Summer in East Tennessee means TVA’s “winter draw-down” is over and the lakes are full.
People are frolicking all over the water, in some cases, unaware of the stories that are hidden beneath. When TVA dams were constructed, the impounded waters covered a number of historic places. Most people know the archaeological remains of several Overhill Cherokee towns, including Chota and Tanasi, early capitals of the Cherokee Nation, lie under Tellico Lake. The historic Mississippian village, Coste, once located downriver from Chota, is also submerged. Historical documents reveal that Hernando DeSoto spent six days at Coste in 1540.
Archaeologists believe Coste was located on Bussell Island. I had no curiosity about Coste, BusselI Island, or a place called Busselltown, until a few weeks ago. That’s when I went to my mailbox and discovered a package from Brenda Lee. Inside was a book titled “Busselltown.”
Written by Henry Molter, the book recounts the history of Busselltown, a community that once sat on a small finger of land across the Tennessee River from Lenoir City. The area was defined on the east and north by the Tennessee River and on the west by the Little Tennessee River.
Bussell Island sat across the eastern slough of the Little Tennessee River, opposite the peninsula where Busselltown eventually developed.
In his book, Molter uses a number of archival sources for his research, but I found the oral histories he gathered to be especially interesting. Brenda Lee’s husband, Garland Lee, grew up in Busselltown and was one of the people Molter interviewed.
As history played out, the little community of Busselltown became known for two things – ferries and whiskey. But there is a richer story to be told.
In 1810, a Revolutionary War grant allowed William Lenoir to acquire land on Bussell Island. After the 1819 Hiwassee Purchase, when Cherokees ceded their tribal lands south to the Hiwassee River, the peninsula, future site of Busselltown, opened up for settlement.
The James Bussell family arrived in 1826. Over time, their land holdings grew to include parts of Lenoir’s property. Then, Lenoir Island became known as Bussell Island.
Samuel Williams came from Wythe County, Virginia in 1828. Traveling by flatboat, he brought along five wagonloads of salt from Saltville, Virginia, hoping to barter salt for land. He eventually acquired 1,500 acres of the Busselltown peninsula.
Others found their way there too — whites, slaves, free blacks and a few Cherokees. Some lived on plantations and small farms. Some lived in shacks and houseboats.
Residents could travel overland up the peninsula to Maryville, but most relied on ferries to go back and forth to Lenoir City. Eventually, a small trade center developed called Busselltown
Most of those living in Busselltown in the 1800s farmed, but the Civil War halted local agriculture trade for a while. The area was occupied by Confederate and Union forces at different times.
Local men were conscripted to serve in the army, taking them away from their farms. The armies also confiscated livestock and other goods from local families.
Once the Civil War ended, farming recovered at Busselltown, but the Great Depression brought new challenges. Some families adapted by converting corn into moonshine.
Selling whiskey proved to be lucrative and the trade thrived well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, people began to associate Busselltown with illegal whiskey.
Cas Walker — Knoxville politician, grocer, and radio/TV personality — described Busselltown as “uncivilized.” Cas was not known for good journalism, but he had an audience.
In my opinion, denigrating Busselltown was a bit over the top. After all, the U.S. government imposed a whiskey tax to pay down debt incurred during the Revolutionary War.
Apparently, the colonists imbibed enough whiskey to generate revenue for the fledgling government.
The 1850 census cited eight whiskey distilleries operating in McMinn County. One pumped out over 6,000 gallons a year. Somebody was sipping whiskey in McMinn County and I don’t think Busselltown caused it.
The 20th century brought dramatic change to Busselltown. Molter relates that a few folks built businesses or owned enough land to sustain their families, but others took up hard work at places like the marble quarry at Friendsville or the brickyard at Greenback.
Despite the different economic status found among Busselltown residents, there was a strong sense of shared place. Molter writes, “When a daytime funeral was taking place at South Holston Baptist Church, the school across the road dismissed. Everyone was assumed to know and care about the family of the deceased.”
Fort Loudoun Dam flooded part of Busselltown in 1943. A bridge replaced the Bussell Ferry in 1961, diminishing the importance of Busselltown’s businesses, as well as the ferry.
After Tellico Dam closed its gates in 1979, the impounded waters obliterated farmland on the west side of Busselltown, plus two-thirds of Bussell Island
Today, Highway 321 races through what’s left of the peninsula, now dotted with campgrounds and lakeside homes. The South Holston Church perches atop a retaining wall at the intersection of Highway 321 and Jackson Bend Road. It’s all that’s left of Busselltown.
Space for this column doesn’t allow for more than a bare-bones chronology of Busselltown, but Henry Molter’s book adds flesh and life to the story. “Busselltown” can be bought at the Vonore Heritage Museum and Greenback Museum.
“The Bussells of Bussell Island” is available at the Vonore Heritage Museum.