The aboriginal populations of the Tennessee Valley had extensive populations throughout the Alabama portions of the basin. Evidence of these populations can be dated to 12,000 years ago and lasted until just before the end of the prehistoric era, about 1400-1500 A.D.
The Cherokees referred to the Tennessee River as the Hogoheegee or “Big River.” (Paddling the Tennessee River)
During the Civil War the Tennessee River served as a strategic invasion route into the West Confederacy. Its development as one of the world’s greatest irrigation and hydropower systems began with the establishment in 1933 of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The first inhabitants of the Tennessee Basin were Paleo-Indians who were nomadic hunters that used stone tipped spears. They gathered nuts, berries, fruits and roots as well as fish and mussels. They cooked their food in open pits.
The Muscle Shoals area was an early settlement for Paelo-Indians because the Tennessee Valley lies at the southern edge of the hardwood forests where nuts, acorns and game were plentiful and the climate warmer. However the abundance of fish and mussels might have been the most significant factor for their settlement.
When Europeans first began to enter into the Alabama portion of the Tennessee Basin in the 18th century there were three Native American tribes that inhabited the region.
In general, the Tennessee served as the dividing line between the Chickasaws and the Cherokees at Muscle Shoals. (Lore)
The Chickasaws, a relatively small tribe, ranged from north Mississippi, eastern Tennessee, southwest Kentucky and into northwest Alabama. The Chickasaws were fierce warriors and almost wiped out DeSoto’s expedition in Mississippi in 1541 when he tried to enslave 200 Chickasaw warriors to serve as load carriers. They inscribed their bodies with indelible ink.
“It has been said that history records no group of people on any continent at any time who were cleaner than the Chickasaw.” They would bathe every day, summer and winter, and were known to break the ice at the river bank so they could enter the water to bathe. Some believe this high regard for cleanliness is one reason the Chicksasaws sided with the English traders as opposed to the French and the Spanish.
One of the best known Chickasaw chiefs during the years of European and American occupation was Chief George Colbert (Kahl-burt) who was half Chickasaw and half Scot. In 1798 he operated a critical ferry across the otherwise uncrossable Tennessee that came to be known as Colbert’s Ferry. This ferry, located at the mouth of Bear Creek, was the only crossing for the famed trade route the Natchez Trace, a former buffalo run. His father, James Colbert, was a legend in his own right. A Scotsman who lived amongst the Chickasaws, adopting their ways and even joining them in battle, he took on three Chickasaw brides and fathered eight children, many of whom, like George, gained notoriety amongst the Chickasaws.
George Colbert, who went on to serve as the chief of the Chickasaws for 12 years, and one of his brothers served under General Andrew Jackson during his campaigns against the Creeks. The Chickasaws trusted and admired Andrew Jaskson who saw rewarded their loyalty by seeing to it that they were removed from their ancestral home.
In 1774 the Chickasaws refused the Henderson Land Company access to the mouth of Occochapo Creek (present day Bear Creek).
After the treaty of 1816, most of the Chickasaws land was ceded to the U.S.
The Cherokees occupied northeast Alabama, and much of Tennessee and northwest Georgia. A few of their villages settled at Muscle Shoals and represented the southwestern tip of their domain. (Lore)
Perhaps the most interesting of the Cherokee chiefs in the Tennessee Basin of Alabama was Chief Doublehead or Talo Tiske meaning “two heads.” Chief Doublehead established a town on the Tennessee River at the head of Muscle Shoals in 1790. This village sat at the mouth of Blue Water Creek in Lauderdale County.
Muscle Shoals had always been an area of dispute between Chickasaws and Cherokees, though it was known as Chickasaw Hunting Grounds. When Doubleheads occupation of Muscle Shoals came into question, Chief George Colbert of the Chickasaws confirmed that Doublehead was at Muscle Shoals by his permission. This new agreement seems less unusual considering that Colbert had married two of Doublehead’s daughters.
Doublehead’s brother was Chief Old Tassel, one of the Cherokees most well-known and beloved chiefs. When he was murdered with the aid of the white mayor James Hubbert, Doublehead went on the rampage, attacking white settlers throughout the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. This six year warpath from 1788 to 1794 is well chronicled, and though it was no doubt exaggerated by the afflicted, the chiefs terrible atrocities certainly add up to a significant sum. He was even accused of encouraging his warriors to cannibalism of the dead during this escapade.
At the end of his warpath, Doublehead met with President George Washington at the nation’s capital, and he returned a changed man. Though he began to mimic the ways of the whites and built a large cabin, he continued to defend the Cherokees land rights in various treaties until his death. This change of heart was characteristic of the Cherokees during this time, many of whom adopted the manners and customs of the whites. He even went as far as forming the Doublehead Company that leased 1,000 acres to more than 50 white settlers between the Elk River and Cypress Creek.
Doublehead was murdered in a savagely interesting tale chronicled by the famous Indian canoe fighter, Sam Dale. On a trip to a ball game on the Hiwasee River, Doublehead engaged in a series of arguments with two Cherokee warriors and a white Indian trader.
The Creek Nation (a confederacy of Musckogean tribes) inhabited parts of present day Colbert and Lauderdale counties for a time during the late 18th century. The Creeks were known for their ruthlessness in battle, mutilating the bodies of fallen enemies by cutting off the arms and the legs and removing the scalp by cutting a circle around the head just above the ears. They adorned their bodies with shell jewelry and freshwater pearls obtained from the large mussel populations of the Tennessee.
