Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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In Years Past...

Credit: Clayton Ferrell, USFWS


The next major stage of west Tennessee pre-history is known as the Woodland period, lasting almost 2,000 years. This era saw the introduction of pottery, the beginnings of settled farming communities, the construction of burial mounds, and the growing stratification of Indian society. Native Americans in Tennessee made the transition from societies of hunters and gatherers to well-organized tribal, agricultural societies dwelling in large permanent towns. The peak of prehistoric cultural development in west Tennessee occurred during the Mississippian period, from 900 AD-early 16 th Century. The gradual shift at the end of the Woodland period to a substantial dependence upon cultigens for a food source tied societies to specific locations, emphasized territoriality and control of land, provided a supply of food that permitted population growth, encouraged specialization of labor, provided for the growth of exchange networks for raw materials and finished products, and led to the development and spread of religious ceremonies. This horticultural complex included several varieties of maize, squash, pumpkin, gourd, sunflower, and beans. The addition of these crops to the wide variety of gathered native fruits, nuts, and berries, along with wild game, provided an ample supply of food. This more efficient horticultural economy brought an increase in population to the areas with favorable growing conditions and soils, such as those found within and near current Tennessee NWR lands. Evidence of these settlements have been found on or near refuge lands, primarily located on alluvial terraces adjacent to the most productive soils in the bottom lands.

The first European incursions into the area, in the mid-1500’s, proved highly disruptive to the people then living in the region. When explorers arrived in the 16 th Century, they encountered Chickasaw Indians roaming and utilizing the lands of what is now middle and west Tennessee. This land was prized as great hunting grounds because of wildlife abundance along the Tennessee River. The Great Salt Lick on Big Sandy River, present day Henry County, was the most cherished hunting ground of the Chickasaw. White settlers, in their push west for land and opportunity, tried many means to rid the land of the threat from Indians. Treaties were signed in attempts to compromise, but settlers continued to encroach on Indian lands and hostilities continued and intensified. Between 1810 and 1815, the Tennessee River was made the eastern boundary of Indian Territory in an attempt to harness the confrontations. Negotiations for the purpose of extinguishing the Chickasaw title to reservations east of the Mississippi River began in 1830. The settlement of west Tennessee was well under way by 1834. Cheap and fertile land, abounding game, and plentiful water lured settlers to the area at a steady pace. Settlers settled and began lives of farming and subsistence living in the fertile lands of the Tennessee River bottoms. Farmers grew cotton, corn, oats, and peanuts, as well as raise cattle and livestock. The Tennessee River became vital to the white settlers’ existence, as it was to previous occupants.

The late 1700’s and early 1800’s were also the years of the iron ore industry in Middle and West Tennessee. With knowledge of this craft from Pennsylvania, numerous furnaces and forges were built to capitalize on the abundant iron ores of the Western Highland Rim region, present-day Stewart, Houston, Humphreys, Perry, and Wayne Counties, Tennessee. One of the prime considerations in locating the furnaces was the availability of vast amounts of timber since large amounts of charcoal were required for use as fuel in these furnaces. Timber was harvested for many miles within a working iron ore furnace, removing forests from the landscape at a steady pace. This iron industry supplied blacksmiths, mill owners, and farmers with the metal they needed. Although the iron ore found in this area was not considered top grade, it was plentiful enough to be considered one of the main sources prior to the Civil War.

A treaty signed in 1818 by Chickasaw and United States representatives relinquished all lands between Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. The Great Salt Lick on the Big Sandy River was not easily relinquished and many attempts to exploit the salt reserves took place, ultimately resulting in abandonment because no water was found of sufficient quality for commercial salt production. In 1820, the total population of west Tennessee was 2500 and by 1830 it had climbed to over 100,000


Last updated: February 13, 2014