Knoxville in 1796 sat at crossroads to future

Jack Neely

When Tennessee became a state in 1796,  Knoxville was a frontier settlement where nearly everyone lived in log cabins with dirt floors yet they could walk across the street to a store and buy a book of the most popular poetry from Europe.

It was a town where drinking in your favorite tavern could mean rubbing shoulders with a fiddle-playing fur trapper in the morning and smoking a clay pipe with the future King of France in the afternoon.  

It was an administrative center, a crossroads, a military outpost and —  as of June 1 of that year — a state capital. 

“The variety of people here was surprising,” explained historian Jack Neely. “It was also more diverse. I wouldn’t say cosmopolitan, but there were people from all over. You heard a lot of accents, certainly. There were people from various places from throughout the Western World: English, Irish, French, others.”

The house built by Gov. William Blount as it looks today. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Those people included the obvious historical personages whose stories have been passed on to generations of local schoolchildren,  larger-than-life characters like Governor William Blount and John Sevier. But Knoxville was also home to lesser known but equally remarkable people such as architect Thomas Hope and newspaper publisher Elizabeth Roulstone.

These early settlers laid down the foundations of a settlement that — two and a quarter centuries later — has grown into a city larger and wealthier than anything they could have imagined.

Perhaps the most obvious differences between 18th century America and its modern descendant are those of size and scale.

For instance, the City of Knoxville has a population today of approximately 190,000 people while Knox County is home to nearly 480,000, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

At the time of Tennessee’s statehood, however, the biggest city in the United States was New York with a population of only about 60,500. The second-largest city (and nation’s capital), Philadelphia, had approximately 42,000 people.

 In the 1800 census, Knox County had a population of around 12,400 people while Knoxville had only 387 residents.

“Knoxville proper was just a tiny little town by the river with the western limits around Clinch Avenue,” Neely said.

In that tiny strip of land were packed 200 or so houses, two forts, seven taverns, a dance hall, a newspaper, an unknown number of “tippling houses” (a bar without accommodations like a tavern would have) and not a single church. 

“The First Presbyterian Church claims 1792 as a founding date, which is plausible even if there’s no clear record about how often they met,” Neely said. “But nobody built actual church buildings in Knoxville until 1815/1816, and that was really shocking to some people who came here…. It was not the Bible Belt yet.”

Surrounding the tiny urban enclave by the Tennessee River in all directions were farms, as the majority of Knox County’s 12,000-plus people worked the land. Many of them called themselves Knoxvillians even when they lived miles away from the City itself.

Early map of Knoxville.

Commerce in all types of goods was booming but often unpredictable. “There were stores here where you could buy a book of poetry by Robert Burns or luxury imported goods,” Neely said. “Someone would get a bunch of silk in from India. They’d have it stocked for a few weeks and then you’d have to wait until it was back again.”

Transporting goods and people across the Appalachians was a risky, expensive and glacially slow affair. Traveling by land meant a long, physically uncomfortable journey on horseback or by stagecoach. Steamboats didn’t exist yet, so taking a  water route meant clambering aboard a flat-bottomed boat that could only travel one way: from Virginia or North Carolina to New Orleans.

Yet people braved the odds to get to Knoxville regularly, even if many of them were only passing through to other parts of the map.

Given the role that alcohol would one day play in East Tennessee’s culture and economy, it should perhaps come as no surprise that one of Knoxville’s earliest exports was locally made corn liquor, Neely said.

“They say that young men would load a lot of locally made liquor onto a flatboat after buying it cheap in Knoxville,” he continued. “They’d float it all the way down to New Orleans and live like kings for awhile. Also, because New Orleans lacked hardwood, they’d sell their rafts.”

 Many of the most impressive displays of architecture in the French Quarter were built using logs from Kentucky and Tennessee, he said.

Another staple of East Tennessee’s economy that has roots stretching back to the late 18th century is tourism. 

Back then, however, people weren’t going to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see virgin forests or mountains. No, they were interested in sightseeing something that had lit up the imagination of Europe and become the talk of philosophers and salons from London to Rome: the so-called “peaceful villages” of the Cherokee nation. 

Josh Renner, an education coordinator at Blount Mansion, describes life in Knoxville in the late 18th century. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

As in most of North America, the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers was ambiguous, at best. When President George Washington appointed William Blount to be the governor of the Southwest Territory, one of his primary responsibilities was to negotiate with the Native Americans on behalf of the federal government. 

It was a tricky job, and one that carried very real danger, Neely explained.

Knoxville was only forty miles from the nearest Cherokee villages, and it also bordered Spanish territory.

“I suspect Blount put the capital here because we were close enough to the Cherokee and other tribes to negotiate, but not so close that it would be really vulnerable. There would be some warning before anyone came to destroy the city, which happened in 1793,” he said.

In that year, he explained, an army of up to 2,000 disaffected Native Americans from the Cherokee and Creek nations who didn’t like the idea of white settlers crossing the mountains decided to raze Knoxville to the ground. While marching toward the tiny city, the Native Americans attacked Cavett’s Station, a fortified homestead in West Knox County, and slaughtered all 13 of the men, women and children who had taken shelter there.

