Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Brief History of Prewar Chattanooga

In telling Chattanooga's Civil War story, a good place to start would be with a brief telling of Chattanooga's brief history before the war.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Chattanooga was still a very young town, laid out and organized less than 25 years prior. Population totals for the period vary from about 3000-5000, and business was booming. The author Porte Crayon (David Hunter Strother) visited in 1855, and describes the scene:

A swarm of people in the streets "paced to and fro with eager and excited looks as if their lives, fortune and sacred honor hung upon the events of the next hour. All the corners and by-places were filled with groups in earnest conversations; some were handling paper, others examining maps. Rolls of bank notes were exhibited, and net purses with red gold gleaming though their silken meshes. In the confusion of tongues the ear could catch the words: lots, stocks, quarter-section, depot, dividends, township, railroads, terminus, ten thousand, hundred thousands, millions."
Crayon's traveling party eventually stumbled upon a couple of street urchins selling empty bottles in the street, causing Crayon to remark, "I fear we are in a nest of speculators, where anything may be had at a bargain, ranging from a man's soul down to a beer bottle."

But Chattanooga's story begins with John Ross. Now here's an interesting character, born to pioneer stock, Scottish traders who mingled freely with the Cherokee. His father, Daniel, married Molly McDonald, a part-Cherokee, part-Scottish girl. John Ross was only one-eighth Cherokee, and was raised to be bicultural and bilingual; he grew up with his family near Lookout Mountain where he was considered a member of the Bird Clan. He got an education at Gideon Blackburn's school for the Cherokee in Charleston, Tennessee, then at an academy near Fort Southwest Point, present-day Kingston, Tennessee.

After a stint as an Indian agent to the western Cherokee in Arkansas, he served as an adjutant to a Cherokee regiment in the War of 1812, fighting under Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, defeating the Creeks and ending the Creek War.

He tried his hand at several business ventures, earning most of his living farming tobacco with about twenty slaves. In 1816, he began operating a swing ferry across the Tennessee River. There was nothing there, but it was a prime location, near where the Old Federal Road intersected with the Great Indian Warpath and several other ancient paths. Somewhere along the way, this little area by the river became known as Ross's Landing.

This little bit of land -- everything south of the Tennessee River to the Georgia line, which included Ross's Landing -- was the last ceded by the Cherokee. They held onto it until a rogue group of leaders signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. The treaty was ratified by the US Senate in March, 1836, and the rush was on.

Actually, the first white settlers came a tad earlier, while the land still belonged to the Cherokee. The little spot where John Ross had put his ferry and trading post was a natural congregating spot. One of the first of these settlers said that they "felt like we were coming out of the world to come and live among the bears and Indians."

Ross's Landing was one of the main embarkation points for the Cherokee, sent west on forced marches that became known as the Trail of Tears. Soldiers came to gather the Native Americans and send them on their way. The presence of the Cherokee and the soldiers drew merchants and more settlers. Ross's Landing soon became a regular little boom town, like something seen in the West in the decades after the war. 

When the Cherokee were gone, the new residents began ordering things more to their liking, including changing the name to Chattanooga, a word the Cherokee had used to describe the area. It allegedly meant "rock coming to a point," an apt description for nearby Lookout Mountain. The streets were laid out and the land was split into parcels and sold.

"Chattanooga up to this time had been to Georgia what Texas had been to the South - a rendezvous for broken merchants to escape the bail law for debt, then in force in Georgia, and fugitives from justice all over the South. You can imagine the state of society, a new place, merchants without money or credit, boatmen, railroad hands, all coming and going, whiskey sixteen cents a gallon, every man for himself, but little law or order among that class." -- A. M. Johnson, an early resident.

The boom continued and the little town thrived and grew. It began to resemble a "civilized" society with churches and schools, business conducted close to the waterfront, houses on the high ground to the west, away from the river with its dense fog and mosquitos.

The big break came when Chattanooga was chosen to be the northern terminus of the Western and Atlantic Railroad. That railroad connected the city to Atlanta and was only the beginning. Soon other railroads were built, connecting Chattanooga to Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and points beyond. By the start of the Civil War, Chattanooga was a major rail center, vitally important for both sides' strategic success.

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