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The Mound Builders, First Indian Settlers

The first inhabitants of Middle Tennessee belonged to a race of people called Mound Builders, because of the mounds or monuments they erected and left behind. No one knows from whence they came, how long they remained, or whither they went. They were quite numerous. This is evident from the fact that around many of the lasting springs, and in various localities along the water courses, early immigrants found acres of graves containing their remains. These burial places gave evidence of having been made long before the advent of the whites, possibly several hundred years previous to the beginning of the 17th century. Though seemingly sound, when exhumed, the bones therein crumbled to powder when exposed to the air, thus attesting their great age.

One of these ancient graveyards covered a part of what is now Sulphur Spring Bottom in Nashville. Another was located in North Edgefield. A third was clustered about the mouth of Stone's river, above the city, and a fourth the largest of all, was situated upon the farm of Mr. O. F. Noel, South, adjoining Glendale Park.

Others were found throughout Sumner County, especially at and around Castalian Springs, formerly Bledsoe's Lick. These places of interment were also numerous along the Harpeth River in Williamson, Cheatham and Dickson Counties. Mounds and stone graves are also to be found in Humphreys and Hardin Counties.

It is related of the "Long Hunters," the first organized band of adventurers coming to this region, that to them no trace of human habitation was visible, the primeval state of things then reigning in unrivaled glory. But in dry caves on the side of creeks tributary to the Cumberland, down the course of which they traveled, they found many places where stones were set together, thus covering large quantities of human bones; these were also found far in the caves with which this region yet abounds. The conical shaped mounds left throughout Middle Tennessee by these early builders afford evidence of industry, and also of a measure of skill. They too, were used as places for burial of the dead, and possibly for religious and military purposes as well. At Castalian Springs there may yet be seen the remnant of one of these mounds which was formerly surrounded by a low wall or embankment enclosing a small acreage of land. This was opened first by General James Winchester about a hundred years ago, and within were found a quantity of human bones, some broken pottery, a box of red powder, burnt corn cobs, and several cedar posts. The latter had doubtless constituted part of the framework of a chamber formerly existing, but then in decay. At the time of the discovery of Bledsoe's Lick there stood on the top of this mound an oak tree three feet in diameter, thus indicating that it was then at least a century old.

In the same neighborhood have been found from time to time other relics of this prehistoric race. Near the door of a storehouse at Castalian Springs there lay for many years the carved sandstone image of a human form. This was about two feet in length, the arms of which, though partially broken off, seemed to have been raised in supplication. The shape of its head and the expression of its rude features were foreign, being entirely unlike those of the Indians. It was probably an idol once used in some form of heathen worship. It was not taken from the mound above described, as has been alleged, but was ploughed up from a neighboring field.

Another elevation of similar character in Sumner County is located on the farm of Mr. Alexander Kizer and stands neat the public road leading from Shackle Island to Hendersonville. This mound measures thirty-five feet across the top. From the south side it is fifty feet in height, having been approached formerly from the north to the summit by a slanting roadway thrown up from the surrounding soil. At a radius of about a hundred yards it is surrounded by the remains of a number of smaller mounds. An excavation conducted by Eastern scientists some years ago disclosed the fact that the latter were used as receptacles for the dead, in truth the entire space between these and the central mound was covered with graves such as those already described. Popular tradition says that ages ago these ruins constituted the seat of government of a community or tribe of an extinct race; that the ruler or principal chief dwelt on the large elevation, while the lesser ones were used as stations by the officers of his council. A more probable theory is that the entire arrangement was for use in the ceremonial minutiae incident to the burial of their dead.

Kizer Mound
The Kizer Mound Near Hendersonville, Sumner County

Near Nashville, at a point half way between the west bank of the river and the north side of old French Lick Creek, stands an elevation known as the Charleville mound, so called in honor of a French trader who many years before the coming of the settlers had a station on its summit. This, too, was opened in 1 82 1, and found to contain broken pottery, and a piece of oval-shaped metal on one side of which was an indented outline of the head of a woman.

In Williamson County a short distance north of Franklin, are three mounds of about equal size standing in a row from north to south. The remains of others like unto these are to be seen also in Warren, Lincoln and Hickman Counties. Near Manchester in Coffee County under the shadow of the great dividing range of the Cumberland Mountains stands an old moss covered stone fort which is yet in a partial state of preservation. Built in the long ago it is without even a tradition to disclose its identity. Its architects are now in that happy hunting ground from whose bourn no traveler has yet returned. The Indians met by the pioneers on the arrival of the latter in Middle Tennessee could give no information as to the origin of these antiquities, all of which they held in great veneration, but were content to say that they had been here always.

