The Cumberland Plateau’s Physical Environment in the Records of the Tennessee State Library & Archives
This is a part of my larger research project on the environmental and social history of the southern Cumberland Plateau. In this portion, I will study records at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, in downtown Nashville. This archive includes a wealth of material, ranging from copies of the earliest land grants for Plateau acreage to studies and correspondence of state agencies.
Records held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives reveal important clues to the Cumberland Plateau’s physical environment — from the earliest days of Euro-American settlement to 20th-century resource extraction. Studying these state records will greatly enhance my understanding of the settlement from early in the statehood period to the recent past.
Scores of land grants were issued to Cumberland Plateau acres. Some of these grants went to Revolutionary War veterans or their survivors, others went to individuals eager to relocate to the area, and many found their way into the hands of speculators. Most importantly, these land grants often included detailed description of the land and its uses. It was through studying one of these grants in the Franklin County Courthouse, for example, that I learned that coal was not “discovered” in the area in the 1850s — land grants had described the location of coal banks decades earlier. And they described other activities connecting settlers to the environment, like the “sugar orchard” along Breakfield Road where sugar maples had been tapped for sweeteners before the 1830s. Studying these land grants is particularly important, because the information in later deed records was usually limited to descriptions of plot boundaries, offering little about the natural environment within.
I will also use the Archives’ records of other state offices, particularly those linked to forestry and geology. The Plateau became a focus of logging activity in the late 1800s, with strong implications for human and other inhabitants of the area. Key habitats for many natural species was drastically altered, and some of these species were extinct by World War II. I’m also curious to examine the records of the State Geologist’s office. By the 1920s, State Geologist Wilber A. Nelson was encouraging efforts to drill for oil on and near the Plateau. In sharing this information with current geologists, I’ve found them universally amazed that such projects were ever attempted, and I’m eager to know the results of drilling in the area. Since some currently advocate hydraulic fracturing of the substrata to release methane gas, this is an issue contemporary times with earlier environmental history.
Work in archives of this sort always brings unanticipated discoveries, and I look forward to learning what else can be learned about the Plateau’s physical environment in the collections of the State Archives.
Project Alignment with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies
In addition to deepening my research on the environmental and social history of the southern Cumberland Plateau, this project will also support directly two courses I offer as part of the Minor in Southern Appalachian Studies: The Many Faces of Sewanee (HIST 229) and History of Southern Appalachia (HIST 330). Some of the information will likely inform my FYP course, A Landscape for Memory (FYRP 112), as well.
My goal is to gather helpful evidence about the Plateau’s natural environment and human activity. While I can’t fully predict what I’ll find until I find it, I know that I’ve only been able to research the tip of the iceberg on several topics, and that the Tennessee State Library and Archives holds much more relevant information on these topics.
The impact on learning at Sewanee will come most immediately in my courses (I’m offering History of Southern Appalachia and the FYP section in the fall), and later in publications and open lectures on the topic.