How the City of Knoxville Began

In Knoxville History by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

All cities have a founding story. Knoxville’s is unusual. From the day it was named, Knoxville was the capital of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio. That federal territory was a large tract stretching from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River, a region previously claimed by North Carolina. Known familiarly as the Southwest Territory, it was, basically, the future state of Tennessee—plus, by assumptions at the time, disputed territory in the northern parts of what are now Mississippi and Alabama. The brand-new city of Knoxville was, for about five years, that region’s administrative capital. Knoxville was tiny, with only a few hundred residents and very little permanent architecture. Still, it was one of only 17 capital cities in the new United States, and for that reason it was sometimes mentioned in the European press.

In the summer of 1791, territorial Gov. William Blount conducted the Treaty of the Holston with 41 Indian chiefs and warriors at the town site, on what was then known as the Holston River. An interesting marble sculpture depicting that treaty stands near the site where it took place, on Volunteer Landing near the mouth of First Creek. Blount chose that site, where James White had already established a mill and a small fort, as the capital of the territory.

The Southwest Territory existed only during the administration of President George Washington. Blount named Knoxville for Washington’s Secretary of War, Henry Knox, who had been a general in the Revolutionary War. Because the territories bordered on land claimed by foreign countries—Spain, during the era Knoxville was capital—they were administered through Knox’s office. Knox was Blount’s immediate superior.

Because Knoxville existed to serve as a territorial and later a state capital, legislatures made administrative decisions concerning the small settlement. Therefore, Knoxville did not require its own charter and government. For that reason, Knoxville has celebrated an unusual event as its birthdate: a real-estate lottery conducted by James White. White’s son-in-law, Charles McClung, had surveyed the city into 64 half-acre lots and named several of its streets.

Knoxville was only one month old when it had a newspaper, the Knoxville Gazette. The first newspaper in the territory that would become Tennessee, it was only the third American newspaper west of the Appalachians. During its first months, it was printed in Rogersville, due to the difficulty of establishing a printing press in barely organized new capital.

Within about four years, Knoxville was central to a movement to found the new nation’s 16th state. Washington was still president when it was determined that the Southwestern Territory had enough residents to qualify for statehood. In January, 1796, representatives from across the territory met in Knoxville to draw up the constitution for a new state, to be known as Tennessee, a Cherokee word for the river that flows through much of the state. Knoxville became Tennessee’s first capital.

Knoxville did not elect its own mayor until the town was 24 years old. In late 1815, near the end of its time as state capital, the city was more formally chartered and incorporated by an act of the state legislature. (This Oct. 27 marks the bicentennial of Knoxville’s city government!) The town’s first Board of Aldermen chose one of its own members, Thomas Emmerson, a lawyer and judge originally from Eastern Virginia, to be Knoxville’s first mayor.

A 225th anniversary is sometimes called a quasquibicentennial or a bicenquasquigenary. Whatever they call it, the city of Knoxville, Visit Knoxville, and multiple other organizations will soon celebrate the city’s 225th anniversary. Most of the celebratory events will take over a period of several months next year. Watch for announcements of upcoming events.

For more of the story, read Heart of the Valley (1976) published by the East Tennessee Historical Society.

Photo: Blount Mansion, as it appeared in the 1930s, not long after preservationists saved it from demolition for a parking lot. Built in 1792, it was the home of Gov. William Blount, signer of the U.S. Constitution who named Knoxville and established his territorial capital here. Photo courtesy of Blount Mansion Association.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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