Holston Road, first road across the Cumberland Plateau | Editorial

There isn’t much left except a few stories.

In the middle of Tennessee, the first road through the Cumberland Plateau was called Holston Road

The first road across the Cumberland Plateau connected Fort Southwest Point (on the east side) to Fort Blount (on the west side). It went by several names, including Holston Road, Fort Blount Road, Avery Trace and Cumberland Road. Thousands of people walked it between 1785 and 1805, including Andrew Jackson, Governor William Blount, Bishop Francis Asbury and Louis Philippe (the future King of France).

After the Cherokee Indians ceded ownership of the Cumberland Plateau, other routes through the mountains emerged. People have forgotten the original road, its landmarks and the two forts.

We explored from side to side of the plateau with the help of Dr Calvin Dickinson to see what we could find of the old road.

In Kingston, we visited a replica of Fort Southwest Point, which got its name because at one time it was the southwestern tip of the continental United States. At Fort Southwest Point, travelers would wait for an armed military escort to take them across the Cumberland Plateau to Nashville. Such a group of 90 migrants and soldiers left Fort Southwest Point in 1788 and included Andrew Jackson.

As this January 9, 1795 announcement in the Knoxville Gazette states, the armed military escort heading west across the Cumberland Plateau from Fort Southwest Point would depart in October of that year.

There are great stories about Fort Southwest Point. In 1799, the missionary Frederick Schweinitz stopped at an inn near the fort. One night, he and his companions slept on the floor and were held up all night by a deck of cards. “The continual uproar of drunkards and gamblers made it difficult for us to sleep,” complained Schweinitz.

Leaving Kingston, the migrants crossed the Clinch River by ferry and climbed to the top of the Cumberland Plateau using what we believe to be the present route of Route 70. In the late 1700s, migrants struggled to climb the steep mountain; some would transport their goods in stages from the bottom to the top rather than risk taking them all by cart at once. “The wagons can only descend the mountain with the brakes on all wheels and, in addition, with a large tree hanging behind,” Schweinitz explained.

Today, as you drive up Highway 70, you will see an old platform in the woods. This may be the original road up to the mountain; we are not sure.

Heading west, the road crossed a beautiful valley between two mountains near the present-day community of Crab Orchard.

In April 1794, long hunter Thomas “Big Foot” Spencer was killed here, which is why a massive boulder that dominates the valley here was named in his honor. Spencer’s death was not unique; hundreds of people were killed along the route between 1785 and 1795, mostly by American Indians. It was, after all, a time of war between settlers and Native Americans.

In 1802, an inn was built in Crab Orchard, and many important people from early Tennessee history stayed there (such as Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk). This hotel will be expanded over the years and will remain until the 1930s.

There is an Interstate 40 rest area about ten miles west of Spencer’s Rock. There you will see a historic sign for Kemmer Tavern, a stop along the old road across the plateau. If you explore the woods next to this rest area, you will find the remains of the original road, near Daddys Creek.

This is a good time to point out that before 1795 most people traveled in large groups along this route (for safety), but after 1795 they often traveled alone or in pairs. An interesting example is that of Francis Baily, an English scientist who hit the road in 1797 and wrote a detailed journal of his experiments. One evening Baily was thirsty and all his efforts to find water failed; he fell asleep parched and worried about dying of thirst and was awakened by a storm which gave him plenty of water. Baily met some nice people along the way, including a group of Cherokees. “A few Indian women were dressing food,” he wrote. “They told us that their husbands had gone hunting. . . We got into a conversation with them and traded salt and gunpowder for moccasins.

Travelers along the route have often reported that there are long stretches without water, especially in the summer. Wild game, on the other hand, was not difficult to find. “There is more game in this wilderness than in a game reserve at home, and I imagine the Cherokees attach great importance to it,” said a European traveler. “Here are a lot of bears, deer, a few buffaloes, a few moose.”

After Kemmer Tavern, the road headed west, following the general path of Interstate 40 towards Monterey. Near present-day Monterey, there was a landmark known as Flat Rock where many travelers are said to have camped. Unfortunately, Flat Rock is now on private property and is not accessible.

At Flat Rock, the trail forks. The left fork was heading due west towards what is now called Carthage (along what has come to be known as Walton Road) along the current 70N path. The right fork headed northwest to Fort Blount, using the route now known as State Highway 290.

The path to Fort Blount passed a freshwater spring known as Blackburn Spring before descending along a small body of water called Flynn Creek. The travelers then crossed the Cumberland River by ferry to Fort Blount.

For a brief phase of the story, Fort Blount was pretty busy. In 1788, at least 60 families crossed the Cumberland River there on their way to Nashville, many of them leading the cattle along the way.

In March 1796, the French botanist André Michaux spent the night at Fort Blount and discovered a species of tree (previously unknown to Europeans) in the woods near the fort. Today we know this tree as yellowwood.

In May 1797, Tennessee Governor John Sevier passed through Fort Blount.

Four days later, a Frenchman arrives on horseback. He said he and his companions had left Fort Southwest Point three days earlier and were on their way to Nashville. In broken English, he said they were hungry and willing to pay for food.

Visitors from afar were disappointed with the accommodations. According to their leader’s diary, they were fed “corn bread, a little milk and bear’s back, salted and smoked, which we found impossible to swallow, hungry or not.”

This man, Louis Philippe, was the son of King Louis XVI of France (who had been executed during the French Revolution only four years earlier). Louis Philippe would later serve the King of France from 1830 to 1848, and he often told people about his strange adventures in Tennessee.

Fort Blount did not stay there for long. Relations with the Cherokee improved after 1796, and the government withdrew soldiers from the area in early 1798. As people began to prefer other roads across the mountain (especially Walton Road), people have forgotten Fort Blount and the surrounding Williamsburg community. Eventually the fort disappeared and people forgot where it had been!

In the 1980s, the Tennessee Division of Archeology found the remains of Fort Blount, using old maps, documents, and first-person accounts. The archaeologist led by Samuel Smith has found evidence of several structures, thousands of kitchen artifacts, 495 kitchen utensils, 38 musket balls, nine belt buckles and 181 buttons. They even found nine pieces, including one bearing the year 1781.

It looks like a treasure. But we can only imagine the other things forgotten and buried along the abandoned road through the Cumberland Plateau.

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