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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Matthew Gailani
Have you have ever lived in, traveled through, or seen Tennessee on a map? If you have, you know that it is home to many cities, towns, and communities. From McMinn County to Lake County, and Bucksnort to Hohenwald, each place has its own unique name and story. But what is in a name? Why do we call Nashville, Nashville? Why is Memphis, Memphis and not Salt Lake City? This week, on the Junior Curators’ Blog, we are going to learn how a few cities in Tennessee got their names!
Let’s start with the name Tennessee itself. There is debate about where the name comes from. Many experts say it comes from a Southeastern Indian word, Tanasi. Tanasi was a village in eastern Tennessee. Tennessee became the 16th state in American history in 1796. Before becoming a state, the American government called the land the Territory South of the River Ohio. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and other Southeastern Indians had their own names for their towns and villages in the area. One Cherokee city was called Chota. This city was the Overhill Cherokee’s capital. It was in east Tennessee and was likely established in the 1730s.
After Tennessee became a state in 1796, American settlers began to gain and take land that once belonged to the Southeastern Indians. This was done sometimes by treaty and sometimes by force. As this happened, American settlers kept some Southeastern Indian names for towns. For other areas they created new names.
One example of a city that kept its Cherokee name is Chattanooga. Modern day Chattanooga was founded in the 1830s, but people had been living there long before. Eventually, the Cherokee named the spot Chado-na-ugsa. This means “rock that comes to a point.”
Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Another Tennessee city is Nashville. Its name is not as old as Chattanooga or Tanasi. The name Nashville goes back to the late 1700s, when colonists established Fort Nashborough where the modern-day city is located now. The fort was named after Francis Nash. Nash fought during the American Revolution and was from North Carolina. Later, Nashborough was changed to Nashville in 1784.
Nashville, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Nashville is not the only city named after a soldier from the American Revolution. Knoxville is also named after a veteran. Knoxville was originally called ‘White’s Fort’ by American settlers in 1786. The name was later changed to Knoxville in 1791. It was named after Henry Knox. Knox was a general during the American Revolution and served as George Washington’s Secretary of War.
Knoxville, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Not all Tennessee cities are named after Cherokee words or former soldiers. One example of this is the city of Memphis. Located on the Mississippi River, the area was Chickasaw land until the Jackson Purchase of 1818 forced the tribe to cede it. The modern city was founded in 1819 and named Memphis. The name was chosen because of the ancient city of Memphis in Egypt. Memphis, Egypt was founded thousands of years before the United States even existed. But, like Memphis, Tennessee, it was also located on a great river: the Nile.
Memphis, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
These examples show that there is a story behind the name of every Tennessee town, city, river, mountain, and valley. Some names changed after European and American settlers moved in. Others stayed the same and have Southeastern Indian origins. Where do you live in Tennessee? Do you know who your town is named after? The answer might surprise you!
Veteran - In this example, someone who has served in the military.
Secretary of War - A position in the President’s cabinet that oversaw the war department. The position no longer exists. However, there is a Secretary of Defense today.
Cede - To give up power or territory/land.
Which Tennessee city is named after a city in ancient Egypt?
Who is Nashville named after?
Is Chattanooga or Knoxville named after a Cherokee word?
If you could pick a new name for your city, what would you choose? Why would that be a good name?
Where does your hometown’s name come from? What about your county? The Answer may surprise you!
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.