Get facts and photos about the 16th state.
Talk about ancient history. Bones and artifacts over 14,000 years old—among the oldest in the state—recently turned up in one Tennessee backyard. It wasn’t until thousands of years later that Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Shawnee appeared in the area.
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto was the first known European to reach the land now called Tennessee, in 1540. The French and English started fighting for control of the land in 1754 during the French and Indian War (a battle in which many Native Americans fought with the French). The British were victorious and in 1763 won all land east of the Mississippi River, including what’s now Tennessee. At that time the region was part of North Carolina. But after the American Revolution, Tennessee became its own U.S. state in 1796.
In 1830 President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act forced Native Americans to leave all lands east of the Mississippi River. To this day, no state-recognized tribes live in Tennessee.
Tennessee seceded (withdrew) from the Union near the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 but became the first state to rejoin in 1866.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
No one’s sure how Tennessee got its name, but two Native American villages were called Tanasi and Tanasqui, which sound similar to “Tennessee.”
The state got its nickname from some impressive volunteer work. During the War of 1812, an estimated 20,000 troops volunteered to fight, and in 1846, 30,000 Tennesseans enlisted for the Mexican-American War.
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Tennessee is bordered by Kentucky and Virginia in the north, North Carolina in the east, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi in the south, and Arkansas and Missouri in the west. Its wiggly western border is formed by the Mississippi River. Geologists divide the land into six major regions.
The Unaka Mountains region is the most rugged in the state and rises along the eastern border. This area has forests and high peaks including Clingman’s Dome, Tennessee’s highest point. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also here.
The Valley and Ridge region lies west of the mountains and is named for its low, fertile valleys and long tree-covered ridges. The ridges are sometimes called “folds.”
Stretching north to south farther west is the Cumberland Plateau. Created by streams, deep valleys and gorges lie below flat-topped mountains. Lookout Mountain has views of seven states!
The Central Basin is in the center of the state, surrounded by another region called the Highland Rim. (So the basin is sort of like a doughnut hole.) Erosion helped form the basin, which is mostly fertile farmland with some hills and ridges.
The Gulf Coastal Plain covers the westernmost part of the state. It lies on a fault line and in 1812 was the site of the worst earthquake in the continental United States. The temblor was so severe that land dropped several feet, the Mississippi River flowed backward, and a new lake called Reelfoot was created. The land closest to the Mississippi is fertile swampland and often called “the Delta.”
Black bears, mountain lions, gray foxes, bobcats, and white-tailed deer are among the mammals that scamper through Tennessee. Some of the most common birds are red-tailed hawks, ospreys, eastern screech-owls, pileated woodpeckers (known for their Woody Woodpecker-like crests), red-winged blackbirds, and summer tanagers, which stand out because of the males’ bright-red feathers.
Eastern fence lizards, southern painted turtles, and pygmy rattlesnakes are some of the state’s reptiles, and southern leopard frogs, red salamanders, and lesser sirens—a type of salamander without rear legs—are among Tennessee’s amphibians.
The state’s native trees include sugar maple, pecan, eastern red cedar, loblolly pine, swamp chestnut oak, and bald cypress. Wildflowers like the rare yellow-and-white Tennessee gladecress, bright purple American beautyberry, wild bleeding heart, and autumn sneezeweed all grow in Kentucky.
One of Tennessee’s top resources is its fertile soil—in fact, almost half the state is farmland! The state is also known for mining minerals such as fluorite, calcite, pyrite (also called fool’s gold), marble, and zinc.
—Frontiersman Davy Crockett; and singers Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Kenny Chesney, and Justin Timberlake, were all born in Tennessee.
—Graceland, singer Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion, gets more visitors than any other U.S. home except for the White House. On display are Elvis’ costumes, his pink Cadillac, and even his airplane with gold-plated seat belts!
—Visitors to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville can see costumes, instruments, and artifacts from stars like Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and Miranda Lambert.
—The “Grand Ole Opry” started as a country-music radio show in 1925. Today it’s broadcast live from Nashville, where audiences can see stars like Carrie Underwood and groups such as Alabama Shakes perform.
—Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the United States’ most visited national park. The Great Smoky Mountains are known as the “Salamander Capital of the World,” and the park alone has 30 different species.
—Tennessee is filled with important Native American archaeological sites including the Shiloh Indian Mounds, which were created as a resting place for important individuals about 800 years ago.