Podcast Appalachia 2: Early Appalachian Explorers and Settlers
Hello, I’m John Norris Brown, and you’re listening to Podcast Appalachia, a podcast dedicated to the study and understanding of the Appalachian region.
In my last podcast, I attempted to define the geographic boundaries of Appalachia. Today, I want to look at some of the early history of the Appalachian region, including exploration and settlement, as well as the often tragic conflict between Europeans and Native Americans.
Appalachia is a unique region and is considered by some to be America’s “first frontier.” Over the millennia it has been “discovered” many times and has seen more than its share of conflict, tragedy, and bloodshed. In order to fully appreciate this long history, we must travel back in time long before written history to an almost forgotten people.
The first settlers in the Appalachian region came over 14,000 years ago. There are no written records, so much about them remains a mystery. However, it is known that the ancestors of the Iroquois and Cherokee people migrated into the Appalachian Mountains from the west in about 12,000 BC. They then split into two separate and distinct societies: the Iroquois in the north, and the Cherokee in the south.
The Cherokee became the most prominent peoples in pre-colonial Appalachia. Like most eastern woodland Indians, they were hunters and farmers who lived in small independent villages. Considered one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by white settlers, the Cherokee were generally considered peaceful and lived in small, autonomous united called towns. They were a matrilineal society who placed great emphasis on the family.
Although predominant in Southern Appalachia, the Cherokee were not the only Native Americans who inhabit the region. Many other peoples lived here as well, including the Shawnee, the Yuchi, the Catawba, and countless others who have slipped into oblivion, lost to history forever.
During the 16th century, European explorers began to make their way into the Appalachian region. They also made first contact with the Native Americans, but in those days these contacts were only sporadic.
Also during the 16th century the Appalachian Mountains were given their name by Europeans. By this time, Spanish explorers were searching for gold in present-day Florida. The Apalachee peoples, a Native American society that lived near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, perhaps eager to rid themselves of their greedy and aggressive guests, told the Spanish stories of gold located in distant mountains to the north.
These stories were later embellished by French explorers, who told tales of vast amounts of gold in what are now the Appalachian mountains. By 1562, the term “Appalachen,” borrowed from the Apalachee people, began appearing on European maps.
The first European descriptions of the Appalachian mountains come from the expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, which took place between 1539-1543. In his quest for gold, de Soto headed north from Florida, eventually reaching the Carolina Piedmont. He then headed westward, crossing the Blue Ridge and either the Great Smoky or Black Mountains, into the valley of East Tennessee.
While in present day Tennessee, de Soto’s party visited the village of Chiaha, a native village located on an island in Little Tennessee and Cheoa Rivers on the north and west, the Little Tennessee and Nantahala River on the south and east. This island is located about 30 miles north of the modern-day city of Knoxville.
After departing the island, the de Soto expedition headed southwest, through modern day Northern Georgia and Alabama, and finally into Mississippi. The surviving records of the expedition have little to say about the Appalachian region other than complaints of the difficulty in crossing the mountains, and of heat in the foothills and cold in the highlands.
By the 1600s, trading routes were established between European settlers and Native Americans in present-day North Carolina, including along the Hudson River.
During this same time, the Iroquois, considered a more warlike and imperial people than their distant cousins the Cherokee, began to expand their territory. They invaded and conquered numerous peoples in present-day Pennsylvania, the Virginias, and the Carolinas. As a result of these conquests, entire societies, including the Conoy, Tutelos, and Saponi, vanished from history. Thus it’s fair to say that the clashes in Appalachia were more than a simple European against Native American clash; they were multicultural and multiethnic.
The Anglo-Cherokee War, sometimes referred to as the Cherokee Rebellion or the War With the English, depending on whose side you were on, opened much of the Appalachian frontier to European settlement. At the outbreak of the French and Indian War, the British and Cherokee were technically allies, but they certainly did not trust each other with both sides fearing betrayal. Nonetheless, the Cherokee assisted the British, providing over 400 hundred warriors to fight in western Virginia and later in Alabama.
Despite this, the British apparently did not show their allies the respect they deserved. Feeling unappreciated, Cherokee leader Attakullakulla ordered his warriors home. Bitterness continued to grow on both sides, and eventually Virginians and Cherokees began fighting each other. The Virginians defeated the Cherokee and scalped about 20 of them, calling into question if the British were truly their allies
Some Cherokee called for peace, but others were outraged and began making retaliatory raids against settlers. War was openly declared on the British in 1759, but the effort proved disastrous for the Cherokee: they were defeated in 1761 and ended up handing over most of their eastern lands for white settlement.
