By Jennifer Watts
Did you know that Tennessee has not always had a state flag? It’s true! As we commemorate Tennessee’s 225th birthday this year, let’s look back at the history of our state’s iconic flag.
Tennessee was formed from the western lands of the state of North Carolina. Before it was known as Tennessee, it was called the “Territory South of the Ohio River” or “Southwest Territory” for short. Shortly after the end of the American Revolution, the new nation began to grow and expand westward. Tennessee was part of this expansion and became a state in 1796 (learn more about that here). At that time, no state flag was proposed.
At the start of the American Civil War, some Tennesseans argued that the state needed a flag. In April of 1861, Tennessee Speaker of the Senate Tazwell B. Newman suggested designing a flag. The design included the state seal replacing the circle of stars on the Confederate National flag known as the “Stars and Bars”. People were concerned with using the Confederate flag as a base. At the time, Tennessee had not seceded from the Union. This flag was never adopted although Tennessee did join the Confederacy in the summer of 1861.
Proposed 1861 flag, courtesy of Devereaux D. Cannon, Jr., Flags of Tennessee
Another flag was proposed in 1896. This year was Tennessee’s Centennial or 100th birthday. The flag went through several designs before a final one was selected in 1897. It had diagonal stripes of red, blue, and white. The words “Volunteer State”, Tennessee’s nickname, in yellow was written diagonally across the center white stripe. The number 16 was in the blue stripe. Tennessee was the sixteenth state to join the United States of America. This flag was used from 1897 until 1905.
A proposed version of the centennial Tennessee flag, Tennessee State Museum Collection
The flag we know today was adopted in 1905. It was designed by Captain LeRoy Reeves. He was part of Company “F” of the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Tennessee National Guard. Born in Johnson City, he was a lifelong Tennessean. He had been a teacher and lawyer before joining the National Guard. He worked on several different flag designs before choosing the one we know today.
Experimental Drawings for Tennessee State Flag by LeRoy Reeves (1903),
009_02_02, LeRoy Reeves Papers, Archives of Appalachia, East Tennessee State University
The final design was selected in 1905. It was approved by the Tennessee General Assembly with Chapter 498 of the Public Acts of 1905. When he was asked to explain his design, he said:
The three stars are of pure white, representing the three grand
divisions of the state. They are bound together by the endless
circle of the blue field, the symbol being three bound together
in one, an indissoluble trinity. The large field is crimson. The final
blue bar relieves the sameness of the crimson field and prevents the
flag from showing too much crimson when hanging limp. The white
edgings contrast more strongly the other colors.
There have been several other ideas given for the three stars he used. One idea was that the stars represented the three U.S. presidents from Tennessee: Andrew Jackson (7th), James K. Polk (11th), and Andrew Johnson (17th). Another was reported in the October 1917 edition of National Geographic magazine. It said the three stars stood for Tennessee being the third state added to the country after the original thirteen. Reeves’ words show these ideas are not true.
The original Tennessee flag owned by Capt. Reeves, Tennessee State Museum Collection
Today, the Tennessee flag is used across the state. We see it in government offices and on many business logos. We do not know why the original Tennesseans did not have a flag when founded. What we do know is that after 100 years of waiting, Tennessee finally got a state flag that was well worth the wait.
Did You Know?
Many people are not sure how to fly the flag correctly. Sometimes you see it upside down. The correct way is with the one star on the bottom. (As seen above)
Tennessee’s state flag has two official salutes.
By Lucy Steele Harrison, adopted 1981:
Three white stars on a field of blue
God keep them strong and ever true
It is with pride and love that we
Salute the Flag of Tennessee
By Miss John Bostick, adopted 1987:
Flag of Tennessee, I salute thee
To thee I pledge my allegiance with
My affection, my service, and my life
Iconic - a well-known symbol of a thing, person, or idea.
Expansion - growing bigger in size.
Proposed - to suggest an idea.
Indissoluble - not able to be broken apart or into pieces.
Trinity - a group of three similar things.
Was there a Tennessee state flag in 1796?
When did Tennessee get its first official state flag?
What do the three stars on the flag represent?
If you created a new flag for Tennessee today, what symbols would you include?
Write your own salute to the Tennessee flag.
Create a flag that represents your family, neighborhood, school, or classroom. Now write a justification for each of the symbols, colors, and designs that you used.
Jennifer Watts is a Museum Educator with the Tennessee State Museum
Tennessee Social Studies Standard(s)
SSP.01 Gather information from a variety of sources, including: printed materials (e.g., literary texts, newspapers, political cartoons, autobiographies, speeches, letters, personal journals), graphic representations (e.g., maps, timelines, charts, artwork), artifacts, and media and technology sources.
SSP.05 Develop historical awareness by; sequencing past, present, and future in chronological order and understanding that things change over time.
K.12 Identify the following state and national symbols: American flag, Tennessee flag, and the words of the Pledge of Allegiance.
1.14 Identify the three grand divisions of Tennessee on a map.
1.16 Explain the importance of patriotic traditions, including the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, and respectful behavior during both.
1.21 Identify Tennessee symbols, including: state flag, state tree, state flower, state bird, state animal, and the significance of the state nickname.
Coffey, Caitlin. “The Tri-Star Flag: What’s behind the Beloved Emblem, A Brief History”. WKRN, January 6, 2021. https://www.wkrn.com/tennessee-225/the-tri-star-flag-whats-behind-the-beloved-emblem/
“State Flag”. State Symbols Links. https://sos.tn.gov/products/state-flag. Accessed May 25, 2021.
“Tennessee State Flag”. Tennessee Military Department. https://web.archive.org/web/20080114192856/https://tn.ngb.army.mil/tnmilitary/MainPages/tn%20state%20flag.htm. Accessed May 25, 2021.
Smith, Whitney. "Flag of Tennessee". Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Jul. 2011, https://www.britannica.com/topic/flag-of-Tennessee. Accessed May 25, 2021.
“State Symbols-Flag”. Tennessee State Government. https://www.tn.gov/about-tn/state-symbols.html. Accessed May 25, 2021.
“Reeves, LeRoy, 1876-1960”. Archives of Appalachia: East Tennessee State University. https://archives.etsu.edu/agents/people/378. Accessed May 25, 2021.
Van West, Carroll. “Lee Roy Reeves”. Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society, 2018. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/lee-roy-reeves/. Accessed May 25, 2021.
Cannon, Jr., Devereaux D. “Proposed Tennessee Flag”. Flags of Tennessee. March 16, 2000. https://confederateflags.org/fotcstate/fotctennessee/. Accessed May 25, 2021.