Tennessee History

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United States  Gotoarrow.png  Tennessee  Gotoarrow.png  History
Solomon Conn’s fiddle with names of places served during the American Civil War while in the Union Army's 87th Indiana Volunteers, Company B. Purchased in Nashville in 1863 it lists several Tennessee and Georgia places and battles.

Your family research will be more effective and interesting when you understand the history of their times. Learning about wars, governments, laws, migrations, and religious trends may help you understand political boundaries, family movements, and settlement patterns. Your ancestors may become more interesting to you if you also use histories to learn about the events that were of interest to them or that they may have been involved in.

County and town histories often include biographical sketches of local residents, or mention military units in which they served. This may be one of the best sources of information for some families.

Brief History

The following important events in the history of Tennessee affected political boundaries, record keeping, and family movements.

  • 1584:  The region of Tennessee was included in the English land grant to Sir Walter Raleigh.
  • 1763: France surrendered all claims to the land east of the Mississippi River to England.
  • 1769:  The first permanent settlement was established in Watauga Valley by North Carolina and Virginia settlers.
  • 1776:  The Territory of Tennessee was designated by North Carolina as the Washington District.
  • 1777:  Washington County, North Carolina was established to provide governmental jurisdiction over the Watauga settlement. Its boundaries included most of present-day Tennessee.
  • 1779: Nashborough (Nashville) was organized and the settlement of Middle Tennessee was begun.
  • 1784: North Carolina ceded Tennessee to the federal government. Watauga settlers organized a short-lived “State of Franklin.”
  • 1790: The federal government created the “Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio,” also known as the “Southwest Territory.”
  • 1791: The Knoxville Gazette was founded as the first newspaper in Tennessee.
  • 1796:  Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state.
  • 1803: The Louisiana Purchase increased settlement in the state and migration through it.
  • 1812–1815:  The War of 1812 involved many soldiers from Tennessee.
  • 1815–1860:  Tennessee settlers benefitted from improvements in transportation on rivers (using steamboats), canals, and railroads.
  • 1817–1838:  American Indian claims to land in Tennessee were greatly reduced by land cession treaties, until most Indian tribes were finally exiled in 1838. This became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
  • 1818: (October 19,) General Andrew Jackson negotiated a treaty with the Chickasaw Indians for the purchase of western Tennessee, opening that area to white settlers.
  • 1825: (December) Cherokee exodus began
  • 1835: The treaty of New Ecota was signed, exiling most Indian tribes. A few Cherokees hid in the Great Smoky Mountains until their right to remain was recognized much later.
  • 1839: Chickasaw and remaining Cherokee removed to Oklahoma
  • 1861:  Tennessee seceded from the Union.
  • 1861–1865:  During the Civil War, Tennessee fought for the Confederate States; however, its soldiers served on both sides—180,000 Confederate and 30,000 Union mostly from East Tennessee.
  • 1866:  Tennessee was readmitted to the Union.
  • 1878:  The yellow fever epidemic struck Tennessee.
  • 1898: Over 300,000 men were involved in the Spanish-American War which was fought mainly in Cuba and the Philippines.
  • 1908:  The statewide registration of birth and death statistics began.
  • 1917–1918: More than 26 million men from the United States ages 18 through 45 registered with the Selective Service. World War I over 4.7 million American men and women served during the war. During World War I, 61,000 soldiers served from Tennessee; 17,000 were African American. 4,000 soldiers died.
  • 1930's: The Great Depression closed many factories and mills. Many small farms were abandoned, and many families moved to cities.
  • 1933–1951:  Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federal program that brought hydro-electric power to the Tennessee River Valley, displaced communities and flooded some of the best farmland in the state, affecting nearly all Tennessee residents and involving Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia.
  • 1940–1945: Over 50.6 million men ages 18 to 65 registered with the Selective Service. Over 16.3 million American men and women served in the armed forces during World War II. 7,000 Tennessee soldiers were killed in World War II
  • 1945–1960's:  The population shifted from rural to urban, making Tennessee by 1963 the 16th most industrial state.
  • 1950–1953: Over 5.7 million American men and women served in the Korean War. 10,500 Tennesseans served in the Korean War; 843 died in combat.
  • 1950's–1960's The building of interstate highways made it easier for people to move long distances.
  • 1960:  Nashville was the first major Southern city to integrate its public facilities.
  • 1964–1972: Over 8.7 million American men and women served in the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War cost the lives of 1,289 Tennesseans.

A useful chronology can also be found in:

  • Tennessee: A Guide to the State. Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Tennessee. American Guide Series. (No Place: New Deal Network, 1996) Original published: Tennessee: State of Tennessee. Department of Conservation, Division of Information, 1939. Available online.

