How Did Tennessee Become “Tennessee”?

Bob Mayer
3 min readAug 24, 2021

I’ve been in Tennessee a while now and never really thought about the state’s name. I assumed it was Native American, but figured it might mean “Lots of Rocks” or “Hilly on one end, flat on the other”.

I was on a All Who Wander wander the other day in the Jeep. I have two Gaia maps open, one via Apple Car Play and the other on my iPad. Saw an unimproved road (my favorite kind) in Cherokee National Forest next to the Little Tennessee River. I could tell it was a dead end on a peninsula into the river, so, of course, I took it. Just to see. Whatever. (Honestly, Scout told me to turn, but if I tell you that, then you think I’m the guy who just left the soup on the stove and forgot about it). That’s why it’s called a Wander. I’ve found a lot of neat stuff off the beaten path.

Gaia Map

You can see the peninsula and road in the center. That’s the Little Tennessee River, also known as Tellico Lake because of the dam just downstream. The road ends at Jones Cemetery, so I went to see that. Some of these old cemeteries are interesting.

If you’re wondering where in the big scheme of things in TN this is, pretty much south of Knoxville, a smidge to the west. Find the Little TN River where 411 crosses it, then look right along the river until you find the peninsula.

I didn’t even notice the monument on the way in (might be why I just burnt my soup). On the way back out, I saw this off to the right.

Tanasi

The Tanasi Monument was erected in 1989 and I wonder how many Tennesseans even know it’s there?

Here is the inscription and the explanation of why Tennessee is called Tennessee (because we anglicized the Cherokee and drowned the original location of the town)

The site of the former town of Tanasi, now underwater, is located about 300 yards west of this marker. Tanasi attained political prominence in 1721 when its civil chief was elected the first “Emperor of the Cherokee Nation”. About the same time, the town name was also applied to the river on which it was located. During the mid-18th century, Tanasi became overshadowed and eventually absorbed by the adjacent town of Chota, which was to the immediate North. The first recorded spelling of Tennessee as it is today occurred on Lt. Henry Timberlake’s map of 1762. In 1796, the name Tennessee was selected from among several as most appropriate for the Nation’s 16th state. Therefore, symbolized by this monument, those who reside in this beautiful state are forever linked to its Cherokee heritage.

And that’s the kind of stuff you learn when you wander down dead end forest roads.

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Bob Mayer

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com