In 1875 Mark Twain published “Journalism in Tennessee,” a delightful sketch about his experiences as associate editor of a newspaper called the Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop. He had come south, he said, to improve his health, but soon found dodging bullets, bricks, and the foul language of competitors and readers to be more than he had bargained for. “Tennesseean [sic] journalism is too stirring for me,” Twain concluded in announcing his intention to leave the state as quickly as possible.

Twain’s fictional piece is an entertaining read, but the true story of publishing in Tennessee offers a better one. It is a story of diversity, one filled with memorable characters, many of whom rose to courageous heights in facing the hardships and challenges of their time. It is a story of commitment, one of important contributions to our society. It is a story that continues in our own day.

In 1791 George Roulstone and Robert Ferguson arrived in Rogersville in upper East Tennessee. The event is commemorated with a plaque behind the Hawkins County Courthouse. Bringing a printing press, type, and paper in a wagon, the experienced newspapermen came across the Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina to what was then the Southwest Territory at the invitation of Governor William Blount. Although they set up operation in a log cabin in Rogersville, the paper they founded and first issued on November 5, 1791, was called the Knoxville Gazette, since the move to Knoxville was already anticipated. In October 1792, as soon as the new town was laid out, the presses were moved by flatboat down the Holston River. It may well have been that the Gazette became the first newspaper in the United States named for a town not yet in existence at the time of the newspaper’s founding.

Clearly, the Gazette served as spokesman for the Blount administration, and the governor richly rewarded Roulstone with political appointments. (Ferguson withdrew in 1793.) Roulstone became the first printer for the Territory, and later, for the State of Tennessee. He is remembered both for his contributions in wording the Tennessee state constitutional provision guaranteeing a free press and as the state’s first book publisher.

When Roulstone died in 1804 at the age of thirty-six, his widow, Elizabeth, took over the Gazette, thereby laying claim to being the state’s first woman newspaper editor and publisher. When she later married William Moore, they moved to Carthage, in Smith County, and published that town’s first newspaper, the Carthage Gazette.

Pressmen’s Home, another monument to the importance of publishing in Tennessee, and the only community anywhere totally devoted to the printing craft, is located about a dozen miles from Rogersville. In ruins today and nearly forgotten after its abandonment in 1967, Pressmen’s Home was headquarters for the 125,000-member International Printing Pressmen and Assistants’ Union of North America for fifty-six years. George L. Berry of Rogersville headed the union from 1907 until his death in 1948. The location of the Pressmen’s Home in the remote mountains of East Tennessee was due entirely to Berry’s efforts. In its present decay, it is hard to envision Pressmen’s Home in its glory years: 2,700 acres, a lavishly equipped four-story technical school (the largest of its kind in the world) in which 3,148 pressmen were trained in letterpress and newer offset printing, a sanatorium that for over forty-one years served more than 900 craftsmen suffering from tuberculosis, a luxury hotel that was open to the public, a chapel, living accommodations, union offices, recreational facilities, and its own post office.

Upper East Tennessee can make other historic publishing claims. Beginning as early as 1819, three of the nation’s leading abolitionist journals, including the first, were published there, two in Jonesborough and the third in Greeneville. Elihu Embree, a Quaker and leading figure in the Tennessee Manumission Society, published the two antislavery journals in Jonesborough, beginning with a weekly called the Manumission Intelligencer, which first appeared in March 1819. Embree replaced the newspaper after one year with a monthly, the Emancipator, which he published until his death in December 1820. Shortly thereafter, in 1821, the Reverend Benjamin Lundy was encouraged by the Tennessee Manumission Society to bring his journal, the Genius of Universal Emancipation, from Ohio to Greeneville, where he published it until moving to Baltimore in 1824.

Across the country today, journals published by and for Native Americans are commonplace, but perhaps few persons realize that the first of these newspapers had strong ties to East Tennessee. In reference to the Cherokee Phoenix, one scholar has pointed out that “Cherokee journalism . . . was the first journalism in the Chattanooga area.” (1) The Phoenix appeared as a weekly in February 1828, not long after the abolition journals.

Although the Phoenix was published at New Echota, the Cherokee capital in North Georgia, it owed its existence to the work of Sequoyah, a Tennessean. Born in 1776 at the village of Tuskegee, near Fort Loudoun on the Little Tennessee River, Sequoyah invented the eighty-six-character Cherokee syllabary and taught his people to read. Working with Sequoyah, Dr. Samuel A. Worcester of Brainerd Mission near Ross’s Landing (Chattanooga) developed the idea for a newspaper in the Cherokee language. Worcester then traveled to Boston to acquire a press and fonts of type in the Cherokee characters. Early issues were printed partly in English and partly in Cherokee, lending support to the argument that it was the nation’s first bilingual newspaper.

In February 1829 the paper was renamed the Cherokee Phoenix and Indians’ Advocate; regular publication continued into 1832, when Georgia authorities, upset with the journal’s increasing militancy, seized it. Issues appeared irregularly for a few months thereafter; however, a plan to move the press to Red Clay in Tennessee did not materialize, ending the country’s first Native American newspaper.