Historical Content

Histories are great sources of genealogical information. Many contain biographical information about individuals who lived in the area, including:

  • Parents' names
  • Maiden names of women
  • Place of birth, death, or marriage
  • Occupation
  • Migration
  • Military service
  • Descendants

Local Histories

Some of the most valuable sources for family history research are local histories. Published histories of towns, counties, and states usually contain accounts of families. They describe the settlement of the area and the founding of churches, schools, and businesses. You can also find lists of pioneers, soldiers, and civil officials. Even if your ancestor is not listed, information on other relatives may be included that will provide important clues for locating your ancestor. A local history may also suggest other records to search. Local histories are extensively collected by the Family History Library, public and university libraries, and state and local historical societies. United States History cites nationwide bibliographies of local histories which include histories of Tennessee.

  • McClung, Calvin Morgan and McClung Historical Collection. Calvin Morgan McClung Historical Collection. (1921). Contains books, maps, pamphlets, historical documents and genealogies relating to Tennessee and other southern states. Digital versions available at Ancestry.com ($), Knox County Public Library (free), and World Vital Records ($).
  • Tennessee History: A Bibliography [1]This resource is a comprehensive guide to state and country history sources and manuscripts.
  • Tennessee, Old and New. Sesquicentennial Edition. 1796 - 1946. The Tennessee Historical Commission. Nashville, Tennessee. Digital versions available at Ancestry ($) and World Vital Records ($). Contains historical information as well as biographies about some of Tennessee's most prominent citizens.

Goodspeed Publishing has published histories for various regions of Tennessee. These books included sections for each county in the area.  Another source for the counties of Tennessee is:

  • A Bibliography of American County Histories [2] [3]
  • Counties of Tennessee. [4]The record is arranged alphabetically by county, followed by a brief description of how each county was formed. It includes A Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses — Tennessee, 1790–1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide, and it is indexed.

The Draper Manuscript Collection

The Draper Manuscript Collection is a significant regional source that includes records of Tennessee.

  • Draper Manuscript Collection[7] The collection consists of nearly 500 volumes of manuscripts, papers, and books collected by Lyman Copeland Draper about the history of the trans-Allegheny West, a region including the western areas of the Carolinas and Virginia, all the Ohio River Valley, and part of the upper Mississippi Valley from the 1740s to 1830. The collection is divided into 50 series. Some series are titled by geographic area, some by the names of prominent frontier leaders, and some by topic. The bulk of the collection consists of notes from interviews, questionnaires, and letters gathered during Draper’s extensive travels and research to learn about frontier history. Personal papers are much more rare than government or military records.

The collection includes many items of a genealogical or biographical nature. For an inventory and partial indexes, see:

  • Guide to the Draper Manuscripts [8]This guide gives series and volume descriptions for some of the Draper manuscripts. There are several indexes at the end of the book, including a name and subject index, an additional personal data index, and a list of references to Illinois.
  • Index to Lyman C. Draper Manuscripts. [9]The name index gives the series and volume numbers, but is not complete.

State Histories Useful to Genealogists

Good genealogists strive to understand the life and times of their ancestors. In this sense, any history is useful. But certain kinds of state, county, and local histories, especially older histories published between 1845 and 1945, often include biographical sketches of prominent individuals. The sketches usually tend toward the laudatory, but may include some genealogical details. If these histories are indexed or alphabetical, check for an ancestor's name. Some examples for the State of Tennessee are:

  • History of Tennessee [10]This is a basic history of Tennessee, not indexed.
  • Putnam, Albigence Waldo. History of Middle Tennessee: or, Life and Times of Gen. James Robertson. Nashville, Tenn.: A.A. Stitt, Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1859. Digital version at Google Books.
  • Goodspeed History of Tennessee [11]This source contains histories of Tennessee counties, including a military history and an appendix of biographies.
  • The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century: [12]This extensive history of the early settlement era includes a map, a few biographical sketches, and an index.
  • The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture [13]This comprehensive alphabetical work contains topics, biographies, and events representing aspects and disciplines of Tennessee’s history.
  • Moore, John Trotwood and Austin P. Foster, editors. Tennessee: The Volunteer State, 1769-1923. 4 vols. Nashville: S.J.Clarke Publishing Co., 1923. (Family History Library Book 976.8 D3m v. 1-4.) This indexed four-volume set includes church information and Tennessee history in addition to three volumes of biographies.

United States History

The following are only a few of the many sources that are available:

  • The Almanac of American History, [14][15]This provides brief historical essays and chronological descriptions of thousands of key events in United States history.
  • Dictionary of American History, Revised ed [16] [17]This includes historical sketches on various topics in U.S. history, such as wars, people, laws, and organizations. A snippet view is available at Google books.
  • Webster's Guide to American History: A Chronological, Geographical, and Biographical Survey and Compendium [18][19][20]This includes a history, some maps, tables, and other historical information.