A successful ruse on the part of the 38-man Knoxville garrison (stationed at the Federal Blockhouse, next to Gov. Blount’s mansion) convinced the Native American army that an entire regiment of soldiers waited to ambush them. The army decided the risk was too great and retreated, sparing Knoxville, according to Neely.

James White Fort was not only the first building in Knoxville but remained a lynchpin in the local defense plans if the city came under attack. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

In the three years that followed the brief campaign, relations with the Cherokee stabilized and soon Knoxville found itself an integral stop on the “Grand Tour” of the U.S. that had grown popular among French nobles of that era. 

“In the 1790s there was a great romance about the Cherokee in France,” Neely said. “People were writing books about the Cherokee. In Europe, they were simply fascinated with the Cherokee people, and I think to some extent idealizing them.”

He continued: “It’s amazing in the 1790’s to see lots of French people here, many of them nobles fleeing for their lives from The Terror …. The nobles would come here to America and be safe from the Leftists in Paris, and they would also want to see the world, in a way. It was sort of a  Grand Tour to take of America, and all these people would come to see the peaceful Native American villages and they stayed in Knoxville.”

One particularly noteworthy French visitor at this time was a man named Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, who would ascend to the throne and become the last King of France in 1830. In the late 1790s, however, he was just another French exile traveling the dusty roads of the world’s newest nation. 

He didn’t stay for long — just long enough, in fact, to leave behind a story about how East Tennessee bed bugs apparently had a typically American disdain of nobility. The future monarch proved to be no match for them during his only encounter, which climaxed with him fleeing his bed at a local tavern in the dead of night and leaping into the Tennessee River to rid himself of the tiny Levelers. 

Louis-Philippe d’Orléans

Sadly, it’s impossible to describe Knoxville at the time of Tennessee’s statehood with anything close to the same level of detail or accuracy with which we can depict later periods, Neely said. 

“There was no real journalism here until the mid-19th century in the sense of describing everything that happened in a place,” he said. “I wish that we did. A few people kept a diary, such as William Blount, but his is very minimal. It’s like a receipt book or something, almost. The big hope is that we will find some letters describing what life was like here.”

One of the biggest holes in the historical record is the experience of Black people, he said. Other then the few slaves that Blount kept at his mansion, there are almost no mentions of Black Knoxvillians at this time.

“Were there free Black men who could vote? We don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “Unlike some other states, our Constitution didn’t explicitly bar Blacks from voting.”

The closest thing to a contemporary record was the Knoxville Gazette, a newspaper that was started (at Blount’s urging) by George Roulstone, a native of Boston who probably had firsthand memories of such historical milestones as the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Bunker Hill from the Revolutionary War, said Neely. 

Not much is known of Roulstone and his wife, Elizabeth, except for some clues that strongly imply they were both highly competent individuals with a progressive streak. 

In 1791, for instance, the Roulstones used their printing press to publish copies of Thomas Paine’s infamous The Rights of Man, perhaps the most controversial book of its time.

“It was published here, on the frontier, in 1791,” Neely mused. “I think that tells us a little bit about George Roulstone.”

For the most part, though, the Gazette “was reprinting treaties and legislation, and on occasion an odd story,” he said.

Many of the small glimpses we have of what people were talking about in Knoxville at the time came from the publisher’s efforts to fill space. “There would be a long story about a treaty and then a story about an escaped slave, and then there would be a little space left and they’d plug in whatever they had,” he said.

One particularly intriguing story described an alleged encounter with an East Tennessee cryptid that would make Bigfoot seem boring in comparison. It was reprinted in newspapers all over the English-speaking world and briefly gave a small settlement to the north a taste of notoriety. 

“The creature was seen around 1794, maybe in the Clinton area,” Neely said. “They described this beast that was a bird, but it was kind of like a lizard and had a bloody mouth.The story was reprinted and got around the world. It appears in Irish and English papers, too. This was just a peculiar thing.”

George Roulstone died in 1804, Neely continued, and Elizabeth Roulstone took over the printing press and newspaper.

Some of the accoutrements of an 18th century frontier governor. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

“This is a remarkable thing to me,” he said. “At a time when women didn’t have careers outside the home, she actually became the state printer because no one else knew how to run the printing press.”

When statehood came to Tennessee, it meant that the people of Knoxville had more independence from the direct authority of President Washington. While it was a territory, the region had been managed by the federal government through Governor Blount rather than by elected representatives.

“It was a mark of respect to have a state,” Neely said. “When you’re a state, you can make your own laws. It was self-determination.”

To Neely, the late 1790s were a unique part of Knoxville’s history when the city was at both a literal and metaphorical crossroads and when virtually every citizen was from somewhere else. This created a unique community in which the lack of history meant that the basic patterns of life were being spun anew, allowing the birth of a community unlike any that its residents had ever seen before.

In fact, it was this newness that might have been responsible for the lack of a church until nearly a full generation after statehood. “They didn’t have a church, possibly because they didn’t have a power cadre other than people who owned a lot of land. Even the people from North Carolina were very different from each other. They all had somewhat different accents.”

He added: “People didn’t know what to expect every day. This was a new place, a new way of getting along with people.”

Hard Knox Wire editor J.J. Stambaugh (left) and local historian Jack Neely discuss their first biweekly feature in the offices of the Knoxville History Project. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on June 11, 2021