Not long after that, in 1838, Ferdinand Parham established Chattanooga’s first newspaper, the Hamilton County Gazette. Parham, who had earlier published a sheet in Maryville, retitled the paper the Chattanooga Gazette when the city was named.

In 1816 Frederick Heiskell and Hugh Brown founded the Knoxville Register, which remained in circulation for forty-seven years and became East Tennessee’s dominant newspaper prior to the Civil War. The paper, and Heiskell, attained statewide importance and political power. Brown left the paper in 1829 and Heiskell in 1837, but it continued to exert an influence until shut down by occupying Federal troops during the Civil War.

East Tennessee could claim no monopoly in the early newspaper business, though. Middle Tennessee’s first journal, the short-lived Rights of Man, Or, The Nashville Intelligencer, appeared in February 1799, followed a year later by Benjamin J. Bradford’s Nashville-published Tennessee Gazette. (The Bradford family name appears frequently in newspaper history in Tennessee and Kentucky.)

After Nashville, the next mid-state community with a newspaper was Carthage, with William Moore’s Gazette in August 1808. At least twenty papers sprang to life in nine other mid-state towns before 1820 as population burgeoned.

In West Tennessee, meanwhile, publishing saw an early beginning as well. Historians usually credit the Pioneer, established in Jackson in 1822, as being the first journal in the region. The more successful Jackson Whig was established in 1848; it merged with the Jackson Sun in 1877.

Publishing in Memphis began in January 1827 with the Bluff City’s first journal, the Memphis Advocate, which lasted until 1835. Several other papers saw life in Memphis before Henry Van Pelt arrived in 1841 and established the Weekly Appeal, the forerunner of today’s long-standing Memphis Commercial Appeal.

As might be anticipated, the Civil War resulted in several publishing developments of note in Tennessee. One of the more interesting episodes involved the Appeal, by then a daily under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin Dill and John McClanahan. Determined to avoid closure by occupying Federal troops, Dill loaded a press and type on a flatcar and fled to Mississippi, later moving to Georgia and Alabama. The paper continued to publish all the while, earning the sobriquet “Moving Appeal” in the process. Finally, Federal troops captured the paper near Columbus, Georgia, having chased it through ten towns and four states. For more than a year, the Appeal was issued in Atlanta, where it was joined by two other Tennessee newspapers, the Knoxville Register and the Chattanooga Daily Rebel. Later the Appeal resumed publication in Memphis.

The Vidette (Sentinel), still published in the Middle Tennessee town of Hartsville, traces its lineage to Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, who issued a paper by that name for his troops stationed there in August 1862. Civil War journalism in East Tennessee gained national recognition in the form of the Knoxville Whig published by William Brownlow. The leading “Union Screamer” (pro-Union southern newspaper), the Whig gained a wide following in the North because of its stance. After a speaking tour of northern cities, Brownlow renamed his paper Brownlow’s Whig and Rebel Ventilator, a clear indication of where he stood. He went on to become the controversial governor of Tennessee during Reconstruction before serving as a U.S. senator.

An important milestone in Tennessee publishing, the advent of newspapers owned by and published for African American citizens, occurred as the Civil War ended. In April 1865 William Scott, an African American from East Tennessee, began publication in Nashville of the Colored Tennessean, which is generally acknowledged to be the first black newspaper in the state. Two years later, Scott moved the paper to Maryville, where it underwent several name changes and became the “county newspaper,” serving black and white readers alike. In 1872 the Memphis Weekly Planet became West Tennessee’s first black newspaper. Later important African American papers in Tennessee included the Nashville Globe (1906-60), the East Tennessee News in Knoxville (1906-48), the Chattanooga Defender (1917-37), and two journals in Memphis, the conservative Memphis World (1931-72) and John Sengstacke’s fiery Tri-State Defender, which appeared in 1951 and played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement. In 1906 W. E. B. Du Bois briefly tried his hand at journalism in Tennessee, publishing the Memphis Moon, which, he said, was “a precursor of The Crisis,” the influential publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) he would later edit. (2)

No discussion of African American publishing in Tennessee would be complete without recognizing Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose journalistic career began in 1889 with the Memphis Free Speech. After three years of reporting the poor race relations of the city for the Free Speech, Wells moved to New York and later Chicago and gained national and international acclaim as a crusader against lynching. Her keen interest in the subject was triggered by an 1892 incident in Memphis in which a mob lynched three black grocers. Wells’s coverage of the incident led to a two-month boycott of white businesses by the city’s African American population. After Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the Memphis Commercial, demanded retaliation against “the black wench,” the offices of the Free Speech were demolished. Nonetheless, Wells had used the paper to launch a career that earned her a reputation as perhaps “the most influential black female journalist in this nation’s history.” (3)

Carmack is also well known in the annals of Tennessee publishing, editing several leading papers in Memphis and Nashville and serving in both the U.S. House and Senate before becoming editor of the Nashville Tennessean in August 1908. An outspoken prohibitionist, Carmack was shot to death on the streets of Nashville in November 1908 by Robin Cooper, son of Duncan Cooper, an associate of Carmack’s bitter rival, Governor Malcolm Patterson. The incident calls to mind Mark Twain’s fictional account of Tennessee’s journalistic violence, but with a real life tragic result.