At the discovery of this region, its soil, which was covered by thick cane-brakes and forest trees of mammoth size, seemed never to have been broken by cultivation.

We are, therefore, left in ignorance as to the means by which the Mound Builders supplied themselves with food and clothing.

They had undoubtedly attained a degree of civilization, but despite all that has been written upon the subject, a large part of which is mere fiction, there is little to indicate that they were highly civilized, or to a great extent acquainted with the arts of more recent progress. Modern scientists have cast aside many of the mysterious theories with which the existence of the Mound Builders was long enshrouded, and now believe that they were simply the ancestors of the American Indians, the latter through the lapse of many centuries having degenerated into the low state of civilization in which they were found by the early discoverers.

First Indian Settlers

Following the Mound Builders came the Shawnees, who were the first tribe of Indians to settle in Middle Tennessee. They journeyed from a region surrounding the Great Lakes about 1650 and built their villages along the banks of the Cumberland. The boundaries of this settlement extended north to what is now the Kentucky line, and as far west as the Tennessee River. Until the time of their coming the country now comprising Kentucky and Middle Tennessee had been held as neutral territory by the Indians, and was used as a common hunting ground by the Iroquois on the north, and by the tribes composing the Mobilian race on the south. Chief among the latter were the Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles.

The Shawnees were of the Algonquin race, a part of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, and are called by historians the ''Gypsies of the Forest." There was among them a tradition that their ancestors were of foreign birth, and had come to America from over the seas. Until a short time previous to their advent into the region of the Cumberland, they had made yearly sacrifice in thanksgiving for their safe arrival after a long and dangerous voyage. They had been once wealthy and powerful, but following a natural inclination to rove, were now weakened by division into bands, some one of which at various times subsequent thereto resided in almost every portion of the United States. The Indians with whom they came in contact having no written language and no definite rules of pronunciation called them by various names, such as Shawnees, Sewanees, Suwanos, Savannahs, Satanas, and many others of like sound. These names the Shawnees generously gave to the villages, rivers and mountains of the land through which they traveled. While living along the Cumberland they explored the whole of Middle Tennessee and gave their name to Sewanee Mountain, on which is now located the University of the South.

Another tradition, if true, explains their location on the Cumberland. According to this legend a large party of them were moving south in search of new fields of adventure. Arriving at Cumberland Gap in East Tennessee they halted for rest, and in order that they might take council as to a future course After much discussion it was found they could not agree as to the latter, whereupon a part of the band pursued the well-known trace through the mountains of East Tennessee south into Georgia and Florida, while the other portion directed its journey toward the west, thus founding the settlement above described.

However, the stay of the Shawnees in the valley of the Cumberland was comparatively of short duration. Angered by such a continued occupancy of the common hunting ground, the Cherokees, Creeks and Chickasaws, their nearest neighbors, laid plans for their expulsion. After a short but bloody war the Shawnees were driven north and became again a wandering tribe among the Iroquois. By the generosity of the victors they were allowed a return to the hunting ground during the winter season of each year, but were forbidden to remain after dogwood blossoms appeared. The date of this war, probably the first in a region which has since been the scene of many bloody conflicts, is not now definitely fixed. In the year 1788, Piomingo, the Mountain Leader, famous Chickasaw chief, and friend of the whites, came from his village near the present site of Memphis to visit the settlers at Bledsoe's Lick. While there he told the latter that the expulsion of the Shawnees from the Cumberland Valley took place in 1682. He said that the length of his life at the time of this visit had been "a hundred and six snows," and that he was born the year the war occurred. His father, himself a noted Chickasaw chief, was killed in one of the battles incident to the contest. Piomingo also vouched safe the information that before the attacking forces would venture to engage the Shawnees in battle they held themselves a long time in readiness awaiting a signal from the Great Spirit. At length it came in the rumblings of an earthquake which, as Piomingo said, "broke open the mountains and shook the rocks from their places of rest." The settlers associated this tradition with an account given by their ancestors of an earthquake which occurred about the year 1685.

It is quite probable that small, roving bands of these nomads continued to make headquarters near the present location of Nashville for some years after the main force had been driven away. The Shawnees were the last permanent Indian residents of Middle Tennessee, but the latter continued to be held as common property by the neighboring tribes until the white settlers came upon the scene a hundred years later.

Early History of Middle Tennessee

Early History of Middle Tennessee, BY Edward Albright, Copyright, 1908, Brandon Printing Company, Nashville, Tennessee, 1909


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