Founded as White's Fort in 1786, Knoxville served as the capital of the Territory South of the River Ohio (or Southwest Territory) and early capital of Tennessee and eventually grew to become the state's third largest city and a major commercial, industrial, and educational center.

White's Fort's principal founder, James White, was a Revolutionary War veteran who took advantage of the land grab act to purchase a large tract of land between First and Second Creeks, which emptied into the Tennessee (then Holston) River. In 1786 he built a fort overlooking the river and named it for himself. In 1791 William Blount, governor of the Southwest Territory, chose White's Fort as the capital of the territory and renamed it Knoxville in honor of Secretary of War Henry Knox. In that same year, following Charles McClung's survey, White laid off sixty-four one-half-acre lots and formally organized the town of Knoxville with street names borrowed from Philadelphia and Baltimore. Two lots were set aside for a church and cemetery (First Presbyterian Church), and four were reserved for Blount College, the town's first school. In 1792 Governor Blount built his residence, an early frame house west of the mountains, which also served as the territory's capitol. Soon George Roulstone began publishing the Knoxville Gazette, Tennessee's first newspaper. In 1793 the town and a U.S. Army fort (near the present corner of Gay and Main streets) came under attack by Creeks and Cherokees and would have been overrun if the assailants had pressed their advantage. After killing thirteen settlers at Alexander Cavet's fortified house, the attackers retreated without making a determined assault on Knoxville.

From its founding until the Civil War, Knoxville, an alternately quiet and rowdy river town, served primarily as a way station for travelers to the West. Population grew slowly, especially after 1818, when the state's capital moved permanently to Middle Tennessee. From a population of only 730 in 1810, Knoxville had grown to 2,076 by 1850 and to around 5,000 by 1860. The rapid growth in the 1850s probably reflected the arrival of the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad in 1855, an event that promised to make Knoxville a railroad and commercial center.

The railroad also made Knoxville an important strategic center during the Civil War. With economic ties to the South (Charleston and Savannah), the majority of Knoxvillians voted to secede from the Union in the June 1861 referendum, putting the city's population at odds with most East Tennessee Unionists, especially the fiery editor of Brownlow's Whig, William G. “Parson” Brownlow. The importance of the railroad in supplying General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia brought Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer's occupying force to Knoxville to keep the rail lines open. When East Tennessee Unionists responded by burning railroad bridges and harassing Zollicoffer's troops, the initially lenient commander undertook a campaign of persecution and repression that filled the jail and sent numerous Union supporters fleeing to safety.

When Confederate troops fell back to northern Georgia in the fall of 1863, Union soldiers under General Ambrose Burnside rushed in to take Knoxville and cut the Confederacy's important railroad lifeline. Fearing a rebel counterattack, Burnside rapidly built a series of forts around the town. In need of supplies and to protect against a Federal invasion of southwest Virginia, General Robert E. Lee detached two divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia under General James Longstreet to recapture Knoxville and reopen his supply lines.

Longstreet took up his position northwest of the town (ironically, on the present campus of Knoxville College) and laid siege to the city. Longstreet believed he could not wait until Burnside was starved into surrender, and on November 29, 1863 launched an ill-conceived attack on Fort Sanders, an earthen fort named in honor of General William Sanders, a Union cavalry officer who had been killed by a sharpshooter west of the town (on Kingston Pike) while the Federal troops fought a delaying action against Longstreet's advance. The battle of Knoxville lasted under thirty minutes, as Confederate troops found it impossible to surmount the icy and slippery earthenworks and withdrew with 813 casualties. For the rest of the war, Knoxville remained firmly in Union hands. Unionists who had fled earlier returned and retaliated against the town's Confederate sympathizers.

After the Civil War Knoxville made great strides toward becoming a major urban center, with the railroad as a key factor in the city's progress. Knoxville became a distribution center for shipments to country stores and town merchants across East Tennessee. By 1896 the city boasted that it had become the third largest wholesaling center (in dollar volume) in the entire South, eclipsed only by Atlanta and New Orleans. Over fifty wholesaling houses bustled with activity, the largest being Cowan, McClung and Company, which was also the state's largest taxpayer in 1867. Many of these establishments were located in or around Jackson and Depot Streets in the heart of Knoxville's present “Old City.”

