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Research Assistance

Originally published in the "Bicentennial Bites" article series by Billie R. McNamara in The Standard-Banner in celebration of Tennessee's 200th statehood anniversary (1996).

Who were the original inhabitants of the area surrounding present-day Jefferson County?  Where did they live?  These two questions are hotly-debated in anthropological circles.  Two authorities, Charles Hudson (Univ. of Georgia) and Richard Polhemus (UT-Knoxville) have done extensive research and writing on these issues.  As information is uncovered and research techniques become more sophisticated, clearer answers may be discovered.

Bands of various Native American tribes travelled through East Tennessee, but most did not leave a record.  They made temporary and permanent homes along rivers and large streams.  It is impossible to determine what tribe was the first to arrive here.  Tennessee historians Garrett and Goodpasture wrote that it was "conjectured by ethnologists that the Natchez, if not the aborigines of Tennessee, were the first inhabitants of whom we have any trace."  The Natchez are thought to have extended as far east as the mountains dividing Tennessee from North Carolina.  Most information about the Natchez came from legends of other tribes and Spanish and French explorers.

Several Native American races simultaneously claimed Tennessee.  All of Tennessee, along with lands as far north and west as the Ohio River, was once called "The Great Hunting Grounds" of the Iroquois Confederacy.  The nations of the Confederacy, located primarily along the lower Great Lakes, believed their ancestors had conquered Tennessee and expelled the Natchez.  The Hunting Grounds were one of the most-fertile and best-watered lands in America, filled with fish and game of every kind.  Can you imagine that great herds of buffalo once roamed these valleys?  Today, thanks to movies and television, most people think buffalo only lived in the western plains.

Because it was so valuable, the Iroquois killed any hunters who entered the Hunting Grounds without permission.  The Iroquois "hired" the Cherokee and Chickasaw to help guard the Hunting Grounds.  The beautiful, fertile area was uninhabited and seemed to be just waiting for settlement when white pioneers arrived.

The Shawnee, part of the Algonquin race, travelled and hunted throughout present-day Tennessee for many years until they were defeated by Cherokee and Chickasaw warriors enforcing the Iroquois claim.  Interestingly, the Shawnee lent their name in various forms to more geographic locations than any other tribe.  Both Sewanee, Tennessee, and Savannah, Georgia, derived from the word "Shawnee."  A smaller tribe, known as Uchee or Yuchi, lived in East Tennessee until they were apparently defeated by the Cherokee.  The Yuchi were gone before white settlers arrived in Tennessee about 1769.

The Overhill Cherokee, part of the Mobilian (or Appalachian) race, are the best-known Native Americans resident in East Tennessee.  Cherokee influence on East Tennessee will be discussed in the future.

No one has found proof of long-term residence by any specific tribe in present-day Jefferson County.  However, scientific study of some locations has proven that Native Americans lived in Jefferson County from very early prehistoric times.  The most important location was probably on Zimmerman's Island, in the French Broad River near Dandridge.  Zimmerman's Island does not appear on modern maps -- it was inundated by Douglas Reservoir when the dam closed.  Some anthropologists believe an extensive Native American village, "Chiaha," was located on Zimmerman's Island.

This aerial photograph is Zimmerman's Island as it appeared in 1925.  The island, now under Douglas Reservoir, was located in the Shady Grove Community.  When driving along Highway 139 near the Shady Grove Boat Dock, look across the lake and toward the Dam -- you will be looking at the spot where the island used to be.  For directional assistance, Highway 139 and Deep Springs Road have been highlighted in the lower left corner of the picture.

In this photo, the Chiaha burial mound appears near the upper end of the island as a black dot.  This burial mound, nearly thirty feet high, is one of the largest in East Tennessee.

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