November is National Native American Heritage Month, and visitors often ask about Native American culture and history in Knoxville and the surrounding area. This post by the Executive Director and Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Blount Mansion shares about Knoxville’s early days transforming from frontier to fledgling capital city of the Southwest Territory. The Cherokee and white settlers throughout this region had a complicated relationship as their interactions included trade, battles, alliances, raids, and negotiations.
Downtown Knoxville, TN is located atop a bluff on a scenic bend in the wide Tennessee River. It seems a natural spot to put a town—especially a capital city—but Knoxville actually owes its prized location to a treaty signed here between white settlers and Native Americans before the city even existed.
James White’s Fort
The first European settlement in Knoxville was established by North Carolina Revolutionary War veteran James White in 1786. James White’s Fort consisted of several log cabins surrounded by a wooden stockade wall. The compound was truly an outpost in a wild frontier—a contested wilderness where white settlers fought regular battles with Cherokee warriors, and in which daily life was a struggle for survival.
William Blount | Map of Southwest Territory
Change was coming, and more settlers were on the way. The surrounding area, which was initially part of North Carolina, became the federal Southwest Territory four years later in 1790, and William Blount, a U.S. Constitution signer also from North Carolina, was appointed governor by President George Washington. Blount set up a temporary headquarters near modern-day Kingsport, Tennessee, more than one hundred miles away from James White’s Fort. Blount’s first encounter with the spot where Knoxville now stands came in the summer of 1791, when he journeyed here to meet with Cherokee leaders and attempt to arrange a peace that would permit more white settlers to come to the territory and establish homesteads. Until some sort of truce could be established, there was no hope of growing the territory’s population enough to justify the creation of a new state.
On the Holston River in Northeast Knox County
On the banks of the river near the mouth of First Creek, Blount and a few white settlers gathered under a tent to meet with more than a thousand Cherokee and their chiefs. The governor wore a full-dress military uniform and sword. The Native American leaders, resplendent in their finest attire, performed an Eagle Tail Dance to demonstrate their strength and resilience. The Cherokee believed Blount was there to discuss the failure of the U.S. government to make settlers respect the terms of previous agreements, while Blount entered the negotiations with the main goal of purchasing more Cherokee land. The elders were so put off by Blount’s obsession with land that they reportedly called him “the Dirt Captain” behind his back. Eventually, the new governor coaxed the Cherokee to meet his terms.
The Treaty of Holston | courtesy Mary Utopia Rothrock Collection, McClung Historical Collection
The treaty that the parties signed on July 2, 1791 was called the Treaty of Holston, after the former name of the winding waterway which we now know as the Tennessee River. It was ostensibly a treaty of peace and friendship which aimed to establish permanent boundaries between the settlers and the Cherokee. The agreement papered over serious grievances and paved the way for white expansion into the territory, though brutal conflict between the tribes and militia leaders like John Sevier were to come in the near future.
One might assert that the city of Knoxville was born, or at least conceived, when William Blount sat beneath his elaborate tent on the banks of the Holston (now Tennessee) River. Blount liked the spot so much that he elected to build his permanent capital city there. It was actually Blount’s second choice, but he was unable to convince the Cherokee to relinquish his preferred location near modern-day Kingston, TN. In the fall of 1791, James White’s land was divided into sixty-four lots, which were distributed by lottery to would-be buyers. Blount began construction on his own home, now known as Blount Mansion, on one of those lots in early 1792. He named the new city Knoxville, in honor of his boss, Secretary of War Henry Knox. On Jun 1, 1796, the federal Southwest Territory was admitted to the union as the new state of Tennessee. The founding of our city predates the creation of the state by nearly five years.
Treaty of Holston Monument
While the exact location of Blount’s historic meeting with the Cherokee is lost to history, there are spots where visitors and locals can see reminders today. At Volunteer Landing, a picturesque park on the east end of Knoxville’s waterfront River Walk, an imposing carved limestone block commemorates the signing of the treaty. The thirteen-ton, ten-foot-tall sculpture, carved by sculptor Raymond Kaskey, was dedicated in July 1998 following the 207th anniversary of the signing of the treaty. “I wanted to create a work of art that makes people think of the consequences of this event while not advocating a particular point of view,” Kaskey told the Knoxville News-Sentinel at the time. The carving features eight individuals, each representing a different aspect of the event. These include William Blount, a Cherokee chief, an interpreter, a Cherokee woman and child, and a Cherokee brave with his back turned to the others—representing those who opposed the 1791 treaty and future generations of Cherokee who were forced onto the Trail of Tears.
Visitors may also pay a visit to Governor Blount’s home, Blount Mansion National Historic Landmark, located at 200 West Hill Avenue in downtown Knoxville. Inside, you may gaze out of the circa-1792 poured glass windows and contemplate the vista that impressed William Blount when he signed the Treaty of Holston here on the banks of the river more than two centuries ago.