• 68°

East Tennessee History: Overmountain Men

The first people to come into east Tennessee were the Native Americans. The Cherokee, the Creek and the Choctaw all called these mountains home at one time or the other.
They left their artifacts, including arrowheads, spear points and ax heads, along creek banks and in open fields where they camped and hunted game.
In fact, an Indian burial site was found a few years ago in this area that had artifacts that dated back to 1200 AD. This tells us that the first people in this area came a long, long time ago.
Next came the explorers who came for gold and to spread the word of God. People like de Soto would travel into east Tennessee, but they left soon after their arrival. Their letters, diaries and journals told of a land filled with mountains and rivers that no white man had ever used.
Next, came the Long Hunters, who also explored this area and traded with the Indians. They were hoping to make a good living, but what they did more than anything else was explore and find the easiest roads into the frontier that would become east Tennessee, western North Carolina, southwest Virginia and southeastern Kentucky. The Long Hunters did not become rich by any means, but they left a lasting footprint on the land for others to follow.
As these Long Hunters returned to the colonies, they told the people about the abundant land west of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Though the Proclamation Line of 1763 had forbidden any English settlement west of the spine of the Appalachians, many people pulled up stakes and moved across the mountains anyway.
Settlers, starting with William Bean in 1769, moved to east Tennessee. Bean moved to where Boone’s Creek meets the Watauga River, and there he built a cabin. Soon the first white baby was born west of the Appalachians. His name was Russell Bean.
The first settler had arrived, and there would be many, many more to follow.
Most of the people who first came to this area were originally from three states: North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Some of these settlers brought slaves with them. A few free African Americans also settled in the state.
Many refer to the first settlers as the Overmountain Men because they came over the mountains into this untamed land of east Tennessee.
Along the way, they were in constant danger of Indian attacks, the British empire could send troops and force them back to the English settlements at any time or they could die from the natural causes of the land. Snakebites, floods, falls and hunger were daily struggles for most of these settlers.
Many traveled together as families, communities or even strangers hoping there would be more safety in numbers should they encounter Indian attacks.
In the end they were taking a big risk by moving over the mountains. They would have to depend upon themselves and what materials and skills they brought with them to make a new life, a new community in a rugged wilderness.
They followed old Indian trails, animal paths and the trails created by the Long Hunters to get to east Tennessee, and once they were here, they could build flat boats and make their way further west by floating down the rivers. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were just two of the rivers used for travel.
Most of these Overmountain Men came to Tennessee with their pack animals, wagons and a few iron utensils. They carried extra lead, gun powder and tools because they had to build most of their furniture. A cabin had to be built and a barn had to be constructed, and they could not count on anyone else to get the workload done.
They farmed and planted the seeds they had brought with them, and somehow, they survived. Eventually, they prospered.
They were made of a tough stock, and that trait has been passed to many of us who still live in these mountains. It’s an attitude of self-reliance, of respect for others and of independence. Finally, it is an attitude of appreciation because we know what we have and what our ancestors endured to give us all we have.