Chester Martin Remembers Fort Loudon

Sunday, July 3, 2016
Chester Martin painting titled, “Fort Loudoun and the Little Tennessee River Valley of 1756.” In was painted in the 1970’s.
Chester Martin painting titled, “Fort Loudoun and the Little Tennessee River Valley of 1756.” In was painted in the 1970’s.

If told properly, folks, this will be one of my better stories, as it combines my earliest love affair with the "Little T" (Little Tennessee River) region with such great people as Alice Milton. SHE provided my first introduction to the fort, and her enthusiasm for it is still alive in my memory. Let me share some of it with you!

Alice Warner, (whose family gave us Warner Park) as related in a much earlier story, grew up on the banks of the Little Tennessee River on a farm out from Vonore, Tennessee.

Being a "born historian" she early became steeped in all the local lore which included Native Americans (the so-called "Overhill Cherokee"), Scottish traders, German engineers, French commanders, English soldiers, - and a long-vanished fort.

By her teen-age years the entire area was empty of people, except for the occasional farmhouse. Lonely cornfields abounded in every direction There was no local "teen club" or ice cream parlor to compete for her attention, so she spent her youth almost entirely alone in quest of that old fort. Stories heard from her elders hinted at its probable location, which she eventually found, sprawled on a large hillside overlooking a bluff on the river. "Postmolds" from the wooden palisade were all that was left, and had probably been plowed over many times during the intervening 150 years and more.

*    *    *

We next meet Alice in Chattanooga. She has received a fine education, married and lives in an elegant brick home on Oak Street (which is still there in 2016). She and her husband, George Fort Milton, own the "Chattanooga News" newspaper (which was later bought out by Roy McDonald of the "Free Press",  thus creating the "Chattanooga News-Free Press) and is qualified to circulate in the educated and higher classes of Society, while never losing her farm-girl roots. Now she has the financial backing to do some free-lance investigating into Fort Loudoun and learn its full story. This will require lengthy stays in Charleston, South Carolina where all the colonial records of Good King George of England are archived. What she learned there became the basis for all the rest of her professional life.

While at the Charleston archives she was able to reconstruct in her mind the precise meaning of every word written there – becoming able to visualize every mountain path that both Native Americans and white men used to enter the Little Tennessee River Valley of 1756. It was uncanny how she could virtually re-enact every scene as the Cherokee came on their horses, "noisily whooping across the valley." And she could transport you to the gates of Fort Loudoun as the various chiefs asked for entry to hold counsel with the English. There would be the "Little Carpenter" (father of "Dragging Canoe"), Old Tassel, Hanging Maw, Oconastota and all the rest...and she would tell you how the Cherokee braves changed their names several times during their lifetimes, making their actual biographies very hard to reconstruct. She liked to point out that Cherokee genealogy was matriarchal; the line of descent going through the mothers instead of the fathers. (At this point she would say that THAT is where Alex Haley made a fatal mistake with Black genealogy when he wrote his famous book, “Roots”, as black genealogy was matriarchal also - exactly the same as the Cherokee. I shall not fight that war: I am just repeating the belief of a major Cherokee authority and southern historian.) Alice Warner Milton WAS a Cherokee scholar to be sure. She taught classes on the subject at UT Knoxville, driving there three times per week when she was well past 80 years of age to teach her classes.

In her earlier days of bringing Fort Loudoun back to life it was necessary to reconstruct the wooden palisade - and this was beautifully done, and one could imagine that the new walls looked precisely like the originals. Great effort was made to re-create the great eastern main-gate so that its superstructure, and even its hinges had the look of authenticity. I once saw the drawing used by the original fort-builders, and the new gate looks exactly like the original! The Fort Loudoun of 1756, although British, had been laid out on a European scheme, frequently used by the Spanish, to include “bastions”, as found in St. Augustine, Florida, Havana, Cuba, San Juan, Puerto Rico, etc. A transient German engineer, DeBrahm, did the actual ground layout, placing it on the side of a hill where it rambles in a rather ungainly way over the terrain. Its northwest parapet was built directly on the highest point of the river bluff - and for good reason: it was the sentinel lookout for the dreaded French, whom the English expected to appear at any moment on the river below! These were the days of the "French and Indian" wars, and in our case, we could call it the "French and ENGLISH" wars, though not even a single skirmish with French troops ever came about. For whatever reason, the Cherokee became increasingly suspicious of the English and the original friendship between the two sides soon went away. The French may have had something to do with this collapse of good relations, but that has not been definitely proven to this day. The fort was under siege for a goodly length of time, and I forget what is supposed to have happened; it remains a blur. Not even the re-enactors have figured it out for sure! I guess this is where I leave you again to "go read it for yourself and make up your own minds"!

