Advanced 8: Geography Shaping History

Behind these buildings in the small town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, you can see the actual gap in the mountains that hundreds of thousands of settlers passed through.


Here are three examples of how geography has shaped Tennessee history:


Today you can walk on a trail to the actual “saddle” of the Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap


The Cumberland Gap is a low point in the Cumberland Plateau where the states of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all meet.

A sign at the “saddle” of the Cumberland Gap

Today, in our world of superhighways, you might not even notice the gap if you weren’t looking for it. But a long time ago, when people had to walk or take a horse to get from place to place, this was the easiest way to get through the mountains. It was, therefore, the path that generations of Native Americans and early pioneers took to get from the original southern states to the frontier.

Historians now estimate that between 1760 and 1850, almost 300,000 people walked, rode, or were carried through the Cumberland Gap.

If you visit the Cumberland Gap, you will see many signs of how its status as frontier pathway shaped the area. You will see the remains of inns where people traveling through the area used to stay. You can even see Civil War era fortresses from when the Union and Confederate armies fought over this area.

Click here for a virtual tour of the Cumberland Gap.


An early ad for the Musgrave Pencil Company
PHOTO: Musgrave Pencil Co.

Pencil City, U.S.A.


Today Shelbyville looks very similiar to other Tennessee towns. But thereĀ  was a time when it was known as Pencil City, U.S.A. Why? Two reasons. The first is that there are a lot of cedar trees in south central Tennessee. Cedar trees grow slowly and have wood that is harder than most other trees. They are also a perfect wood from which to make pencils.

The second reason is that, in the early 1900s, Shelbyville was an important stop on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. That being the case, it was a better place to have a factory than other towns in south central Tennessee.

Workers at the Musgrave Pencil Co. in the 1930s

During World War I, a man named James Musgrave began making pencils at his Shelbyville sawmill. Because of the many cedar trees, and because of the nearby railroad stop, the Musgrave Pencil Company grew, and soon there were several other pencil companies in the area.

Many of the others are gone today. But the Musgrave Pencil Company still exists.

Click here for a virtual tour.





Each of Tennessee’s four largest cities was developed because of geography. Nashville is where a salt lick and spring used to be on the banks of the Cumberland River. Knoxville is where the French Broad and Holston rivers meet to form the Tennessee River. Chattanooga is where the Tennessee River crosses the Cumberland Plateau.

On this 1817 Lewis Atlas map, you can see the future site of Memphis labeled as the “Chickasaw Bluff”

Memphis was founded by three Nashville real estate developers (one of whom was Andrew Jackson). The location was chosen for two reasons. For one thing, there was a bluff there, along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. Also, it was at the southwest corner of Tennessee, and therefore the United States. (At that time, everything south and west of Tennessee was considered Native American land.)

Memphis’ economy wasn’t so much shaped by its geography as by the geography of the rest of West Tennessee. The number one crop in that part of the state quickly became cotton. Raw cotton isn’t sold to many people who buy small quantities of it. It is sold to companies who buy it in large quantity, or to people who buy it in large quantity and sell it to companies who make it into clothes. Ideally, this buying and selling occurs in a place near a river or train station, so the sold cotton can be shipped where it needs to go.

The Memphis Cotton Exchange in its heydey
PHOTO: Cotton Museum at Memphis Cotton Exchange

The buying and selling of this West Tennessee cotton became, for many years, one of the biggest businesses in Memphis. At the heart of this world was the Memphis Cotton Exchange — now a cotton museum.

Now for a chapter that we call “Our Changing Terrain”! Click here.