Sweep of the Frontier Line across Tennessee

July 22, 2014  |  Permalink

For our second entry we return to the idea of the sweep of the Frontier Line across Tennessee as European contact emerged from the crossing points of the Appalachian Mountains or down the valleys from Virginia. Settlers from Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and, somewhat latter, Germany made early purchases of land from the Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals in what is now Elizabethton, Tennessee. Other purchases pushed further to the southwest, but still in East Tennessee. These settlers were advancing down the second geologic division of the state after the Appalachian Mountains – the Ridge and Valley region.

With the opening of the Cumberland Gap, settlers began to push into not only what would become Kentucky but also Middle Tennessee as they used the Cumberland Gap to bypass the escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Middle Tennessee settlements suffered many attacks by Natives, as they were, at first, well beyond the gradual movement of the Frontier Line.

Gradually the line of “improvement” and European developments passed the Cumberland Plateau geologic region and caught up with the settlers in the Central Basin of Tennessee (sometimes now called the Nashville Basin). In doing so, the line also advanced across a unique area of pocket prairies on the Eastern Highland Rim of Tennessee. Moving beyond the Central Basin, frontier consolidation crossed the Western Highland Rim and the Tennessee River where the river returns north through the state towards its junction with the Ohio River. Beyond this, the hills gradually begin to recede and the land flattens into the Mississippi River Delta country of Tennessee. Here, European settlers established agricultural patterns that would be even more distinct to their environment than in the other ecological regions in the East to West transit of settlement. The delta country would eventually be home to cotton plantations and would have a great impact on the eventual secession of Tennessee from the Union at the time of the American Civil War.

The time taken for the Frontier Line to move and gradually consolidate the Europeanization of these various geologic and ecological regions was considerable. To some extent it is represented by the movement of the Crockett family and Tennessee’s favorite son, David Crockett across the state. While David Crockett was not born until some of this process had already taken place, his movement (maintaining what he considered to be “elbow room”) kept him near the advance of the theoretical Frontier Line as he lived on the Nolichucky River in northeast Tennessee, in the Morristown area, the Lynchburg area, the Lawrenceburg area, and, eventually, Obion County prior to moving on to his fate in Texas.


I look forward to taking advantage of the opportunity that this page provides to fill out these stories of Spanish in Tennessee, English Fort Loudoun, American Indians, David Crockett, and the many stories so well told by our system of state parks. Every park represents an ecological region, a geologic division of the state, a unique spirit of place, and a significant part of the compelling stories that make up the story of our state.

About the author

Niki Conolly