was completed by another owner and was designed to overlook the town from a distance. It now stands with its back and one side to intersecting modern streets, and its front to the side yard. Sevier was for eleven years Governor, and then was elected to Congress. He died in 1815 while on a journey to the Creek nation as Commissioner of the United States. His remains reposed in Alabama until 1889, when they were disinterred, brought to Knoxville, and deposited in the Court House yard, where their final resting place is marked by a graceful shaft of native white marble. Sevier, always the popular hero of Tennessee, is the most brilliant figure in the pioneer history of the Southwest.

Blount was one of the first Senators from Tennessee. His impeachment as Senator upon charges which to this day no man fully understands and which to the Western people seem to have imported no turpitude, did not affect his standing in Tennessee. He is buried in Knoxville in the old First Presbyterian churchyard.

Within a few feet of his grave is the tomb of Hugh Lawson White, son of James White, "the founder," and known as the "American Cato." He was a Judge of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, many years a member of the United States Senate, and for a time its President. He was long the intimate friend of Andrew Jackson, but was alienated by Jackson's imperious methods, and became a candidate for the Presidency of the United States against Jackson's political heir, Martin Van Buren. He was defeated, but carried his own and two other Southern States. He was one of the strongest, purest and most patriotic of American statesmen, and was a conspicuous figure in the Senate even in the days of Webster, Calhoun, Clay and Benton. For fifteen years (from 1812 to 1827) he was President of the Bank of Tennessee, located at Knoxville, which was almost the only bank in the South that weathered the financial storms which followed the War of 1812.

On the western limit of the town stands an old weather boarded log house, wherein tradition declares that George Farragut, the father of the Admiral, once lived. The county records show that George Farragut owned the ground on which the house is situated. The great Admiral certainly was born in Knox county at Low's Ferry near Campbell's Station, where, on the t5th of May, 1900, Admiral Dewey unveiled a monument, which was erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution to his illustrious predecessor. Old deeds to George Farragut sometimes call him "Fairregret," but he signs himself Farragut.

Sam Houston was reared near Knoxville, and there are many stories of his handsome presence, winning manners, great abilities and abounding debts.

Full of interest to strangers is a frame dwelling in East Knoxville, standing flush with the sidewalk, and entered by high steps that encroach upon the pavement. This was the home of William G. Brownlow, known as the "Fighting Parson," one of the most remarkable men in the history of Tennessee. He was a Methodist minister, an editor with a gift of invective that has never been surpassed, an ardent and fearless Unionist, the Reconstruction Governor of Tennessee, and finally United States Senator. Brownlow was a man of the Andrew Jackson type. The Southwest, and especially Tennessee, gave to public life in the first half of this century a class of men with distinctive physical, intellectual and moral qualities. Physically, they were tall, angular, rawboned; intellectually they were alert, positive and often narrow; they were honest and sincerely patriotic, but vindictive and unrelenting, the truest of friends, the most aggressive and dangerous of foes. Jackson, Brownlow and Isham G. Harris were men of this kind; Harris seemingly the last of them.

In theological and political controversy, in both of which he delighted, Brownlow neither sought nor gave quarter, and his fame as a polemic went through the Southwest long before the Civil War. Soon after Tennessee seceded he was imprisoned, and then released and sent North, where he made many characteristic speeches, and wrote a book into which he gathered all the bitterness of his hatred of secession and of the secessionists. When the Federal authority was reestablished in Tennessee, it was supported, and its local policy mainly directed, by the loyalists of East Tennessee, among whom Brownlow was most prominent in State affairs, and in national affairs Horace Maynard and Andrew Johnson. The intensity and resolution of Brownlow's nature were such that he sometimes followed the logic of his hatred of secession to extreme ends, so that by the Southern element in the State he was hated as the Irish Catholics hated Cromwell. But his conduct, after all, was in keeping with the spirit of the times, and not a little of the censure that fell upon him was unjust. In private affairs, while always forcible and positive, he was a kindly, just and generous man, of pure life and of correct principles.

Horace Maynard, a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Amherst, came to Knoxville in 1837 and became Professor of Mathematics in the University. Later, he was for twelve years a member of Congress, then Attorney General of the State, Minister to Turkey and Postmaster General. His eminent abilities and his pure character entitle him to special mention and to the highest commendation. His son, Commander Washburn Maynard, distinguished himself in the late Spanish War.

Another noteworthy citizen of Knoxville was Thomas A. R. Nelson, whose speech in Congress against secession was praised by the London Times in the highest terms. Mr. Nelson was of the counsel for Andrew Johnson in the impeachment trial, and was afterwards a Judge of the Supreme Court of the State. He was one of the best lawyers and one of the most eloquent and accomplished public speakers the State has produced.

