Tennessee’s Historic River Portage

March 4, 2015  |  Permalink

While the Cherokee tribe once dominated much of what is now Tennessee, and likely gave the river and the state their names, by the early 1800s their nation had withdrawn to a core area in southeastern Tennessee and northern Georgia. With more population in Georgia by this time, their social, religious, and political gathering places where primarily within Georgia.

As the pressure for European-American settlement land increased in Georgia (along with stories of rich resources on Indian lands), the State of Georgia eventually began to pass laws about gatherings of Native Americans in the state. With Cherokee councils outlawed in Georgia, the Cherokee looked to an ancient gathering place just across the line in Tennessee to serve as a Council Ground. The Red Clay site had a renowned spring with likely religious as well as practical value. Red Clay became the last gathering place of the Cherokee prior to their forced removal and the Trail of Tears. Tennessee honors this site and the story of the Trail of Tears at the Red Clay State Historic Park.

In the Red Clay area, you do not have to look far for other stories that illustrate the degree to which Cherokee had worked to adopt European ways in land use, culture, business, and transportation. One of these business enterprises, however, was of ancient significance.

Famous boatyards near Benton, Tennessee and nearby Spring Place, Georgia were operated by the Cherokee Hildebrand and McNair families respectively. These were opposite ends of a portage of very long importance in eastern North America. The eleven mile canoe portage or, latter, a wagon transport portage, between the upper reaches of the Ocoee River in Tennessee and the Conasauga River in Georgia, provided one of the most significant “shortcuts” in the East.

While this Cherokee portage had great significance in the Cherokee’s own realm and in the Southeast in general, it also had a significant importance to the history of transport and communications for the entire eastern half of North America. With the use of this portage combined with just two more such portages, one could travel a remarkably direct inland water route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Particularly for more eastern peoples, this was a critical route. Further to the west, the Mississippi River route was predominate, but that was a much longer route for more eastern peoples. Eastern groups may have had less certain agreements with the social and political entities through which they would have to pass on the Ohio River/Mississippi River journey. 

While there were several portage possibilities leaving the Great Lakes, among the most significant for the route we are considering to the Gulf would leave Lake Erie to ascend the Cuyahoga River to the Portage Lakes where an eight mile portage would access the Tuscarawas River leading to the Muskingum and to the Ohio. Leaving the Ohio at the Big Sandy River, the route would proceed up the Big Sandy and take the best fork for the conditions – either the Tug Fork or the Lousia, now termed the Levisa Fork. Either leads to the headwaters of the Clinch River flowing south/southeast into the Tennessee country.

Once the Clinch entered the Tennessee River, that river was followed until ascending the Hiwassee to the Ocoee River and its boatyard. Here, we are at the portage in question leading overland to the Conasauga River, from the Conasauga to the Oostanaula, from the Oostanaula to the Coosa and from the Coosa to the Alabama River, and from the Alabama to the Mobile River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay.

One can imagine how long such a route would have been known and used in the East. It offered great advantages. In the historic period, the operation had become big business and was under control of the Cherokee. Large and heavy wagons were kept at the boatyards to haul freight, or the boats themselves, across the portage route. In March, 1821, a newspaper in Montgomery announced the arrival of a 50' x by 6' by 6' depth boat carrying 100 barrels, that had come "near 1000 miles" by the Tennessee, Hiwassee, Ocoee, Conasauga, Oostanaula, and Coosa rivers, without unloading. In 1827, 12,000 gallons of whiskey were reported as using the portage on the journey into the Deep South.

The Cherokee also participated in another transportation enterprise in the 1800s. A government road was proposed connecting through Tennessee to the Georgia country. The Cherokee were contracted to build the road through their territory. Upon completion, the tribe received considerable praise for the route and their work in construction. Much of this route would have followed the old trade route or trace that had approached the old portage from the north – and then, for a distance, the portage route itself.
Another “choke point” for north-south transportation in the early history of the United States was the Natchez Trace crossing of the Tennessee River. This came to be controlled by a Cherokee as well and the entrepreneurial enterprise was rewarded when Andrew Jackson paid a considerable sum for ferrying his army across the Tennessee on their way to the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.

The portage, though, was the original “Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway” – connecting the Tennessee River to the Gulf as the Tombigbee project did with great expense and environmental impact in more recent history. The portage route and the Tombigbee Waterway join to form the Mobile River before emptying into the Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Red Clay State Historic Park commemorates the last gathering place of the Cherokee before removal and the tribes experience on the infamous Trail Of Tears. The Historic Park is just to the west of the north / south portage route. 

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Niki Conolly