Anyway, Alice Milton took good care of the fort for as long as she could. She had physically worked to adorn it with such worthy features as Nature walks - which were truly delightful - with paths she created from the uppermost parapet on the bluff down to the water’s edge. She had all the exotic plants, ancient vines and twisting roots marked with unobtrusive signage that even a child could understand. She fought to keep interest in the fort alive - and encouraged its growth through a newly formed "Fort Loudoun Society" of which she was to be President Emeritus. But pressures were on TVA to create yet another dam on the Little "T". There were already a large number of dams upstream, but a new one was needed, it was believed, to provide water for "new local industry". Alice single-handedly got a court injunction to stop efforts for the new dam by discovering an "endangered" species of fish in the river, known as the "snail-darter". Does that name ring a bell with anyone? It sort of depresses ME to think about that time, so once again I will let you read about it for yourselves.

I am most happy that I got to know Fort Loudoun before the new dam flooded the area. One could easily imagine that it was exactly like the English and Native Americans had left it many years before. Tennessee State Archeologist Mack Prichard would frequently be present for events at the fort. He was of Native American blood, and would shake his head at the prospect of the area being flooded – the birthplace of Sequoyah would have to be marked as “100 yards off-shore and 20 feet down”, he would say in disgust and sadness!

 As you drove along the road to the fort's modern entrance you could see that it was actually a very poor layout, as more than 75 percent of the interior was exposed to gun (or arrow) fire. The entire population would have had to huddle on the lower south side to avoid being easily targeted.

The new dam raised the water level so that the original fort area was mostly under water. TVA built up every square inch of the fort’s present area to the new level, losing a lot of the original features such as the limestone quarry with the English quarryman's initials carved into the stone. And, upstream, an ancient Cherokee "Y" shaped fish trap which had been plainly visible just below the surface of the swift-flowing icy river was gone forever. Another feature I had been shown was an island in the Little Tennessee River where ice had been stored every late winter - brought down from the heights of the nearby mountains for use by the fort's garrison in summer. There were natural caves on the island that had probably been enhanced to hold the ice.

I attended a few meetings in the area before the new dam was built, as I was working on a large painting of the fort (above) and liked to get criticism from the locals whenever possible. Alice Milton had come to my house more than once to see the progress and offer suggestions. She was most gracious and her criticisms were "general" enough that I never had to do any serious re-painting. We really just re-hashed the fort's history. State Archeologist Prichard was most complimentary of my work and appreciated the accuracy I achieved, as it was all plotted very carefully – as an Engineer would do it – from flat TVA drawings.  (My chosen view of the fort could only have been arranged for by helicopter at that time!) So I took all the elevations on the maps and raised them schematically in pencil – and then set the entire array into Perspective, exactly like for an architectural rendering. I got high approval for my painting at the time and am delighted to see that it has been placed online under “Fort Loudoun” by people other than myself. I would tell you that even the smoke from the individual Cherokee villages is shown in my painting. I used the historic Lt. Henry Timberlake map of 1760 to plot each small town – one of which was called, “Tenase” (pronounced, Tinassy) which gave us our state’s name of Tennessee.

TVA took much criticism for tearing up such a great Tennessee antiquity at the time, and I was definitely against the new dam also. However, in retrospect, 40 years later, it appears today that the “new” fort is in much better hands than ever with a retinue of agencies and people bent on keeping it preserved for our, and future, generations to enjoy. The job of raising such a large plot of land straight up (using fill-dirt) was a most remarkable job of engineering and the entire interior appears to be far smoother for re-enactments than before. I heartily approve of TVA’s good work, and look back on my “Fort Loudoun Days” as being some of the happiest of my professional life!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Photo of a re-enactment at Fort Loudou
Photo of a re-enactment at Fort Loudou

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