Tennessee History Timeline

Important Dates, Events, and Milestones in Tennessee History

Offers a chronological timeline of important dates, events, and milestones in Tennessee history.

9000-3000 BCE, the Native Americans begin cultivating edible plants such as squash and gourds. Populations expand and villages form along the banks of most major rivers. And by 900 CE groups of Native Americans begin to battle for territory and develop tribal identities.

Tennessee became the 16th state of the union in 1796. It is just 112 miles wide, but stretches 432 miles from the Appalachian Mountains boundary with North Carolina in the east to the Mississippi River borders with Missouri and Arkansas in the west.

16th Century Tennessee History Timeline

1540 - Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto is the first white man known to come to the area. The dominant tribes are the Cherokee, Shawnee, and the Chickasaw.

17th Century Tennessee History Timeline

1673 - James Needham and Gabriel Arthur of England explore the Tennessee River Valley.

18th Century Tennessee History Timeline

1714 - Charles Charleville sets up a French trading post at French Lick.

1715 - The last Shawnee had been driven out by Chickasaw and Cherokee attacks.
1730 - Sir Alexander Cuming, an emissary of King George II, confers the title of emperor on Chief Moytoy at Tellico.
1754 - The French and Indian War breaks out between British and French settlers.
1763 - After 9 bloody years of war, the British win out. In the Treaty of Paris, the French surrender to the British all claim to lands east of the Mississippi.
1769 - William Bean, the first permanent white settler, builds a cabin on the Watauga River in northeast Tennessee. New settlers begin to come into the area from Virginia and North Carolina.
1772 - A group of settlers form their own government called the Watauga Association. They draw up one of the first written constitutions in North America.
1775 - The Transylvania Company buys a large piece of land from the Cherokees. Daniel Boone, working for the company, blazes a trail from Virginia across the mountain at Cumberland Gap to open the land to settlement. His trail is called the Wilderness Road and becomes the main route to the new settlements.
1779 - Jonesborough is the first chartered town. 2 groups led by James Robertson and John Donelson settle around the Big Salt Lick on the Cumberland River. They build Fort Nashborough and draw up an agreement called the Cumberland Compact- - it establishes representative government and creates a court system.
1780 -

  • Samuel Doak, a Presbyterian minister, starts the first school in Tennessee.
  •  "Over- mountain men" gather at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River on September 25th at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River on September 25th to march over the Great Smokey Mountains. Led by John Sevier, they help to defeat the British as the Battle of King's Mountain on October 7th. The victory proves to be a major turning point in the war. Scots- Irish Covenanters settle in the Tennessee Valley, naming their town Greeneville for Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene.

1784 - 3 counties in East Tennessee form the State of Franklin, which secedes from North Carolina for 4 years. Greeneville is the capital and John Sevier is their governor.
1789 - North Carolina gives the Tennessee region to the US It is made into a new territory, The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio. William Blount is its first and only governor.
1791 - George Roulstone establishes the first Tennessee newspaper, the Knoxville Gazette.
1794 - Blount College is founded in Knoxville on September 10th, the first American nondenominational institution of higher learning.
1795 - Martin Academy in Washington changes its name to Washington College, the first college to be named after George Washington.
1796 - Tennessee adopts a constitution on February 6th in preparation for statehood- - Andrew Jackson helps to draw it up. Tennessee becomes a state on June 1st, the 16th state. John Sevier is elected the first governor. The total population of Tennessee is 77,000.