The Family History Library has a sizable history collection for Tennessee consisting of two main types of records:

  • Published histories of the state, its counties, and towns often contain maps, information on religious and civic organizations, and biographies of individuals and families who have lived there.
  • Copies of documents on microfilm and in published form broaden a genealogist’s understanding of the times and places in which ancestors lived. Many of the documents include names of individuals involved in the event being documented.

See Also

  • Griffey, Irene, compiler. T'he Preemptors: Middle Tennessee's First Settlers. Clarksville: P.p., 1989. (Family History Library Book 976.8 R2g.) Notes if grants were made to the resident (at the time that the commissioners visited in 1782-3) or to an assignee.
  • Tennessee: A Guide to the State. Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Tennessee. American Guide Series. (No Place: New Deal Network, 1996) Original published: Tennessee: State of Tennessee. Department of Conservation, Division of Information, 1939. Available online. This book has chapters dealing with several topics of particular interest to genealogists, including: “Historic Indians,” "Negroes in Tennessee," “Chronology,” “Religion,” “History and Government,” and chapters relating to occupations.

Research Guides

  • McBride, Robert M., compiler. Tennessee County Data for Historical and Genealogical Research. Nashville: Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1966. This guide includes details about record loss in Tennessee counties and lists the extant newspapers.

The following research guide, prepared by a Certified Genealogist, includes a useful chronology and guide for Tennessee history:

See the Tennessee Archives and Libraries article for facilities with regional collections which might include histories. To find more books and articles about Tennessee 's history use the Internet Google search for phases like "Tennessee history." Family History Library Catalog Surname Search lists many more histories under topics like:


Web Sites


  1. Smith, Sam B., 1929. Tennessee History: A Bibliography. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, [1974]. (Family History Library book 976.8 A3s).
  2. Filby, P. William. A Bibliography of American County Histories. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1985. (FHL book 973 H23bi)
  3. Worldcat
  4. Foster, Austin Powers. Counties of Tennessee. 1923. Reprint, Greenville, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1990. (Family History Library book 976.8 E2fa). 
  5. Kaminkow, Marion J. United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress. 5 vols. Baltimore: Magna Charta Book, 1975-76. (FHL book 973 A3ka.)
  6. Worldcat
  7. Draper, Lyman Copeland. Draper Manuscript Collection Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Library, 197–?. (On 147 Family History Library films beginning with 889098.)
  8. Harper, Josephine L. Guide to the Draper Manuscripts. Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1983. (Family History Library book 977.583/M1 A3h.)
  9. Wolfe, Barbara Schull. Index to Lyman C. Draper Manuscripts. Logansport, Indiana: B.S. Wolfe, 197–?. (Family History Library book 977.583/M1 A3w.)
  10. Folmsbee, Stanley John. History of Tennessee. New York, New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1960. (Family History Library book 976.8 H2fs.)
  11. Goodspeed History of Tennessee. [Nashville, Tennessee]: Restoration and Reproduction Section, Library and Archives Division, Tennessee Dept. of Education, 1965. Micro-reproduction of county sections of: History of Tennessee from the Earliest Time to the Present. Nashville, Tennessee: Goodspeed Publishing, 1886–1887. (Family History Library films 899865–67.)
  12. Ramsey, James Gettys McGready. The Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century: Comprising Its Settlement as the Watauga Association, from 1769–1777; a Part of North Carolina, from 1777 to 1784; the State of Franklin, from 1788 to 1790; the Territory of the U.S. South of the Ohio, from 1790 to 1796; the State of Tennessee, from 1790 to 1800. 1853. Reprint, Not published: 1967. (Family History Library book 976.8 H2r; film 24525.)
  13. West, Carroll Van. The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture. Nashville, Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998. (Family History Library book 976.8 H2te.)
  14. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. The Almanac of American History. Greenwich, Conn.: Bison Books, 1983. (FHL book 973 H2alm)
  15. Worldcat
  16. Dictionary of American History, Revised ed., 8 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976. (FHL book 973 H2ad.)
  17. Worldcat
  18. Webster's Guide to American History: A Chronological, Geographical, and Biographical Survey and Compendium. Springfield, Mass.: G&C Merriam, 1971. (FHL book 973 H2v)
  19. Limited view at Google Books
  20. Worldcat
  21. Writings on American History By American Historical Association, Library of Congress, United States National Historical Publications Commission, Published by KTO Press, 1921 FHL book 973 H23w
  22. Worldcat