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Tennessee History, Language and Culture

History of Tennessee

Inhabited firstly by the Muscogee people and then the Cherokee nation, the area called Tennessee first saw Europeans in the form of Spanish explorers, led by Hernando de Soto in 1540.  More expeditions were held in 1559 by Tristan de Luna and 1567 by Juan Pardo.  It was Pardo’s recording of the name “Tanasqui” from a local tribal village, that has evolved into the state’s current name.

Europeans began to flow in, bringing with them disease, and the Cherokee population moved south.  The settlers then forcibly removed the Muscogee, Yuchi, Chickasaw and Choctaw peoples to make way for their colonies.  In 1756, the British established their first settlement, Fort Loudoun, but it wasn’t until the late 1760s that permanent European settlers arrived in Tennessee.

Taking place alongside and after the American Revolutionary War, the Chickamauga Wars saw a warring faction of Cherokee led by Dragging Canoe (who were aligned with British Loyalists) fight for the return of their lands which had been sold illegally in 1775 as part of the Henderson Purchase. Conflict continued until in 1794, at treaty was signed to reaffirm the boundary lines that had been set out in the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell. Two years later, Tennessee was admitted to the Union, becoming the 16th state.

With statehood came more woe for the Cherokees residing in the area.  Between 1838 and 1839, nearly 17,000 Cherokees and around 2,000 of their slaves were uprooted and forcibly marched to emigration depots, to be moved west of Arkansas.  It is estimated that 4,000 Cherokee died along the way and the march is remembered as Nunna daul Isunyi – The Trail Where We Cried. The Trail of Tears is used to describe many of the forced emigrations across America around this time.

During the American Civil War, Tennessee sided with the Confederates, and it became a site for many major battles. Whilst the Union won most of the battles in Tennessee, it was held by Confederates until 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed Andrew Johnson military governor of the state.  

Since it was held by Union forces, Tennessee was not included in the Emancipation Proclamation, so no slaves were freed. However slaves who escaped to the Union lines gained freedom, and many went on to join the fighting on the Union side.  In 1865, slavery was officially prohibited in Tennessee. That year also saw the explosion of the SS Sultana, a steamboat on the Mississippi River, the greatest maritime disaster in US history.

Despite the ending of slavery, Tennessee, controlled by White Democrats in the 1880s, continued to pass restrictive laws, preventing African Americans from voting and enjoying other civil liberties and essentially disenfranchising them. In 1920 Tennessee became the 36th and final state to give women the vote.  However, poll taxes and registration requirements still kept African Americans and poor men and women off the voter rolls. It wasn’t until after the passage of national civil rights legislation in the 1960s that all citizens were afforded an equal opportunity to vote.

With the Great Depression bearing down upon the US and the majority of the population out of work, the government created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, leading to Tennessee becoming the largest public utility supplier in the nation. This resulted in the Manhattan Project (the government programme which developed the first atomic bombs) using Tennessee as one of the principal sites for production of fissile material.

Tennessee’s current economy relies on the output of textiles, cotton, cattle and electrical power.  Agriculture is prominent and over half of the state’s farms accommodate beef cattle. Tennessee has yet to ratify same-sex marriage and is considered conservative.

Tennessee Culture

Religion in Tennessee

Tennessee is Christian country with 82% of the population ascribing to Christianity and Catholicism. As a part of the Bible belt, religion is particularly important to people. The largest denominations are the Southern Baptist Convention which is headquartered in Nashville, the United Methodist Church, the Churches of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. While a small percentage practice other religions, the largest other affiliation is non-religious at 9%.

Social Conventions in Tennessee

The unofficial music capital of the world, Tennessee has given rise to many talented musicians ranging from Elvis to Justin Timberlake. Nashville is the birthplace of country music, while Memphis, where you can find Presley’s Graceland, is the home of blues and jazz.

Southern hospitality reigns supreme with friendly people and a wide appreciation for sweet tea. It is also the proud purveyor of NASCAR, an annual two-weekend car race. There is a minority Ku Klux Klan presence, as with several southern states.

Language in Tennessee

English is the main language, and some residents are heavily accented. "Y'all" is an accepted term and country twang is common. There is a very small percentage (almost 3%) that speaks Spanish or Spanish Creole.