By Jennifer Watts
Have you ever wondered why the Tennessee State flag has three stars? The stars represent the three grand divisions of the state! One star is for East Tennessee. One star is for Middle Tennessee. One star is for West Tennessee. The stars are placed at an angle to each other so that no one star is above the other. Meaning, no grand division is above the next. Each grand division is equal. But there is more to the geography of Tennessee than the three divisions. Let’s learn more about Tennessee’s land!
“Greetings From Tennessee” postcard, Tennessee State Museum Collection 2021.19.5
The state of Tennessee measures 67,882 square miles in area. It is 432 miles long from east to west. It is 112 miles at its narrowest part, north to south. It borders eight states: Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Missouri. The highest point is located at Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains. It is 6,643 feet tall. That is almost as tall as 22 Statue of Liberties stacked on top of each other! The lowest point in Tennessee is found in the Mississippi River outside of Memphis. It measures 178 feet above sea level according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Early Map of Tennessee by W. Barker published in 1796, Tennessee State Museum Collection 2001.94
Tennessee has been divided into three sections for a long time. The three grand divisions were first mentioned in the 1835-1836 Acts of Tennessee. But the land has been around a lot longer than that. Each division is based on the landforms it contains. Each one is unique.
East Tennessee is where we can see mountains. These mountains were created by tectonic uplift. This happens when the land is pushed together and some of it moves up to make room. This area contains the Unaka and Smoky Mountain region. They are part of the Appalachian Mountain range. Here is a fun fact - the temperature can be 10-20 degrees cooler in the mountains than in the surrounding lowlands.
Moving west, the land turns into valleys and ridges. A ridge looks like narrow rolling hills. The region is sometimes called the “Great Valley.” It then flattens at the Cumberland Plateau as it moves toward Middle Tennessee. Towns like Crossville can be found there.
In Middle Tennessee is the Central Basin surrounded by the Highland Rim. Think of it as a big bowl with Nashville at its center. On the other side is West Tennessee. It turns into the Gulf Coastal Plain and a delta. The delta is where the land of Tennessee joins the Mississippi River. Almost 4% of Shelby County is covered by the delta’s water.
Topographic Map of Tennessee, Tennessee Department of Geology
Topographic maps like the one above shows us how the land changes using colors. The darker brown color means the land is higher, the greener the color the lower it is. Blue represents rivers and lakes. Using maps like these, we can see how people in the past got the idea to divide Tennessee into the three grand divisions. If you lived when Tennessee became a state in 1796, what would you have named the three different regions?
Geography - The study of the physical features of the Earth.
1835-1836 Acts of Tennessee - Legal documents that say the Supreme Court of the state must meet once a year in each grand division: East, Middle, and West.
Region - An area of land.
Topographic - The showing of the physical and natural surface features of land in picture form.
How many square miles is Tennessee?
How many miles across is Tennessee at its narrowest point?
Which Grand Division would you live in if you could? Why?
How do you think the landforms of Tennessee effected where early settlers chose to live?
Create your own salt dough map of Tennessee. A salt dough map is a 3-demensional way to see the geography of our state. It’s fun and kind of messy.
1) Make a batch of salt dough using the recipe below. Mix ingredients until it is the consistency of playdough. Add more water or flour when needed.
2) Take a flat piece of cardboard and draw the shape of Tennessee using a pencil.
Outline of Tennessee: https://www.worldatlas.com/upload/ef/ef/f2/tn-03.png
3) Using small amounts of dough, begin filling in the shape of Tennessee.
4) Add more dough to create hills and mountains and take away dough to create riverbeds, lakes, and valleys. (Use the topographic map in the blog to create your map)
5) Let the map dry for 1-2 days.
6) Once it is dry, paint the map to show highlighted features like mountains, rivers, and lakes. Use different colors to represent different features. Create a key to show what color represents which feature.
Salt Dough Recipe:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup salt
1 cup water
Maps of TN for reference
Jennifer Watts is a Museum Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.
