Knoxville’s Birthday: On Oct. 3, Knoxville turns 225. We’re pretty sure.

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The occasion we’re celebrating this week, Founders Day, is one of the foggier moments in Knoxville’s history.

We don’t know very much about Mr. James White personally, except the basic biological facts about his offspring and about a dozen impressive-sounding positions he held over the years: militia officer, judge, delegate to the statehood convention. Concerning his aspirations, choices, and ideals, he’s not quotable. There’s no picture of him. But in 1786, at age 39, White built a fortified residence on a creek not yet known as First Creek. He’d been living in White’s Fort for just five years when Gov. William Blount, signer of the U.S. Constitution, chose White’s obscure neighborhood as the capital of a major federal project called the Southwestern Territory, a massive swath of land stretching from the mountains all the way to the Mississippi River. Blount chose to call it Knoxville. Gen. Henry Knox, a Bostonian who never visited this part of the world, was secretary of President George Washington’s war department, and therefore Gov. Blount’s immediate superior. It never hurts to name stuff after your boss.

It’s hard to know whether White was pleased with this development. White had grown up in rural North Carolina, born in 1747 several miles north of Charlotte, which itself was hardly more than a crossroads. His resume wouldn’t suggest much interest in cities. Despite spells in Jonesborough and Greeneville, he tended to avoid small towns, too.

But as Capt. White sailed into middle age, it became inevitable that there would have to be something like a city on this spot where he’d chosen to settle. His son in law, Charles McClung, did know something about cities. Born in eastern Pennsylvania, McClung had lived in Philadelphia, perhaps the most important city in North America. He settled with White’s family, and helped the capital project by surveying 32 acres of White’s land on the top of the river bluff and laying out a regular grid of streets with urban-sounding names. On Monday, Oct. 3, 1791—it’s a Monday again this year—White sold each of 64 half-acre lots of his land to prospective Knoxvillians in a lottery, carefully supervised by three commissioners, including John Adair and George McNutt, who were Irishmen by birth. (The third was named Paul Cunningham; I’m not sure where he came from.) That commission was there to assure the land sale would be fair and equitable, “without fear or affection to any, whether present or absent.” It was arguably the first form of local government in Knoxville.

Several of the first Knoxvillians were, like Adair and McNutt, Irish immigrants. Others came from Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, even Boston—that was Tennessee’s original newspaperman, George Roulstone. Most were probably strangers to each other until they met here.

There’s some confusion in the records about who bought what and who actually took possession of each lot, and when. It all worked out somehow.

Knoxville was an ever-changing, rough-edged place that some didn’t expect to last. People came and went. Even Capt. White went. Perhaps because, after less than a decade, the city he’d founded was getting too noisy for him, he moved out of town to a simple cabin in a more pristine spot east of town. The Blounts died in middle age about the same time the Whites moved out. Roulstone, the first journalist, and Carrick, founder of a church and a college, both died young. Newcomers to this odd town on top of a river bluff were left to guess how it got here.

Few paused to save old documents or even consider that the place was important enough to have anything like a history. However, in the early 1840s, Knoxville captured the imagination of a 26-year-old journalist named Thomas Humes, who did some research. His dad was an Irish immigrant. Hardly anyone was around to correct him. In time for what was believed to be the city’s 50th anniversary, on Feb. 10, 1842, Humes gave a long talk, telling Knoxville’s tale, perhaps for the first time.

Humes’ research holds up pretty well. Most of it except the date.

The only one alive in 1842 who recalled those early days was an elderly man named Hugh Dunlap, who believed it took place in February 1792. He spoke with the certainty with which all old men speak. He just couldn’t remember exactly which day in February. “It excited no particular interest at the time,” Dunlap wrote in a letter. Later historians would note that February 1792 was the month Dunlap arrived from Philadelphia, just as there was a good deal of construction in progress, likely with additional surveying and perhaps auctioning.

If Dunlap got mixed up, he wasn’t the last old man to get mixed up about a vivid memory. Trust but verify. Their stories are always at least partly true.

If they’d just reviewed the existing but probably hard to find back issues of the Knoxville Gazette, they’d have known that by November 1791, there was indeed a place, or at least an idea, called Knoxville. Even if the Knoxville Gazette was printed, in its early days, in Rogersville.

In any case, Dunlap’s imperfect but willful memory, combined with an arbitary date, the 10th, resulted in Knoxville’s first birthday celebration on Feb. 10, 1842, a memorable festival downtown, held in two hotels and one church, with a supper and ball that didn’t end until 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.

Humes predicted Knoxville would celebrate its centennial on Feb. 10, 1892. It didn’t. Humes died the month before.

Still, Feb. 10 was celebrated as “Knoxville’s Birthday,” not every year, but often enough, by schools and civic groups—until the early 1930s, when the East Tennessee Historical Society straightened us out on that matter. Oct. 3, 1791 was Knoxville’s founding date, as librarian Laura Luttrell affirmed, and it became a thing to celebrate, with a big birthday cake with 140-something candles, to be blown out by some of the city’s most elderly and esteemed citizens.

And so it will be this weekend. Enjoy the festivities. A city doesn’t often get to celebrate its bicenquasquigenary.

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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