Just a few hours northeast of Chattanooga, the story of our nation’s intense and dramatic westward expansion comes to life at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The 100-acre site, located along a shallow and rocky stretch of the Watauga River, harbors stories of triumph and tragedy that define the country’s growth in the 18th century, marking the area as one of Tennessee’s most historic sites.
What: 18th-century militia muster showcasing colonial skills and trades
Where: Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tenn. (approximately 230 miles northeast of Chattanooga)
When: Saturday, Feb. 16, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 17, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. EST
How much: Free
For more information: Visit www.sycamoreshoalstn.org or call 423-543-5808
This month, the park will sponsor a living history weekend to showcase the skills and trades utilized during 18th-century frontier life at Sycamore Shoals. The park’s living history organization, the Washington County Regiment of North Carolina Militia, will be encamped in and around the park on Feb. 16 and 17, providing visitors with a glimpse into the country’s revolutionary past.
More than 30 re-enactors will demonstrate skills such as hide tanning, rope making, flint and steel fire starting, tomahawk throwing, musket and rifle firing, maple syrup production, open-hearth cooking, and sewing. The event is free to the public, and details can be found at www.sycamoreshoalstn.org.
Tennessee’s historic site
Archaeological evidence dates habitation at Sycamore Shoals back to the Woodland period (circa 1000 B.C.-1000 A.D.). By the late 17th century, the Cherokee were using Sycamore Shoals and the Watauga River as a gathering place and hunting camp.
By the 1760s, long hunters were operating within the vicinity of Sycamore Shoals. James Robertson built a small cabin in the Watauga Valley in 1771 and recruited 16 families to become part of the first Watauga settlement. In 1772, in need of an official means of dealing with criminals and carrying out basic government functions, the Watauga settlers created the Watauga Association, one of the first systems of self-government in the fledgling nation.
In 1775, the sale of 20 million acres of land in what is today northern Tennessee and much of Kentucky took place between speculators and the Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals. Known as the Transylvania Purchase, the negotiations opened up Middle Tennessee to settlers and started a war between settlers and Cherokee warriors. Fort Watauga, which had been built near Sycamore Shoals, became a refuge for the settlers during conflicts with the Cherokee.
The movement of settlers into what is now Tennessee, in defiance of King George's Proclamation of 1763, was also one of the causes of the American Revolutionary War. Often deemed the most significant event of Sycamore Shoals’ history, a militia of frontiersmen known as the Overmountain Men gathered there in 1780 before the Battle of Kings Mountain, where they fought and defeated the Loyalist Army. The Overmountain Men’s efforts helped solidify settlements in the Watauga, Nolichucky and Holston river valleys, which had been questioned by the British Crown for several years.
“Upper East Tennessee played an important role in the Revolutionary War,” Sycamore Shoals historical interpreter Chad Bogart said. “A lot of historians look at the Battle of Kings Mountain as a turning point during the Revolutionary War.”
In 1909, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker constructed from local river rock in Elizabethton, Tenn., where Fort Watauga once stood. Sycamore Shoals was designated a National Historic Landmark in the 1960s, and Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park opened in 1975. A reconstruction of Fort Watauga, based on archeological and historical research, stands near the Sycamore Shoals river crossing.
History comes to life
The colonial skills and trade living history event at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park is in its third year, and in past years, more than 600 visitors have flocked to enjoy re-enactments and learn about life in Tennessee in the 18th century.
“We live in an age today where if we need something, we just go to the store and buy it,” Bogart said. “It is good for people to see how it used to be on the frontier—if you needed something, you had to make it. “
The event is also a creative way to tell the history of the region, Bogart said.
“This is like visiting a living museum, where you can talk to people and stories of the past come to life,” he said. “This type of event gives children the opportunity to see what they can’t read in history books. We are charged with teaching history and carrying it on, so we put a lot of emphasis on children and what we can teach them, so they can, in turn, share our history with future generations.”
To learn more about Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, visit www.sycamoreshoalstn.org or call 423-543-5808.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.