19th Century Tennessee History Timeline

1800 - Congress establishes a post rout along the Natchez Trace, an old trail between Nashville and Natchez, Mississippi.
1807 - Kingston is the capital for one day, September 21st, while the state legislature discusses a treaty with the Cherokee Indians.
1809 - 35- year- old national hero Meriwether Lewis dies of gunshot wounds at Grinder's Stand, a small inn on the Natchez Trace. Maybe a suicide and maybe not, questions abound and are never satisfactorily answered as to how the brilliant but moody explorer died.
1812 - The worst earthquake in US history occurs on February 7th in northwestern Tennessee. A vast land area drops several feet and tidal waves are created on the Mississippi River. The river flows backward into the depression, creating 13,000- acre Reelfoot Lake. Andrew Jackson is a hero of the War of 1812. [See also our Louisiana and New Orleans pages for more information.]
1813 - The state's first public library opens in Nashville.
1817 - Greeneville is incorporated under the laws of Tennessee.
1818 - The Chickasaw have ceded their land, nearly all of West Tennessee, to the federal government. But the Cherokee still hold a large area in Middle Tennessee and another area south of the Little Tennessee and Sequatchie rivers in the east.
1820 - Having moved to Columbia as a child from North Carolina, James K. Polk begins his law practice there.
1821 - Nathan Bedford Forrest is born near Chapel Hill on July 13th.
1824 - Poor North Carolinian Andrew Johnson, only 16, runs away from his employer and ends up in Tennessee with a bounty on his head. The Tennessee adjourns on October 22nd, ending Davy Crockett's state political career. Andrew Jackson runs unsuccessfully for president.
1826 - Frances "Fanny" Wright establishes Nashoba, a colony for free blacks near Memphis. Plagued by administrative problems and widespread disease, the colony will fail and the remaining settlers move to Haiti 4 years later.
1829 - Andrew Jackson is President of the US
1831 - Tailor Andrew Johnson buys a Greeneville shop and has it moved on logs down Greeneville's steep streets.
1834 - The state constitution is amended. Free blacks can no longer vote.
1836 - Davy Crockett, with 130 other men, dies at the Alamo. [See also our page, Texas : The Lone Star State, for more information.]
1837 - Sea captain William Driver settles in Nashville. He has with him the flag we calls Old Glory, a gift from relatives and friends that he flew on his ship during his voyages around the world.
1838 - Tennessee is the first state to pass a temperance law.
1845 - James K. Polk is now President of the US, having been elected on an expansionist platform.
1861 - The Civil War begins. William Drive hides Old Glory inside a quilt for safekeeping. Nathan Bedford Forrest becomes a daring and very successful cavalry commander for the Confederacy. Andrew Johnson, although a slaveholder, refuses to side with his state when it secedes. He is the only Southerner to retain his seat in the US Senate. Lincoln will appoint him military governor of Tennessee.
1862 - Union troops under Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant force the "unconditional surrender" of Confederate Fort Donelson. The February 16th win is the Union's first major victory in the Civil War. On March 15th, General John Hunt Morgan begins 4 days of raids near Gallatin. A 2- day battle is bought at Shiloh- - it's one of the largest engagements in the western theater of the Civil War. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest defeats a Union army at Murfreesboro on July 13th.
1863 - Confederate General Joseph Johnston takes command of the Army of Tennessee, replacing Lieutenant General William Hardee.
1864 - 1,500 confederate cavalrymen overwhelm Fort Pillow, garrisoned with 500 troops. After their surrender, scores of the black defenders and some of the white soldiers are murdered. For black soldiers, "Remember Fort Pillow!"becomes a rallying cry, spurring them to fight to the death and to offer no quarter. Confederate General Hood sends Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry and a division of infantry towards Murfreesboro on December 5th. Union and Confederate forces clash outside of Nashville in December. The Union forces under General George H. Thomas win the battle on December 16th.
1865 - The Civil War ends. Former vice president and now president, Andrew Johnson is faced with the almost impossible task of reuniting the North he served and the South he calls home. The Ku Klux Klan is formed in Pulaski.
1866 - Fisk University is founded in Nashville as a school "equal to the best in the country," primarily for the newly freed slaves. Tennessee is the first state readmitted to the Union, on July 24th.
1868 - The House of Representatives votes in March to impeach Andrew Johnson.
1869 - An embittered Johnson leaves office and returns with his wife Eliza to their house in Greeneville. He will completely remodel it, adding upstairs bedrooms and a porch.
1870 - The state constitution is amended.
1871 - Fisk University's Jubilee Singers perform the spiritual Steal Away to Jesus to a thunderous ovation. So they add the beautiful, plaintive spirituals, born in slavery, to their program.
1873 - Vanderbilt University is founded in Nashville, named after Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American businessman who donated $1 million to build and support the school.
1874 - An unhappy Andrew Johnson is able to leave retirement when he is elected to the US Senate, the only ex- president to return to that chamber. But he attends only one session before dying of a stroke at his daughter's house in Carter County during the summer recess. He is buried in Greeneville, wrapped in an American flag and with a copy of the Constitution as his pillow.
1878 - 5,200 of Memphis' 19,600 residents die in a yellow fever epidemic. Memphis will lose its city charter after the disaster and not regain it until 1893.
1879 - Blount College becomes the University of Tennessee.
1880 - Grantland Rice is born in Murfreesboro.
1886 - 2 brothers- - Robert Love Taylor and Alfred Alexander Taylor- - compete in the gubernatorial election on November 2nd. Robert, the Democrat, wins the "War of the Roses."
1887 - Alvin Cullum York is born in Fentress County.
1890 - Columbia's economic base shifts with the exploitation of local phosphate deposits.
1894 - President Grover Cleveland signs legislation on December 27th, creating Shiloh National Military Park. It preserves the field of a 2- day battle in April 1862, one of the largest Civil War engagements in the western theater. [For more information, see our page, The National Parks.]

