Sycamore Shoals


The Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River

The replica of the fort at Sycamore Shoals

If you listed the most important places in Tennessee history, this would be near the top. The Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton preserves some of the land where the Watauga Association was formed, where the Transylvania Purchase occurred, and where soldiers mustered before the Battle of Kings Mountain. It contains a replica of Fort Watauga, which was attacked by Cherokee warriors. And it is the site of an outdoor drama performed every summer that retells the history of this incredible place.

The best way to explain Sycamore Shoals is to tell what happened here.

A scene from
“Liberty: The Saga of Sycamore Shoals”

A shoal is a stretch of shallow river. Although the landscape of east Tennessee has changed quite a bit over the centuries, this shallow stretch of the Watauga River has been here for as long as anyone can recall. The Cherokees used this as a landmark and meeting place. When settlers started moving in, they began doing the same.

By 1772 there were so many settlers living in what we now call northeast Tennessee that they needed a government of some kind to establish law and order and organize their defense against Native American attacks. That year those settlers met here, at Sycamore Shoals, to form the Watauga Association. Today this is considered to be the first majority-rule American democracy.

Three years later settler Richard Henderson wanted to negotiate with the Cherokee for the purchase of the land that now makes up Middle Tennessee and much of Kentucky. Henderson sent word for Cherokee leaders to meet him at Sycamore Shoals. (The story of those negotiations (known as the Transylvania Purchase) is also told in the Tennessee History for Kids 4th and 8th grade booklet, called Bloody Ground, Our Ground.) To summarize, the Cherokee leaders sold the land in exchange for gifts. But Dragging Canoe, son of the Cherokee chief Attakullakulla, disagreed. After warning that there would be deadly fighting over the land purchased that day, he and his followers stormed away from the negotiations.

This marker, about a mile from
Sycamore Shoals, is where
Fort Watauga was located.

The Transylvania Purchase set into motion the settling of Middle Tennessee. It also started a war between settlers living in what is now northeast Tennessee and Cherokee warriors. The fort at Sycamore Shoals is a replica of Fort Watauga, which existed about a mile from here. A few months after the negotiations, settlers living near the fort were attacked. During this battle one of the most famous stories in Tennessee history occurred — the legend of how John Sevier saved “Bonnie Kate” Sherrill (who later became his second wife).

A diarama of Dragging Canoe at the museum at Sycamore Shoals State Park

Later, many of those same Cherokee warriors fought a bloody battle against settlers that we now refer to as the Battle of Island Flats. (This took place on the site of what is now Kingsport.) The Native Americans were defeated soundly there, and their leader Dragging Canoe was wounded. He and many of his followers then retreated to southeast Tennessee, where they became known as the Chickamaugans.

* * *

It’s important to remember that all this trouble between settlers and Cherokee warriors occurred during the American Revolutionary War. This is not a coincidence. After all, the movement of settlers into Tennessee, in defiance of King George’s Proclamation of 1763, was one of the causes of the American Revolution. The formation of the Watauga Association was in some ways a prelude to the signing of the Declaration of Independence four years later. And once the war started, the British were allied with the Cherokee and even gave the Native Americans guns with which to fight the settlers.

This painting shows the gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals. ARTIST: Lloyd Branson

All of this brings us to the Battle of Kings Mountain. This battle occurred after British major Patrick Ferguson marched across South Carolina with an army, threatening to slaughter any settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. Isaac Shelby and John Sevier sent the message across the countryside for all able-bodied men to meet at Sycamore Shoals, and about a thousand did on September 25, 1780.

When we visualize this event (often referred to as the Muster of the Overmountain Men), it is easy to think of it as a day of excitement and adventure. But many of the wives and children who said goodbye to their husbands and fathers that day never saw them again. And even though the Battle of Kings Mountain was an overwhelming success for the citizen-soldiers from the place soon to be called Tennessee, no one knew that at the time.

A Cherokee Days event at Sycamore Shoals in August 2021

If you’d like to make the trip to Sycamore Shoals, we recommend doing so in one of two ways: One is to come as a part of a field trip. The other way is to come during some of the state park’s planned events. For example:

* The Wataugans outdoor drama is great fun (by the way, it’s the official outdoor drama of the state of Tennessee). The show is performed three weekends in July with the replica of Fort Watauga as its backdrop.

The annual crossing of the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals

* The Overmountain Victory Trail March takes place every September 25. Reenactors cross the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals, just like they did in 1780, on their way to Kings Mountain.

* Various musters and garrisons take place every year and feature a re-enacting group called The Company of Overmountain Men.

Click here to be taken to the official web site of the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.