During the cold, gray days of winter, it’s easy to dream of traveling to a warmer place. Some people take a cruise to the islands at this time of year. For the next three weeks, we’ll also take a tour of some islands and learn about their history. However, these will be ones that are in the Tennessee River, not in the Caribbean. Our first port-of-call: Williams Island.
First, let’s locate the island, for I find that many do not know where Williams Island is. If you have ever been to Signal Point or driven down Signal Mountain, you have likely gazed at the Tennessee River below. Williams Island is the large island that divides the river channel, and is over two miles long, and 450 acres in size. It is located near Baylor School at the north end of Moccasin Bend, and serves as the entrance to the Tennessee River Gorge. When one is standing on the island, the view of the surrounding river canyon is spectacular.
Williams Island and others like it were formed over many years when something at that location caused the river’s current to be slower in the center than in the edges. When the velocity of the current was reduced, silt began to be deposited in the middle of the river, followed by the growth of vegetation that stabilized the island. Deep channels formed where the river flowed around the island, and this caused even more silt to be deposited. Some river islands are near the deltas of tributaries, which affect the river’s current and add their deposits of silt.
Though uninhabited by humans now, the island was occupied by many generations in the past. Sites dating from 12,000 B.C. have been identified. Archaeologists have also researched a Mississippian-era Indian village which stood on the island from roughly 1000 A.D. to 1650. The village included the leader’s residence, a temple and burial mounds, and many wooden houses. Spanish trade artifacts from the late 16th century were found on the island. In 1776, Bloody Fellow, established the village, Tuskegee Town. Beginning around 1800, John Brown operated a ferry to the island, and he was known as being an excellent guide for travelers through the rapids of the river gorge. The island received its present name when Samuel Williams acquired it, following the Cherokee removal.
Throughout the centuries, families have farmed on Williams Island. My mother’s family lived on tenant farms until they were able to buy their own land, and Williams Island was one of many addresses for the Hickman family. They rented the land from the Hampton family, who were descendants of Sam Williams. In the early 1930’s, my grandfather built a flatboat, and moved the family and all of their possessions to the island. They were one of nine families there, and lived in a small wood-frame house. The soil of Williams Island – deposited there over the millennia - was very fertile, and they never had to use fertilizer. There was a barn and silo which the families shared. The children often found arrowheads around the island. When they weren’t helping with chores, they would sit on the riverbank and watch the steamboats and barges going by. Mother told me that my grandfather would not let them venture to the south end of the island, where moon shiners operated. Her older brothers rowed a boat each day to Pineville Elementary, but when my mother reached school-age, my grandmother insisted that the family move to the mainland.
In February, 1977, a fire destroyed over 100 acres on Williams Island and some structures including a barn. Firemen battled the blaze by pumping water from the river. The island was considered for the location of a bicentennial park during the 1970’s, but this did not take place. In 1989, the State of Tennessee purchased the island from the Hampton family, and it is currently managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. My mother and I participated in a public tour of the island in 1999, and she kept those in our group intrigued by her stories of growing up on Williams Island. “It was hard times,” she recalled. She was able to point out the silo – which had survived the wildfire and the elements – but was now nearly covered by vegetation.
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