20th Century Tennessee History Timeline

1900 - Casey Jones' train crashes on April 30th, killing him.
1909 - Liquor production is banned for the next year.
1914 - World War I begins.
1916 - After pulling a wealthy Chattanooga businessman's car out of a shallow creek bed, "horseless carriage"mechanic Ernest Holmes invents the tow truck. The first production model will sell for $680.
1918 - 101 people are killed and 171 injured in the worst train wreck in US history in Nashville on July 9th. Corporal Alvin York kills more than 20 Germans and forces 132 others to surrender on October 8, 1918. He will receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his deed. World War I ends.
1920s - Grantland Rice gains fame by writing newspaper reports on sports. He writes about Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Helen Wills, and others.
1922 - The Driver family donates Old Glory to the Smithsonian Institution. Tennessee's first radio station, WNAV, begins broadcasting from Knoxville.
1925 - Tom Lee saves 32 people from disaster when an excursion boat capsizes on the Mississippi near Memphis. On June 10th, Tennessee adopts a new biology textbook denying the theory of evolution. High school teacher John T. Scopes is found guilty of violating the state law banning the teaching of evolution. The "monkey trial"as it is called, attracts worldwide attention as 2 celebrities, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow battle it out in court. Scopes is fined $100, but the conviction is later reversed because of a small legal error. The "Grand Ole Opry"begins on radio in Nashville.
1928 - On March 26th, President Calvin Coolidge signs legislation creating Fort Donelson National Battlefield, a national military park at the site of the Union's first major Civil War victory (February 1862). [For more information, see our page, The National Parks.]
1933 - The federal government establishes the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to conserve and develop the resources of the Tennessee River Valley.
1939 - The "Grand Ole Opry" is first heard on network radio.
1941 - Glenn Miller and his Orchestra record Chattanooga Choo Choo in Hollywood on May 6th. It's a big hit.
1942 - The federal government begins to build an atomic energy plant at Oak Ridge. Scientists work on the development of the atomic bomb.
1948 - WMCT- TV in Memphis is the state's first television station. State elections turn against the control of Memphis political boss E.H. Crump.
1949 - The American Museum of Atomic Energy opens in Oak Ridge on March 19th.

1950/53 - 10,500 Tennesseans served in the Korean War.
1952 - Sun Studio in Memphis makes the first rock 'n roll recording.
1953 - Elvis Presley graduates from L.C. Humes High School in Memphis on June 14th. He will have his first #1 record (Heartbreak Hotel) within 3 years. The state constitution is amended.
1954 - Rice's autobiography, The Tumult and the Shouting, is published.
1955 - The "Grand Old Opry" makes it to television.
1956 - Elvis Presley makes his second appearance on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theatre, singing Heartbreak Hotel. Critics say his performance looks "like the mating dance of an aborigine."National Guardsmen halt rioters protesting the admission of 12 African- American children to schools in Clinton.
1958 - Elvis Presley reports to his local draft board in Memphis on March 24th. US #53310761 is now in the Army and Uncle Sam stands to lose an estimated $500,000 in lost taxes every year that Private Presley is in the service.
1960 - The state constitution is amended.
1966 - The state constitution is amended again.
1967 - The anti- evolution law that tripped up John Scopes is abolished by the state legislature. Columbia State Community College is opened in Columbia.
1968 - After buying a rifle in a Birmingham sporting goods store, sniper James Earl Ray assassinates civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Memphis motel. His April 4th death shocks the nation and precipitates rioting in many cities. Roy Orbison's 2 sons die in a fire in his Hendersonville home while he is performing in England.
1970 - Tennessee has 3,926,018 people. Winfield Dunn is the first Republican governor in 50 years.
1972 - The state constitution is amended.
1974 - A sunshine law allows the public to attend local and state government meetings.
1976 - Alex Haley wins the Pulitzer Prize and international acclaim for Roots. It will be translated into over 30 languages.
1977 - James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., escapes from Brushy Mountain State Prison on June 10th with 6 other inmates. He will be recaptured on June 13th. Elvis Presley dies in Memphis. His most popular song on the charts: Don't Be Cruel.
1978 - The state constitution is amended.
1980 - Tennessee has 4,591,120 people, an increase of 17% over the 1970 census figure.
1982 - A world's fair is held in Knoxville. Its theme is "Energy Turns the World." The fair helps promote tourism in the state. Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion is opened to the public on June 7th.
1985 - Spring Hill is selected as the new home of the Saturn automobile assembly plant.

1987 - General Motors opened the new Saturn Corporation auto plant in Spring Hill.
1991 - The National Civil Rights Museum opens in Memphis at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

1992 - Albert Gore, Jr. was elected Vice-President of the United States
1994 - Tennessee ranks 17th in the nation in population: 5,175,240.
1995 - Tennessee finally honors Andrew Johnson with a statue on the state capitol grounds, long after statues of its other favorite sons, Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, started watching over things at the capitol.
1996 - Tennessee celebrates the bicentennial of its 1796 entrance into the Union with a year of festivities and projects.

1998 - The University of Tennessee football team became the national champions, going undefeated for the season.

21st Century Tennessee History Timeline

2001 - Passenger attacked bus driver causing accident, six people killed

2002 -

  • The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis opens its new $11 million addition that includes Bessie Brewer's boarding house across the street from the Loraine Motel where James Earl Ray used a hunting rifle to shoot Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Former Nashville Mayor, Phil Bredesen, elected Governor;

2003 - 14 people killed by tornadoes in northwestern part of state

2010 -

  • Jury convicted former Univ. of Tennessee student of hacking Sarah Palin's e-mail;
  • flooding caused 18 deaths, major damage, thousands evacuated

2011 -

  • Flooding in Memphis forced evacuation of 1,300 homes
  • Occupy protesters arrested for criminal trespassing in Nashville

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