Ancient Roots: Continuous Native American Habitation

From atop Lookout Mountain to the Tennessee River and valley below, archeological studies point to continuous habitation by Native Americans in the Chattanooga region for over 12,000 years. Many of those original locations are still easily accessible today, such as the Moccasin Bend Archeological District, Reflection Riding Nature Center and Arboretum, and Audubon Acres. 


Chronicles of Settlement: From Paleoindian to Historic Periods

Most evidence of archaeological sites date to the Mississippian era which was from around 1000 AD to 1520 AD. Mississippian people mainly settled where their ancestors had throughout the centuries at critical junctures like Chattanooga. The periods of settlement are Paleoindian (12,000 BC to 8000 BC), Archaic (8000 BC to 3000 BC), Woodland (3000 BC to 1000 AD), Mississippian (1000 AD to 1520 AD), European Contact (1520 AD to 1670 AD), and Historic (1670 AD to Present). 

The Mississippian Era: Villages Along the Tennessee River

The Mississippian period villages along the Tennessee River include Moccasin Bend, Williams Island, Citico Mound, and on the South Chickamauga Creek at Audubon Acres. At this point in time, Native Americans had moved away from hunting and gathering as their main form of subsistence. Instead, Native Peoples began to grow maize (the early version of corn) and beans which became their main food source alongside the berries, seeds, and nuts they gathered and the occasional deer, turkey, raccoon, or bear that was caught by hunters if they were able. 

Central communities were frequently built on the banks of rivers, and often had complex fortifications that included palisade walls, defensive towers, and ditches. These towns within their palisade walls would have a platform or temple mound with a flat top on one side that often housed the Chief’s home with smaller conical burial mounds around it. In the middle, there would be a large plaza where people would gather for ceremonies and to hear the Chief speak. On the opposite side of the plaza would be the homes of the elite while the commoners would be housed outside the palisade walls. 

European Contact: Impact and Consequences

The Mississippian period with these complex societies come to a screeching halt once European contact begins in around 1520 AD. These European conquistadors like Hernando de Soto and Tristan de Luna reached Tennessee around 1550 AD and end these complex societies due to the disease and war that followed them. 

As tales of the New World’s natural wealth reached Europe’s monarchs, trading companies followed the conquistadors, growing a robust fur trade with Indigenous tribes while also fomenting instability by supplying warring factions with weapons and supplies. Individual town chiefs reigned over territories with the Overhill Cherokees living in East Tennessee, the Middle and Valley Cherokees in western North Carolina, and the Lower Cherokees controlling north Georgia and South Carolina. This fragmented system thwarted the British attempts to negotiate broad land treaties until 1730 when a brash Scottish aristocrat, Sir Alexander Cumming, persuaded seven chiefs to join him to visit King George II. These seven chiefs tried to persuade King George II to keep his colonists from illegally settling on their sacred land.  

Chief John Ross and the Cherokee Struggle: A Heroic Stand

As the Nation grew, so did its people’s desire for land, and in 1830, the federal government approved the Indian Removal Act which required eastern tribes to relinquish their lands and remove west to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. Chief John Ross, Chattanooga’s earliest founder led the Cherokee Nationʼs struggle to stay and heroically took the battle for sovereignty to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the court ruled for the Cherokees, then-Pres. Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the decision and the forced removal of the Cherokees began in September 1838 with paths that crossed Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend as they began what would be called “The Trail of Tears.” 

The original version of this article first appeared in a previous edition of our Magazine.