The Tennessean (renamed in 1972) has employed many famous staff members over the years including Grantland Rice, often called the greatest sportswriter of all time, David Halberstam, Bill Kovach, Jim Squires, Tom Wicker, Wallace Westfelt, Fred Graham, John Seigenthaler, and Albert Gore Jr., who went on to become a U.S. senator and vice-president of the United States. The Tennessean’s long-standing rival, the Nashville Banner, was for years associated with the Stahlman family after Edward B. Stahlman acquired it in 1881. Tennessee native Ralph McGill worked at the Banner briefly before leaving in 1929 to join the Atlanta Constitution where, over forty years, he would play a leading role in the Civil Rights movement.

Edward J. Meeman founded the Knoxville News in 1921. For ten years, he edited it and its successor, the News-Sentinel, championing the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1931 he moved to Memphis, where he edited the Press-Scimitar and waged an ongoing editorial crusade against political boss Edward H. Crump.

Another Tennessean with a distinguished publishing record was Adolph S. Ochs, who bought the nearly bankrupt Chattanooga Times in 1878. The twenty-year-old Ochs turned the newspaper into a success. In 1896 he went to New York City, where he bought the venerable, but financially strapped New York Times at auction for $75,000. Ochs ignored the sensationalism of contemporary publishers like William Randolph Hearst at the New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World. Applying the same conservative formula he had used in Chattanooga, Ochs revived the New York Times and established the high standards the paper still maintains.

Today in Tennessee, as across the nation, the era of personal journalism has largely been supplanted by corporate journalism and absentee owners. Gannett, the largest of all the chains, owns numerous newspapers across the state.

Book publishing plays a significant role in Tennessee today, as it has from earliest times. As with newspapers, George Roulstone is credited with having published the first book, a 320-page tome titled Laws of the State of Tennessee, which he set up, printed, bound, and issued in September 1803. In the preface, Roulstone addressed the nature of the challenge, noting, “The present undertaking has been very laborious.” Over the years, Nashville would become the center of book publishing in Tennessee. In 1809 Thomas G. Bradford published the first important book there, A Revisal of All the Public Acts of the State of North Carolina and of the State of Tennessee.

Nashville’s reputation as a center for publishing religious materials began in the 1830s and received a major boost in 1854 when the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, established the forerunner of the United Methodist Publishing House, which now produces some 120 new books and tapes annually in addition to hundreds of church school curriculum items. Shortly afterward, by 1855, J. R. Graves established the Southwestern Publishing House. The Tennessee Baptist was its most popular publication, but the company had no relation to the later Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which traces its origins to 1891. Today, the SBC’s Sunday School Board claims to be the world’s largest publisher of religious materials. It produces 180 monthly and quarterly products and 400 to 500 undated products annually.

The two operations are not Nashville’s only religious publishers. The National Baptist Publishing Board, established in 1896 by Richard Boyd, claims to be the country’s oldest African-American-owned publishing business and produces 15 million books and periodicals annually. Thomas Nelson Publishers, the world’s largest Bible publisher, has called Nashville home since 1972, publishing seven translations of the Bible in addition to other religious books and music. It recently acquired control of Rutledge Hill Press, which began operations in Nashville in 1982. Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee operate academic publishing centers. Elsewhere in Tennessee, the former Kingsport Press, now Quebecor, has perhaps the largest book publishing operation. Founded in 1922 by John B. Dennis and the J. J. Little & Ives Company of New York, the firm initially produced inexpensive ten-cent classics (7,777,000 in the first year of operation) and trained Kingsport area farmers as printers. In 1969, it merged with Arcata National Corporation; by the mid-1980s more than 3,200 employees were producing 300,000 books a day for customers that included Time-Life and the National Geographic Society. Quebecor World, a Montreal-based publishing giant, acquired the company in the 1990s and still manages various Tennessee publishing and printing facilities.

Publishing in Tennessee is, indeed, a far cry from Mark Twain’s early description. One wonders what he would think if he were to return for a visit on the eve of the twenty-first century.

Suggested Reading

Douglas C. McMurtrie, Early Printing in Tennessee, With a Bibliography of the Issues of the Tennessee Press 1793-1830 (1933); Jack Mooney, ed., A History of Tennessee Newspapers (1996); Joseph H. Sears, Tennessee Printers 1791-1945: A Review of Printing History from Roulstones First Press to Printers of the Present (undated); John Tebbell, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, Volume I, The Creation of an Industry 1630-1865 (1972)

Citation Information

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