Prior to the settlement of Europeans, the land that now makes up the 450 square miles of McMinn County would have been a sight to see and, in some respects, completely unrecognizable today. Looking back across our history, before the founding of the county in 1819, even before the first whites began settling permanently on then-Cherokee lands around 1800, as far back when white eyes of British soldiers and traders first saw the land as early as the 1760s, the area of east Tennessee was very different then.
First, there was the forest. Giant poplars and chestnuts grew then, so large that four men could not hold hands and reach around their massive trunks, their limbs rising 80 and 120 feet into the air. The Cherokee ate the chestnuts and made canoes from the long, straight poplar trunks, so big that they did not chop them down, but killed them by “girdling”: removing the bark and allowing the tree to die and fall on its own.
There, on the ground, it was easier to carve the canoe with a combination of stone tools and fire. We still have the poplars, though they do not seem to reach such a prehistoric size. The chestnuts are only a distant memory, having died out in the first quarter of the 20th century from a blight that began in New York and eventually destroyed every American Chestnut tree.
The wildlife was different then as well. We would recognize the deer, wild turkey, bobcat, squirrels, and bears, but would be surprised to see the massive elk and buffalo (American bison) grazing along the creek banks, even on the well-watered meadow where Downtown Athens is today.
We would hear packs of red wolves calling in the night and, during the days, we would also see many species of now-extinct birds and song birds whose melodies will never be heard again.
The sun would be darkened on some days back then, as clouds of passenger pigeons a half-mile wide flew overhead. Yellow parakeets sang from the trees then and now both of those species are long gone, hunted to extinction.
Some evidence of prehistoric native towns seem to indicate semi-permanent settlements in places like the Conasauga and Eastanaula valleys. Older farmers can remember old men telling of Indian mounds along these creeks, but they were long ago plowed away.
Still, even today a stone arrowhead or grinding stone may still be found in some areas. But these locations were more than likely “hunting towns,” where groups of natives would leave their main towns on the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee Rivers and camp for months at a time to hunt the deer, bison and elk.
These were our first residents, these prehistoric peoples with their own cultures of wandering hunters and farmers, with distinct languages and cultures. We know of the Cherokee and Euchee and there is some evidence even that the Creeks and Seminoles may have resided here in the distant past.
But there were undoubtedly others, names of tribes and peoples we will never know. We only have the occasional stone point we might find in a farm field, made by a campfire 1,000 years ago by unknown hands desperate to hunt and provide for his and his family’s hunger.
We do not know exactly who the first Europeans were who saw the lands of what would become McMinn County. There is a possibility that Hernando de Soto came this far north on his journey in 1540 and there were a few English traders who were in East Tennessee as early as the late 1600s.
It’s possible the British soldiers and traders at Fort Loudoun in present-day Monroe County may have wandered through. But during the Revolutionary War, there were definitely soldiers who passed through and saw the land during several expeditions fighting against the English-allied Cherokee.
One of these men was Isaac Lane. A member of John Sevier’s Colonial militia at Watauga, Lane is named specifically as being part of an army who, in the winter of 1780-81, travelled the general route of present day Highway 411, burning Cherokee towns along the way.
Lane and the other men would have seen the lands of McMinn County before burning Hiwassee Old Town just to the west of the present 411 bridge in Polk County. Forty years later, when the lands were opened officially for white settlers, Lane would purchase a large tract of land just north of Niota, where his lonely grave stands today in a cornfield off of County Road 319, about 200 yards east of Highway 11.
And there were whites who intermarried with Cherokees, like the Starrs, Walkers and MacIntoshes, whose mixed-blood families were even awarded “reservations” of 640 acres of land as part of the Treaty of 1817, negotiated in Calhoun by Andrew Jackson and Gov. Joseph McMinn.
In the Tennessee County History Series, Dr. Stephen Byrum mentions some family names that appear in early deed records that include Shelton, Mayfield, Coffey, Cleage, Cantrell, Cooke, Keith, Kimbrough, Carlock, Rogers, Sullins, Cass, Ballew and Lowery. Some of these names continue in both our white and black communities to this day.
So, by the date of our founding in November of 1819, there were already many whites living in McMinn County. Goodspeed’s “History of Tennessee” (1887) notes the population of McMinn County in 1820 to be 1,623, but this might only refer to white men, not including wives, children, slaves and Cherokees.
When the county government was organized four months later at the Cherokee home of Major John Walker, there were plenty of white men to assume the constitutional offices that included justices of the peace, sheriff, clerk, trustee, ranger and register.
Even by our founding we were already settled, sharing for a time our land with our Cherokee neighbors. But as we had changed a wilderness into a county, that would soon change as well.
Joe Guy serves as McMinn County historian and is a member of the McMinn County Bicentennial Committee.