In the 1870s and 1880s the city also witnessed a major manufacturing boom. Between 1880 and 1887, ninety-seven new factories turned out iron and railroad products, textiles, shoes, clothing, and processed food products. Capital investment in manufacturing multiplied sixfold between 1870 and 1890; between 1900 and 1905 the volume of the city's manufactured goods increased over 100 percent. From 1895 to 1904 over five thousand new homes were constructed. The nearby town of West Knoxville (the present Fort Sanders area, annexed in 1897) contained some of the state's loveliest mansions and was the site for James Agee's famous novel A Death in the Family.

Although the railroad promoted most of the postwar growth, a bold group of business leaders deserves at least part of the credit. Many of these men came to Knoxville from outside the South before, during, and after the war to take advantage of the opportunities the railroad town held. In 1869 Massachusetts native Perez Dickinson founded the town's Board of Trade, a parent of the present Chamber of Commerce. Knoxvillians welcomed other “carpetbaggers,” including the founders of the Knoxville Iron Company, Albers Drug Company, Woodruff's furniture wholesalers and retailers, Dixie Cement Company, the Clinch Avenue Viaduct, and the Knoxville, Sevierville and Eastern Railroad, nicknamed by its passengers the “Knoxville Slow and Easy.”

By 1900 Knoxville's population had jumped to 32,637 inhabitants, about one-third of whom were under the age of fifteen. Many of those who arrived in Knoxville after the Civil War were African Americans. When Burnside's troops took the town in 1863, African Americans abandoned farms and East Tennessee's comparatively few plantations and came to Knoxville in search of freedom and opportunity. By 1880 over 32 percent of the city's population was black. A plentitude of jobs fostered a comparatively placid racial atmosphere. Knoxville College was established in 1875 to provide educational opportunities for African Americans.

As with other postwar American cities, rapid growth generated problems. Massive commercial, industrial, and residential burning of coal gave the city a grimy and unhealthy appearance; an adequate supply of safe drinking water was not available until the 1890s; and an 1897 fire destroyed a number of businesses on Gay Street, the city's major business avenue. As the wealthy moved out of the city to their own protected enclaves, race relations took a decided turn for the worse, and blacks and whites, now residing in close proximity to one another, clashed continuously. In 1894 white political leaders of both parties quietly gerrymandered Knoxville's black voters into virtual political impotence. Earlier they had removed an African American from the city's school board. In 1919 the city experienced a disturbing, but brief, race riot.

From 1900 to the present, Knoxville has continued to grow and, in the face of the resultant urban problems, to try to solve them. Economic activity has diversified and no longer relies on iron, railroad, textiles, and apparel. Air and water quality have improved dramatically. The city hosted the 1982 World's Fair as a vehicle to showcase Knoxville to the world (with modest results). The city continues to tinker with its governmental structure in apparent dissatisfaction with political forms, leaders, or some combination of both. Knoxville has had five major changes in government structure in the twentieth century, although Knox County voters rejected a sixth change to metropolitan government in November 1996. Suburbanization and malls threaten downtown economic activity, but the central business district remains active as a financial, legal, entertainment, and retail center. Two 1995-96 studies clearly decried the city's poor race relations.

From its founding in 1786 as White's Fort, the city of Knoxville has grown to be Tennessee's third largest city. From sixty-four lots in 1791, Knoxville in 2000 has expanded to 173,890 residents. Modern office buildings now overlook William Blount's house. In Knoxville, the past and present stand side by side.

Suggested Reading

Lucile Deaderick, ed., Heart of the Valley: A History of Knoxville, Tennessee (1976); Michael J. McDonald and William Bruce Wheeler, Knoxville, Tennessee: Continuity and Change in an Appalachian City (1983)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Knoxville
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018