In general, the Tennessee basin served as the dividing line between the Chickasaws and the Cherokees at the Muscle Shoals area.
About 1,000 years before the establishment of Florence 1818 (located at the top of the hill), there was a thriving community at the bottom of the hill. The ceremonial mound there was called Wawmanona by the Indians and was built between 400 A.D. and 1500 A.D. (Lore)
Small towns slowly became river ports and ferries across the river were quite common. Many of these ferry sites have small histories of their own.
In 1819 Alabama was admitted into the Union as a state and Huntsville was designated as its first capital and seat of the state constitutional convention.
The Moulton Valley was an important southern fruit supplier, and so much grain was produced in this area that it became known as the South’s Cereal Belt.
During the Civil War, many battles were fought throughout Alabama’s Tennessee Basin, including many led by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Ulysses S. Grant made his first marks upon the Civil War by understanding the strategic importance of the river at his first victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the nearby Cumberland tributary to the upper Tennessee.
Many of the Civil War’s Union troops, upon discovering the rich untapped resources of the area returned to the region following the war’s conclusion.
Tennessee Valley Authority – TVA
The Great Depression of the 30s set the stage for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, an entity that would bring the most rapid and dramatic change the Tennessee had ever experienced. Created in 1933 by Franklin Roosevelt, the Tennessee Valley Authority was a bold and idealistic solution to the poverty and isolation facing inhabitants of the Tennessee Valley. Part of Roosevelts New Deal, one of the most important short term accomplishments of the TVA was the creation of much needed jobs.
Even by Depression standards, the Tennessee Valley was in sad shape in 1933. Much of the land had been farmed too hard for too long, eroding and depleting the soil. Crop yields had fallen along with farm incomes. The best timber had been cut. TVA developed fertilizers, taught farmers how to improve crop yields, and helped replant forests, control forest fires, and improve habitat for wildlife and fish. The most dramatic change in Valley life came from the electricity generated by TVA dams. Electric lights and modern appliances made life easier and farms more productive. Electricity also drew industries into the region, providing desperately needed jobs.
During World War II, the United States needed aluminum to build bombs and airplanes, and aluminum plants required electricity. To provide power for such critical war industries, TVA engaged in one of the largest hydropower construction programs ever undertaken in the United States. Early in 1942, when the effort reached its peak, 12 hydroelectric projects and a steam plant were under construction at the same time, and design and construction employment reached a total of 28,000.
By the end of the war, TVA had completed a 650-mile (1,050-kilometer) navigation channel the length of the Tennessee River and had become the nation’s largest electricity supplier. Even so, the demand for electricity was outstripping TVA’s capacity to produce power from hydroelectric dams. Political interference kept TVA from securing additional federal appropriations to build coal-fired plants, so it sought the authority to issue bonds. Congress passed legislation in 1959 to make the TVA power system self-financing, and from that point on it would pay its own way.
The 1960s were years of unprecedented economic growth in the Tennessee Valley. Farms and forests were in better shape than they had been in generations. Electric rates were among the nation’s lowest and stayed low as TVA brought larger, more efficient generating units into service. Expecting the Valley’s electric power needs to continue to grow, TVA began building nuclear plants as a new source of economical power.
1970s and 1980s
Significant changes occurred in the economy of the Tennessee Valley and the nation, prompted by an international oil embargo in 1973 and accelerating fuel costs later in the decade. The average cost of electricity in the Tennessee Valley increased fivefold from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. With energy demand dropping and construction costs rising, TVA canceled several nuclear plants, as did other utilities around the nation.
To become more competitive, TVA began improving efficiency and productivity while cutting costs. By the late 1980s, TVA had stopped the rise in power rates and paved the way for a period of rate stability that would last for the next decade.
As the electric-utility industry moves toward restructuring, TVA is preparing for competition. In recent years it has cut operating costs by nearly $800 million a year, reduced its workforce by more than half, increased the generating capacity of its plants, stopped building nuclear plants, and developed a plan to meet the energy needs of the Tennessee Valley through the year 2020.
Today, as the electric power industry restructures, TVA continues to provide its core product, wholesale electric power, competitively, efficiently and reliably. It sets a standard for public responsibility against which private companies can be measured.
Although TVA’s production costs were third-lowest among the nation’s 25 largest electric utilities in 1997, according to Electric Light & Power magazine, it continues to look for new ways to reduce costs even more and improve efficiency. TVA is on track to align the cost of its power with future competitive rates, in accordance with its 10-year business plan. TVA also has initiated a Business Transformation program to further reduce costs, and is moving to more flexible contracts with its distributor customers to meet their needs in a competitive marketplace.
In 1998 TVA unveiled a new clean-air strategy to reduce the pollutants that cause ozone and smog. The initiative will cut annual nitrogen-oxide emissions from TVA’s coal-fired plants by approximately 170,000 tons a year. Modern equipment, representing an investment of $600 million, will help states and cities in the Tennessee Valley meet new, more stringent air-quality standards while providing greater flexibility for industrial and economic growth in the region. TVA earlier invested more than $2 billion to reduce sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions.
(Tennessee Valley Authority website)