Tennessee Social Studies Standard(s)
SSP.06 Develop geographic awareness by: Determining relationships among people, resources, and ideas based on geographic location (local, national, global); Determining the use of diverse types of maps based on the purpose; Analyzing the spatial relationships between people, circumstances, and resources; Analyzing interaction between humans and the physical environment; and examining how geographic regions and perceptions of the regions change over time.
3.06 Identify and locate the major continents and oceans using maps and globes: Africa, Europe, Atlantic Ocean, Antarctica, North America, Indian Ocean, Asia, South America, Pacific Ocean, Australia, Arctic Ocean, and Southern Ocean.
3.07 Identify and locate major countries, including: India, Brazil, Italy, China, Japan, Egypt, Russia, France, and Spain.
3.08 Identify major physical features of the world, including: Rivers—Amazon, Nile; Mountains and Ranges—Alps, Andes, Himalayas; Deserts— Gobi, Sahara; Bodies of Water—Mediterranean Sea, Straits of Magellan; and Landforms—Great Barrier Reef, Niagara Falls.
3.10 Identify and locate major cities in the U.S., including: Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, and Washington, D.C.
3.11 Identify major physical features of the U.S., including: Rivers—Colorado, Mississippi, Ohio, Rio Grande, Mountains—Alaska Range, Appalachian, Rockies, Bodies of Water—Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Desert— Great Basin, and Landforms—Grand Canyon, Great Plains.
3.12 Locate the following cities and physical features in Tennessee: Cities—Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville; Rivers—Cumberland, Mississippi, Tennessee; and Mountain Range—Great Smoky Mountains.
3.13 Explain how geographic challenges are met with: Bridges, Irrigation systems, Canals, Landfills, Dams, and Tunnels.
3.14 Compare natural resources within the three grand divisions of Tennessee and trace the development of a product from natural resource to a finished product.
3.15 Interpret a chart, graph, or resource map of major imports and exports in Tennessee.
5.53 Compare and contrast the three grand divisions of Tennessee in terms of the following: Major industries (e.g., Eastman, FedEx, and Nissan), Tourism (e.g., Bristol Motor Speedway, Civil War sites, and Graceland), Agriculture and livestock (e.g., soybeans in West TN, tobacco in Middle TN, and dairy in East TN), and Geography (i.e., Gulf Coastal Plains, the Nashville Basin, the Highland Rim, the Cumberland Plateau, the Great Valley, and the Great Smoky Mountains).
7.53 Identify and locate the geographical features of the Americas, including: Andes Mountains, Appalachian, Great Plains, Pacific Ocean Mountains, Gulf of Mexico, Rocky Mountains, Atlantic Ocean, Mississippi River, South America, Caribbean Sea, North America, Yucatan Peninsula, and Central Mexican Plateau.
WG.13 Describe ways in which different types of physical and natural processes create and shape the surface of the Earth.
“About Shelby County: Geography.” Shelby County Tennessee, 2022. https://shelbycountytn.gov/210/Geography. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
Alden, Andrew. “Geologic Maps of the 50 United States.” ThoughCo., 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/geologic-maps-of-the-united-states-4122863. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
“Clingmans Dome”. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/clingmansdome.htm. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
“Grand Divisions”. The Tennessee Historical Society, March 3, 2017. https://tennesseehistory.org/grand-divisions/. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
Kiffel-Alcheh, Jamie. “Tennessee: Get Facts and Photos about the 16th State. National Geographic Partners, 2022. https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/geography/states/article/tennessee. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
Luther, Edward T. “Geographic Zones.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society, 2021. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/geologic-zones/. Retrieved June 16, 2022.
“Maps of Tennessee.” WorldAtlas, 2022. https://www.worldatlas.com/maps/united-states/tennessee. Retrieved June 13, 2022.
Moore, Wayne C., “A History of Tennessee: The Land and Native People.” Tennessee Blue Book, 2020. Tennessee Secretary of State.
Norrell, R. J., Hodges, James A. and Howell, Sarah McCanless. "Tennessee." Encyclopedia Britannica, January 13, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/place/Tennessee. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
United States Geological Survey. “Highest and Lowest Elevations”. United States Department of the Interior, 2022. https://www.usgs.gov/educational-resources/highest-and-lowest-elevations.