Before 1700 AD: The Cherokee & the Melungeons
The Sunny Side Trail travels the ancient Appalachian Mountains, the oldest mountains in North America and among the oldest in the world. Wind and rain shaped them and created some of the nation’s wildest rivers, like the French Broad, estimated to be the third oldest river in the world. Eastern Tennessee was also home to some of the earliest human settlements in the state. Mound building cultures from over 10,000 years ago left their remains in places like the McMahan Mound in Sevierville and along the banks of the French Broad River. Sunny Side was once the sacred hunting land of the Great Cherokee Nation. The Nation dominated the region from South Carolina up through Kentucky for hundreds of years before the white colonists arrived in the 1700s. The Cherokee sought ways to integrate their culture with this new, dominant colonial culture. They were labeled as one of the five “civilized” tribes, a culture with their own written language and significant economic stability. Following the War of 1812, however, none of these efforts was sufficient to prevent the federal government under President Andrew Jackson from forcing out the majority of the Cherokee people in what became known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee were not the only early people in Eastern Tennessee. In 1673, hunters from Virginia encountered people of mixed race who reported being in the mountains for a very long time, thought to be descendents of either Portuguese explorers from the 1500s or early Viking explorers who intermarried with Native Americans and African-Americans. To this day, no one knows their exact origin, but the Melungeon people have a distinct genetic heritage and most live in Hancock County.
1770-1800: Tennessee Firsts
By the 1770s, while still under British rule, disenchanted settlers like Daniel Boone sought land and freedom away from the Eastern Seaboard. They settled throughout the northeast part of what is now Tennessee in an area that became known as the Watauga Settlement, forming their own constitution and government. Theodore Roosevelt later cited this effort as America’s first free government. Jonesborough became the first established town in Tennessee in 1779. Other early towns included Elizabethton, Greeneville, Dandridge, Rogersville, Johnson City and Bristol. As America fought for its independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War, the Overmountain Men marched from East Tennessee to South Carolina in 1780 and defeated the loyalists at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Thomas Jefferson referred to it as the “turning of the tide” in the war for freedom from Britain. Following the Revolutionary War, the people of Watauga became frustrated with their lack of representation from the states of Virginia and North Carolina. In a declaration of independence never acknowledged by Congress, East Tennessee settlements formed the State of Franklin. It existed from 1784 to 1788 and laid the groundwork for the creation of the first U.S. territory, the Southwest Territory, and then eventually the creation of the state of Tennessee. President George Washington appointed William Blount as Governor of the Southwest Territory, and he took up residence at Rocky Mount to conduct its business affairs from 1790 to 1792. George Roulston and Robert Ferguson printed The Knoxville Gazette in Rogersville, in 1791. This was the first newspaper from the new territory, south of the Ohio River.
1800-1900: Growth & Conflict
Davy Crockett was born and raised along the Sunny Side Trail, and he helped carve out the state of Tennessee from the forests and mountains, fighting heroically in the War of 1812 and becoming one of the founding fathers of the state. Following the war, the federal government under President Andrew Jackson marched the Cherokee people living in East Tennessee to Oklahoma on what became known as the Trail of Tears. At the same time that Crockett fought for freedom and the Cherokee were being forced from their homes, the people of East Tennessee wereleaders in questioning the culture of slavery in the U.S. Elihu Embree of Jonesborough published the nation’s first periodical dedicated to the eradication of slavery, The Emancipator, in 1820. Abolitionist groups were common in the region, and while there were some slaves held in East Tennessee, the majority of residents opposed slavery and secession from the Union. In 1861, the western part of the state won the statewide secession vote, and Tennessee left the Union. East Tennesseans paid the price in harassment, jail and death at the hands of the Confederate supporters. In 1863, Union forces won several key battles in the state and took control, turning the tables on Confederate sympathizers who then suffered equally at the hands of angry Unionists. The result was a culture of families, neighbors, communities and an entire state divided. Andrew Johnson, once a tailor in Greeneville, was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President. Upon Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he inherited one of the most monumental tasks forced upon a president — uniting a nation torn apart by the Civil War. Almost every small town along the Sunny Side Trail has been shaped by the frenzy of railroad activity in the 1800s. The East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad ended Northeastern Tennessee’s isolation from towns further west in 1858. As the tracks were laid and the depots built, the passengers and freight traffic coming through stops like Bristol, Johnson City, and Newport created opportunities for entrepreneurs to open the inns, taverns, and general stores that created a buzzing local economy. As construction and equipment began to modernize in the late 1800s, the network of railroads expanded and brought even more traffic through Sunny Side. In this region, the lines were specifically designed to travel through the twists and turns of the mountain routes, creating easier export for the valuable natural resources found here.
1900-1920: Moonshine, Music & Migration
Prohibition in the 1920s outlawed the manufacture and sale of liquor, giving a new value to the homemade Appalachian liquor known as moonshine. Daredevil drivers eluded federal marshals under the cover of darkness to “run the shine from the hollers to the speakeasies” on the treacherous mountain route known as “Thunder Road.” The shine runners became local celebrities, holding public races that eventually grew into today’s NASCAR. In 1927, a talent scout from the Victor Talking Machine Company came to Tennessee and held the Bristol Recording Sessions, recognized as the birth of country music. These sessions and others discovered Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and The Stoneman Family. The Great Depression of the 1930s brought about federal projects in East Tennessee that transformed the region economically, but also forced over 45,000 people from their homes. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) sought to address flood control, power generation and outdoor recreation with the creation of massive dams and reservoirs that required the relocation of people, homes and cemeteries. Watauga, Douglas, Cherokee and South Holston are all projects on Sunny Side created by the TVA. The creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 had the same effect, with over 1,000 families removed from their land to create what is now America’s most popular national park, a national treasure that draws 10 million visitors a year.
1930 to Today: A Queen of Art & Entertainment
Today, East Tennessee is home to some of the state’s most engaging and most visited amusement, shopping and entertainment attractions, and the area is still known for its Appalachian crafts communities. Tennessee’s first city, Jonesborough, is now the Storytelling Capital of the World, hosting an annual fall festival that draws huge crowds to hear the best storytelling in the nation. Music is very much alive and well on the Sunny Side Trail, where dozens of local music venues promote and preser ve the Appalachian and early country music sound. The legacy of the moonshiners lives on at the world’s fastest half-mile NASCAR track at Bristol Motor Speedway and Dragway, and the gorgeous hills and rivers create some of the country’s favorite national, state, and city parks and recreation areas.