Basic 5: Rivers

A towboat heads down the Mississippi River at sunset


Our lives would not be the same without rivers.

Most of the water we drink comes from a river before it gets cleaned and piped to our house. Many things we use are still transported on rivers. Some of us fish and have fun riding boats in rivers.

A lot of the electricity that we use in Tennessee comes from rivers.

But rivers were even more important to our ancestors than they are to us.

“Drifting Downriver,” a painting by Sumner County artist David Wright, shows a flatboat heading down a rive

Rivers used to be the main way to get from one place to another and move goods from one place to another. Intersections of rivers, and landmarks along rivers, were important meeting places.

Today, most Tennesseans live in a community that was put there because of a river.

The three most important river systems in Tennessee are the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Cumberland.

However, in some ways, they are all part of the same system. Both the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers eventually flow north into the Ohio River, which in turn flows into the Mississippi.

The Cumberland River in Nashville

The Mississippi River runs north to south, generally following Tennessee’s western boundary. However, the river is not Tennessee’s western boundary, at least not any more.

You see, the Mississippi River used to be Tennessee’s western boundary. But rivers change course sometimes. When the Mississippi River changes course, there is nothing human beings can do to stop it.

Today there are more than a dozen places where the Mississippi River has changed course. Because of this, there are parts of Tennessee on the west side of the Mississippi River.

A view of the Tennessee River from
Snoopers Rock, in Marion County

The Tennessee River might have the most interesting history of any river in America. It was vital to the culture of several Native American tribes (especially the Cherokee).

It led the first American settlers into the heart of the frontier, a story retold in some detail in the Tennessee History for Kids booklet Journey of the Adventure and other stories.

The battle of Shiloh occured on the shores of the Tennessee River (click here for a virtual tour of that battlefield).

In the 1930s, the Tennessee River and the problems it posed led to the creation of dams along the river, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Hiwassee River

There used to be an important Cherokee village called Tanasi in what is now Monroe County.

Like many Cherokee villages, it is gone now. The place Tanasi used to be located is buried under the waters of a man-made lake.

Tanasi is where the word Tennessee came from. Both the river and the state are named for Tanasi!

Log rafts on the Cumberland River
in Nashville in 1941
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives

Nashville is there because of the Cumberland River. For years steamboats carrying goods and people were a regular site along the riverbank there.

Towns upriver from Nashville, such as Carthage and Celina, also developed industries that traded goods along the Cumberland River.

Perhaps the most important was the lumber business. There was a time when people chopped down trees, tied them together into log rafts and floated them downstream along the Cumberland River to Nashville. There, the rafts were taken part and the logs cut into lumber.

Cumberland Falls is so massive that it is called the “Niagara of the South,” in reference to Niagara Falls in New York

The Cumberland River has the best waterfall of the three major rivers in Tennessee. If you follow the river about 200 miles northeast from Nashville you will reach Corbin, Kentucky — home of Cumberland Falls.

All of this should give you something to think about the next time you are in a car and you cross a river.

Now we are going to talk about cities. Click here.