by Randal D. Williams
The Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee is poised for unprecedented economic growth and concomitant cultural changes and opportunities. Once the epitome of bucolic isolation, the Upper Cumberland is rapidly becoming a top-rated retirement and recreation area, while maintaining more traditional farming and manufacturing bases.
As citizens of this burgeoning region, we owe it to ourselves to understand the cultural milieu from which it developed, in order to better understand where we are now and where the future may take us. Examining the cultural and economic past of the Upper Cumberland will help all of us better understand and appreciate our unique region, especially those who are new to the area.
The Upper Cumberland region takes its name from the Cumberland River and refers to the navigable portion of the river between Carthage and Burnside, Ky. The name was given to this portion of the river by steamboat personnel of the 1820s. Surveyor and explorer Dr. Thomas Walker of Virginia named the river in 1750 in honor of the English Duke of Cumberland, who had defeated the Scottish forces of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Upper Cumberland area is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Upper “Cumberlands,” as if the region were named for the plateau or mountains rather than the river.
The Upper Cumberland lies mainly within the Cumberland Plateau and Eastern Highland Rim physiographic provinces, although extreme western sections fall within the Central Basin. These landforms are responsible for the Upper Cumberland’s dissected, hilly appearance.
The physical features of the Upper Cumberland were in large part responsible for shaping the cultural identity of the area and aligning it with the Appalachian highlands to the east rather than the plantation culture of the Central Basin. The highly dissected uplands and mountain areas of the Upper Cumberland were not suitable for large-scale, labor-intensive agriculture, which in the antebellum period relied on slave labor. As a result of this, the Upper Cumberland’s minority population has remained relatively small.
The Upper Cumberland was initially settled in an east-west pattern due to the difficulty of traversing the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. Settlers followed easier inland and water routes into central Tennessee and worked their way into the Upper Cumberland from the west, where the terrain was much easier to negotiate. The land had been home to Native American groups for thousands of years, and during the historic period had served as a communal hunting ground for several tribal groups, although the entire territory was claimed by the Cherokee.
The first European settlers of the region were mainly English, Welsh, Ulster Scots and Germans, who began to enter the region in large numbers after the signing of the Third Treaty of Tellico in 1805 in which the Cherokee Indians relinquished all claims to lands in the Upper Cumberland. Roads were built to facilitate settlement and commerce. Chief among them were Walton Road, Kentucky Stock Road, Fisk Road and others.
As the Upper Cumberland was settled, communities began to develop throughout the region and subsistence farming was the principal industry of the area. Crops such as corn, wheat, rye and oats were grown, livestock was kept and the abundant natural resources of the area were exploited. In time timber, tobacco, small-scale coal mining, pottery and other industries based around the natural resources of the region became important to the economy of the Upper Cumberland. The settlers who entered this isolated area quickly developed an individualized, self-sufficient culture, which remained largely unchanged until the 20th century.
The coming of the Tennessee Central Railroad in 1890 opened the Upper Cumberland in ways that would not have been possible prior to that time. Manufacturing concerns began to move into the region, better roads were developed and new schools were established, including Dixie College, the forerunner of Tennessee Tech University.
By the 1930s the Tennessee Valley Authority had brought electricity to the Upper Cumberland, allowing for further development of the region. By the 1960s with the completion of Interstate 40, the economic and cultural transformation of the Upper Cumberland had begun in earnest at a pace that has continued until the present.
Today, the Upper Cumberland is no longer an isolated, cultural backwater. People are moving into the region from many different places to take advantage of the cultural and economic resources of the area, and the quality of life experienced in the Upper Cumberland is a powerful calling card.
Traditional ways are being augmented and altered by new approaches, but the Upper Cumberland maintains its fundamental cultural identity, which is its strongest selling point, and one that should be preserved and strengthened in order for the region to grow into the future.
Randal D. Williams is Historic Preservation Planner for the Upper Cumberland Development District.