During this time, some of us are finding ourselves being still for a change.
And being still can allow us time to learn about this place where we live. There’s a lot to discover. And ponder. And imagine. And it can be done without traveling far.
I’m talking about McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties — a region known as the Tennessee Overhill.
The Tennessee Overhill was shaped in large part by the Industrial Revolution. Agriculture dominated the local economy for a long time, but the fur and hide trade, mining, timber extraction, textile production and coming of the railroads placed the Overhill in the midst of vast changes brought by the Industrial Revolution.
The word “industrial” is not very sexy and that could discourage some people from viewing the historical period as the romantic era that it was. But the story of how the Industrial Revolution played out here is very romantic. Even epic. The companies and workers that came here shaped this land and our culture in profound ways.
The Tennessee Overhill does not always fit the stereotypical notion of what the American South is. When I traveled to other states as part of my previous job, I sometimes encountered people who thought the entire South is like “Gone with the Wind.”
I would typically respond by saying, “I don’t come from the South of mint juleps, hoop skirts or plantations. I come from the South of textile mills, timber camps, mines, company towns and small subsistence farms.”
In subsequent articles, I plan to write about some of the occupations and people that played a role in the Industrial Revolution in the Tennessee Overhill. However, for this piece, I will stick to the 18th century Overhill Cherokee fur and hide trade — the economic activity that introduced our corner of the world to the global marketplace.
For centuries, Western Europe relied on animal furs and skins from Scandinavia, Russia and the Middle East, but North American Indian trappers began to replace much of that trade. The Overhill Cherokees were no exception.
Beaver skins were preferred for the manufacture of hats for well-to-do European men, but deerskins were the most prized because they were used to produce military uniforms for troops involved in the European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1707, the colony of South Carolina began to regulate the fur trade between the Cherokees and Europe. The scale of this vibrant economic engine can be seen in official export records from South Carolina that show over 50,000 hides were shipped to Europe annually. Profits from this trade were invested in the early industrial development in Great Britain.
The fur and hide trade operated on a credit system. South Carolina merchants bought goods that were imported from England on credit. They sold those same goods to Indian traders who then sold them to Cherokees to be repaid in furs and hides from the year’s hunt.
Cherokees exchanged the furs and hides for an assortment of imported goods (guns, cloth, iron tools, etc.). Although the practice was discouraged, traders also sold rum that was priced by the mouthful.
Historical accounts reveal that buyers would bring along a man with the biggest mouth. And they watched carefully to ensure none of the precious liquid was swallowed before being spit into a container.
Like many extractive industries, the fur trade was not sustainable. The beaver and deer populations were decimated from over-harvesting. Cherokee National Forest archaeologist Quentin Bass argues that the decline of the beaver population changed the forest in ways that have not been fully recognized.
Sadly, Cherokee culture was disrupted by the trade in ways that did not ultimately benefit them. Their alliance with the British during the Revolutionary War — coupled with a series of treaties that included ceding land, along with pressures from white settlement — resulted in a decline in the population of the Overhill Cherokee towns.
While the old Cherokee towns faded into time, along with the fur and hide trade, the Cherokee people did not. Today, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma is a thriving and sovereign nation of over 200,000 people.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, based in North Carolina, has over 12,000 enrolled members. Another 15,000 Cherokees are members of the United Keetoowah Band.
To learn more about the Overhill fur and hide trade, visit Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Fort Loudoun and the Tellico Blockhouse. They have reopened to the public with some restrictions. If you prefer to stay outside, you can enjoy walking the grounds.
Take the 12-mile ride from the museum to the memorials for Chota, an early capital of the Cherokee Nation, and Tanasi, the Overhill Cherokee town that Tennessee takes its name from. The memorials are located next to Tellico Lake, the waters that now cover the old Overhill towns.
The Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association provides free information about the history of the Industrial Revolution as well as Cherokee history. Contact the office at 423-263-7232 and Miss Nancy will send you trail guides and brochures. You can also visit www.tennesseeoverhill.com and click on the section titled “Culture & Heritage.”
Suggested Reading: “Tellico Archaeology” by Jefferson Chapman, “The Unicoi Turnpike Trail” by Bill Akins, “From Furs to Factories” by Betty J. Duggan, “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook” by Barbara Duncan and Brett Riggs.