Knoxville: History

Settlement Becomes Supply Center

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first humans to live in what is now Knoxville were of the Woodland tribe, a group of hunters and trappers driven south from the Great Lakes region by climatic changes, probably about 1000 B.C. Their simple culture eventually gave way to that of the more sophisticated mound builders, whose influence was felt throughout most of the South. By 1761, the year the first white men were known to have explored Knoxville, the mound builders had been displaced by yet another group of Native Americans, the Cherokee.

Early contacts between the white settlers and the Cherokee were fairly cordial, which encouraged colonial expansion into the land west of the Great Smoky Mountains. In 1783 North Carolina's James White and several friends crossed the mountains in search of a place to stake a claim. White later returned to the area with his family, and in 1786 he became Knoxville's first permanent settler when he built a log cabin on a hill overlooking a stream that fed into the Tennessee River. A peace treaty with the Cherokee sparked additional migration into the region, and soon White's cabin was joined by several others. After the pioneers connected their cabins with a stake fence, the settlement took on the name White's Fort. Because of its strategic location, it quickly began serving as a repair and supply center for westbound wagon trains.

In 1790 William Blount, newly appointed governor of the territory south of the Ohio River and superintendent of Indian affairs for the same region, arrived at White's Fort and established his headquarters there. One of his first tasks was to meet with the Cherokee and establish territorial boundaries; this he accomplished almost immediately, purchasing from the Cherokees much of the East Tennessee Valley and opening the area to even more settlers. In 1791, at Blount's suggestion, streets were laid out around White's Fort and a town was incorporated that the governor named Knoxville in honor of the Secretary of War, Major General Henry Knox. By 1792, Knoxville had become the county seat, and it continued to grow steadily as a trading post. When Tennessee was admitted to the Union in 1796, Knoxville even served as the state's first capital, a designation it retained until 1812. Despite its political and economic status, Knoxville at the turn of the century was little more than a rowdy village of taverns and smithies that catered to teamsters, flatboatmen, soldiers, and homesteaders on their way west.

City Grows Slowly

Knoxville's first industries were related to its function on the frontier; among the most common were grist mills, sawmills, tanyards, cotton-spinning factories, and wool-carding mills. Because of the transportation difficulties posed by the mountains and unnavigable parts of the Tennessee River, no attempt was made to mine nearby coal, iron, and marble for shipping out of the region. As a result, Knoxville grew rather slowly in comparison with the rest of the state, posting a population of barely more than 2,000 people in 1850. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850s promised change, but the advent of the Civil War put a halt to further development.

A majority of east Tennessee citizens were loyal to the Union before and even during the Civil War, and their opposition to secession made Tennessee the last state to join the Confederate States of America. Alarmed at the thought of so many Union sympathizers in a critical border state, the Confederate Army occupied the city from early 1861 until August 1863, shortly before Union troops arrived and established headquarters there. In November of that same year, Confederate troops tried to recapture Knoxville. After a two-week-long siege, they were eventually repulsed, but victory for the Union forces came at a great cost to Knoxville—railroad shops, factories, virtually all public buildings, and some private homes were either burned to the ground or badly damaged.

The Reconstruction period was a boon to the city as hundreds of former Union soldiers chose to return to Knoxville to settle permanently, bringing with them the business and labor skills so desperately needed to rebuild what had been destroyed during the war. The population swelled to almost 10,000 people in 1870, up from less than 3,000 people in 1860. The rest of the century brought still more development; iron plants, cloth mills, furniture factories, marble quarries, and foundry and machine companies were established, and Knoxville began to emerge as a major southern commercial center.

Economic Problems Abound

Throughout much of the twentieth century, however, Knoxville saw its postwar progress eroded by racial tension, periodic economic downturns, the Great Depression of the 1930s, loss of population to the suburbs, and a series of ineffective city governments. The 1920s provided a brief respite from economic woes as the city benefited from the national boom, but social and political conditions continued to deteriorate when conservative leaders clashed with progressive elements over the best way to tackle Knoxville's problems. Like so many other cities, Knoxville was hit hard by the Great Depression; factories closed, major banks failed, and the optimism of the previous decade faded, leaving in its place a cautiousness that influenced decision-makers for years to come.

Wartime Brings Prosperity

World War II brought prosperity to the area, especially at Alcoa Aluminum, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Rohm & Haas, manufacturers of plexiglass for airplanes. The influx of federal money and jobs led to increased activity in other areas, including construction, service industries, and retail and wholesale trade. But Knoxville failed to capitalize on the wartime gains and instead entered another period of stagnation during the 1950s.

City Celebrates Progressive Spirit

Since the mid-1960s, however, Knoxville has been busy reversing the trends of previous years. A new generation of progressive business and political leaders has worked to make the city more attractive to developers, initiating facelifts for downtown buildings, arranging financing for new projects, cleaning up the riverfront, and demolishing or upgrading substandard housing. The 1982 World's Fair and its theme of "Energy Turns the World" focused even more attention on the city's attempts to stage a comeback. New industries, especially high-technology ones, have established facilities in the area, and old industries have expanded. This in turn has led to gains in construction, services, and retail trade as thousands of young, well-educated, and affluent workers have followed the high-technology firms to Knoxville. In 2005, Expansion Management magazine ranked Knoxville 14th on its list of "America's 50 Hottest Cities" for businesses looking to expand or relocate. Knoxville intends to build on the progress of the past to make the twenty-first century the best years yet for the "Gateway to the Smokies."

Historical Information: East Tennessee Historical Society, McClung Historical Collection, 314 W. Clinch Ave., Knoxville, TN 37902; telephone (865)544-5744