When the Civil War broke out, East Tennessee, not being a slaveholding section, and being the Whig stronghold, was overwhelmingly for the Union. The Union leaders were Johnson, Maynard, Brownlow and many others of almost equal ability. Knoxville was the capital of East Tennessee. It had grown principally by the increase of the original population, and the kinships of its people, especially of the more prominent families, were exceptionally extensive and intricate. A majority of these well to do people went with the South, but a large minority was loyal, and the common people, as a rule, held to the Union.

The first encounter of hostile forces at Knoxville was on the loth of June, 1863, when Colonel Saunders with a force of fifteen hundred Federal soldiers on a raid through East Tennessee, halted in front of the town. A brief artillery duel ensued, in the course of which Captain Pleasant McClung of Knoxville, a conspicuously gallant Confederate officer, was killed. After an hour's firing Saunders resumed his march without entering Knoxville.

Toward the end of August, 1863, the Confederates evacuated the city, never to re-enter it, and on the 2d of September, General Burnside entered and occupied it. The next event of importance was the siege. It will be remembered that after his retreat from Gettysburg, General Lee detached Longstreet's corps from his army and sent it south to aid General Bragg. Longstreet remained with Bragg until November 4th, when he set out to rejoin Lee, marching overland through East Tennessee and western Virginia This movement was a serious menace to General Burnside, who had at Knoxville and in its vicinity about twelve thousand men to oppose to Longstreet's twenty thousand. Longstreet's approach to Knoxville, however, was so deliberate as to allow Burnside time to concentrate his forces and to fortify himself hastily but effectively. On the 20th of November, the town was invested, but not thoroughly. The Confederate General was not aware apparently that the Holston and French Broad rivers came together four miles above Knoxville, and contented himself with blockading the Holston above the junction, leaving open the French Broad, by means of which supplies were constantly conveyed to the besieged.

On the 29th of November, at daylight, the Confederates assaulted Fort Saunders, on the west of the town, an almost impregnable point in its outer defences. The attacking force consisted of three brigades of McLaw's division. The attack was delivered upon the northwest angle of the fort, probably its strongest point. It was necessary for the storming party, after climbing a high hill, to pass a difficult abattis, and to make its way through a labyrinth of telegraph wires stretched between the stumps of the original forest trees which had been felled. Having overcome these obstacles, a deep ditch was reached, beyond which rose the parapet of the fort to the height of more than twenty feet. When the broken, disordered and bleeding mass of Confederates reached the verge of the ditch there was no hesitation. In the face of a deadly musket fire and of a continuous discharge of hand grenades, they hurled themselves into the ditch and scrambled upon hands and knees up the steep and slippery embankment. Three times they succeeded in planting their battle flags upon the parapet, and once they entered the fort, but only to be killed or captured after a desperate struggle. The assault failed. Three hundred Confederates were captured, and from five to seven hundred dead and wounded lay before the abatis, among the broken wires and in the ditch.

This attack upon Fort Saunders was one of the most gallant and desperate encounters of the whole war, and if it had occurred upon a more conspicuous field would have been ranked with Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.

General Longstreet now concluded to molest Burnside no more, and leisurely retired to Virginia. Grant sent twenty thousand men to reinforce Burnside, but Longstreet had already withdrawn.

Immediately after the war Knoxville began to increase rapidly in population. The loyalty of East Tennessee won much favor for it at the North, and many desirable additions to the population of Knoxville came from that section.

It is probable that no city in the South contains so large a proportion of citizens of Northern and Western birth. Of foreign born citizens there are comparatively few, the tides of immigration having flowed always north of Mason and Dixon's line. Knoxville is therefore a thoroughly American city, of forty thousand population, free from sectional sentiment, progressive, but withal conservative, and proud of its deserved reputation as a center of education and of culture.

Its free schools, handsomely and commodiously housed, are most liberally supported, while the State University is the pride of the intelligent people of Tennessee. The State Deaf and Dumb School and a branch of the Asylum for the Insane are located there, and Knoxville College for the education of negroes is one of the best of its kind.

Knoxville contributed a handsome building to the "White City" of the Nashville Centennial, and afterwards the women of the city secured the removal of the building to Knoxville, where, at a point of vantage, it was re erected and dedicated to the cause of woman's advancement and to all the Muses.

Knoxville is an old town as things go in America, yet much of it is new. Its population has increased tenfold within thirty five years. It is therefore, in the main, modern in construction. In proportion to population it has by far the largest wholesale trade among the Southern cities. It enjoys a high degree of prosperity. It is the industrial, commercial and educational center of East Tennessee, and its future is full of promise.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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