Knoxville was the first capital of Tennessee, the home of the University of Tennessee and the site of the 1982 World’s Fair.
Let’s take these one at a time:
First state capital
Many places in Tennessee started under a different name. Knoxville was started by Revolutionary War veteran James White, who purchased about 5,000 acres between where First and Second Creeks pour into the Tennessee River.
He built a fort there called White’s Fort.
Not everyone who lived in Tennessee was happy about this settlement. Most of what we now call East Tennessee was still claimed by the Cherokee nation at this time.
In 1790, the present-day site of Tennessee became the Territory South of the Ohio River (also known as the Southwest Territory). President Washington appointed William Blount to be its governor.
In the summer of 1791 Blount negotiated the Treaty of the Holston with a group of Cherokee chiefs at White’s Fort.
We talk about the Treaty of the Holston in the 4th grade booklet Whole Nations Melt Away and the 8th grade booklet Fire poured into our very faces. Under its terms, the Cherokee nation was to be paid $1,000 per year, and the present-site of Kingston became the southwest boundary of the United States.
However, like most treaties between the U.S. government and the Cherokee, its terms were not recognized for long, and it did not provide for the long-term peace that its negotiators had hoped.
The treaty did have one long term result, however. During the weeks in which it was being negotiated, Blount decided that White’s Fort was a better place for a capital than Rocky Mount, which he had been using. He renamed the town around the fort Knoxville, in honor of Secretary of War Henry Knox. Within a couple of years the place even had a college (Blount College) and a newspaper (the Knoxville Gazette).
When Tennessee became a state in 1796, Knoxville became the first state capital.
The University of Tennessee
“UT,” as it is known in Tennessee, traces its origins to Blount College, which was founded in Knoxville in 1794. Only a year before that time, the settlement of Knoxville had been attacked by Native Americans and 13 people were killed.
Blount College wasn’t like most colleges today. There were very few students. There were no sports teams. Like most colleges of that day, it taught the so-called “classics” – subjects like Latin, Greek, logic, and philosophy.
One other thing about Blount College: it was co-educational, which means women could take classes there just like men. This was pretty unusual back then.
Blount College later became known as East Tennessee University.
Like so many other southern institutions, East Tennessee University was devastated by the Civil War. And although many of the students of East Tennessee University fought for the Confederacy, most of the trustees (the people responsible for operating the school) were loyal Unionists. So were most of the people in Knoxville.
This ended up being important. When the war was over, the federal government paid East Tennessee University back for damage done to its campus during the war (but did not do the same for any other college in the South).
After the war, Congress passed a law creating a system of land grant colleges. In 1868, the Tennessee General Assembly began debating where to put the state’s primary land grant college. There were two main contenders: Murfreesboro and Knoxville.
At the time, Tennessee’s governor was William Brownlow, a Methodist clergyman, Unionist, and newspaper editor from Knoxville. The legislature was also dominated by people who had favored the Union cause during the Civil War. Under this leadership, the state government chose to put its main land grant college in Knoxville.
A few years later, East Tennessee University became known as the University of Tennessee.
The World’s Fair
World’s fairs are big deals. They are put on by an international group called the Bureau of International Expositions, and they take place every year or so in a different city around the world.
In 1975, civic leaders in Knoxville began working on the idea of getting a world’s fair in their city. But a lot of people thought they were crazy. After all, there had never been such an event in the southeast. Knoxville didn’t seem big enough to host a world’s fair.
Even after the event was being planned, some people found it hard to believe that Knoxville, Tennessee, was about to host a world’s fair. In one article about the fair, the Wall Street Journal referred to Knoxville as “a scruffy little city of 180,000 on the Tennessee River.”
To this day, many Knoxville residents refer to their home as a “scruffy little city.”
The 1982 World’s Fair took place in Knoxville, in a former railroad yard west of downtown that contained Second Creek. It eventually brought over eleven million visitors to Knoxville. It also resulted in upgrades to Knoxville’s interstates, roads, and restorations of several old buildings.
Every such fair has a theme, and the 1982 World’s Fair theme was “Energy Turns the World.” Its centerpiece was an unusual structure known as a “Sunsphere,” which had an observation deck and a restaurant inside.
Today the Sunsphere is still there, in the middle of World’s Fair Park.
Finally: John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, is buried beside the Knox County Courthouse.
Here (on the right) is his grave.
PS: a great place to learn about Knoxville history, as well as the history of all of East Tennessee, is at the East Tennessee Historical Society at 601 South Gay Street.
Among the exhibits you will find there is a wonderfully preserved streetcar used in Knoxville from 1925 until 1937 and a wagon that used by an East Tennessee family in the late 1700s.