Contact between Native Americans and European settlers was mostly, though not exclusively, characterized by conflict. This conflict was created by a sense of invasion by the white man on the part of the Native Americans and a sense of superiority on the part of the Europeans. One example of this is the contrast between the basic philosophies of the Cherokee and the Europeans. The Cherokee believed that humans were not superior to animals, that they were just another part of nature. As one result of this, they did not believe in land ownership. The Europeans, on the other hand, were interested in expanding their territory and often saw themselves as on a mission from God to conquer nature. They often viewed Native American societies as hopelessly primitive and savage and did not hesitate to use force if they felt that the Indians were in their way.
This sense of European superiority would continue. In the years following the arrival of European settlers in Appalachia, many Cherokee would adopt certain aspects of European culture. Many would become very prosperous. In spite of this, Congress, with the strong support of President Andrew Jackson, passed the Indian Removal Act of 1831. Though the Cherokee would challenge this law and ultimately prevail in the Supreme Court, most of them were still forced onto the Trail of Tears in 1838, a particularly sad chapter of American and Appalachian history.
In 1716 the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, led an armed expedition across the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Shenandoah Valley. European colonization would begin shortly thereafter; perhaps as early as 1719. In 1730 the colony of Virginia began to offer land grants for white settlers on this land. By 1735, at least 54 families had taken advantage of the offer and were living in the Shenandoah Valley.
To avoid Indian country, which was located to the west of the Shenandoah Valley, settlers migrated southward, eventually reaching the Carolina Piedmont. By the mid-1700s, white settlers began to flood into what is now considered Southern Appalachia, reaching southwestern Virginia, Western North Carolina, and upper East Tennessee by 1761.
During this same time, large numbers of Scots-Irish and German settlers were entering the Appalachian region from western Pennsylvania. These settlers followed the Ohio River’s tributaries into the mountains, flooding into the Shenandoah and southward. The culture of these new settlers, particularly the Scots-Irish, would become the dominant culture of Appalachia up until the present day.
In an effort to prevent white settlers from overrunning Native American lands, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763. This bill banned all settlement by Europeans of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, reserving that land for Native Americans. Although it was the law of the land, it was largely ignored by settlers, who continued to settle wherever they pleased.
Among the most important early settlements beyond this line were the Watauga Settlements of Upper East Tennessee, The Holston River settlements of Virginia and North Carolina, and the Harrodsburg and Boonesboro settlements of Eastern Kentucky.
Settlement in the Watauga area of Tennessee, near present-day Elizabethton and Kingsport, began in the 1760s. In 1772, realizing that they resided outside the jurisdictions of both North Carolina and Virginia, settlers created the Watauga Association in order to provide local government for themselves. Early leaders in the settlement included John Sevier and James Robertson. Sevier, a well known Indian fighter, would go on become a hero at the Battle of King’s Mountain and governor of two states: the ill-fated and never officially recognized State of Franklin, and the state of Tennessee. The Watauga Association petitioned both Virginia and North Carolina for official recognition. This settlement would even go so far as to declare independence from the British before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
White settlement in Eastern Kentucky began with the legendary long hunters during the 1760s. Although it was illegal to do so, white settlers began moving north from the Cumberland Gap area to settle in this land, which was designated for Indians. Despite their differences, they were able to coexist with Native Americans, although not without some conflict.
Soon behind these settlers came speculators, including one of the most famous frontiersmen in American history, Daniel Boone, who worked for the company of Richard Henderson. Boone came from the Watauga area, leading settlers along the famous Wilderness Road to the site of the settlement. He established Boonesboro, the first chartered town in Kentucky, in 1775. Soon afterwards, the settlements of Lexington and Limestone appeared. Eventually, disputes with the Native Americans in the region would result in the abandonment of the settlement, however.
Settlers in Appalachia, both those Europeans who came a few centuries ago, and the Native Americans who came thousands of years ago, where a diverse lot. They consisted of countless cultures, nationalities, and goals. Yet they must have had at least two things in common: a hearty spirit and a sense of adventure.
The sources for this episode were A Handbook to Appalachia, edited by Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox, Appalachia: A History by John Alexander Williams, The United States of Appalachia by Jeff Biggers, and the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell.
That’s it for today. As always, thank you to the 1937 Flood for the music you heard at the beginning. I encourage you to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments, suggestions, or criticism you may have. A transcript of this episode is available at podcastappalachia.blogspot.com. I thank you for taking the time to listen to this episode, and I hope we will speak again soon.