You don’t have to look far to see the lasting legacy of Native Americans in Tennessee — in fact, the name “Tennessee” is derived from “Tanasi,” a Cherokee village in what is now Monroe County. Today, the state is home to more than 20,000 Native Americans and a rich culture and history waiting to be experienced by travelers. Below, check out seven attractions that tell the story of Tennessee’s Native American heritage.
Travel Tip: The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail runs east to west across Tennessee, carving a tragic story of the removal of Cherokee Indians from their ancestral homelands.
Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park covers more than 1,200 acres and contains at least 15 Native American mounds, which were both burial and ceremonial in purpose.
The park’s archaeological features and wildlife can be viewed along six miles of interconnecting trails, including paved trails, which are wheelchair/bicycle accessible. The park’s Pinson Mounds museum offers further insight into these fascinating structures; it is designed to replicate a Native American mound, offering 4,500 square feet of exhibit space, an archaeological library, an 80-seat theater and a “Discovery Room”' for historical exploration.
Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area (only accessible to the public through hikes led by Harpeth River State Park rangers)
Head to the seven-acre Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area in Kingston Springs (just west of Nashville), where you’ll find the largest number of Native American ceremonial mounds in Tennessee — more than a dozen. Researchers believe the area was occupied between approximately 1000 and 1300 AD and was an important civic and ceremonial center connected to the Mississippian site of Cahokia, which was located across the river in what is now St. Louis. The Mound Bottom site is only accessible to the public through hikes led by Harpeth River State Park rangers — check the park’s events calendar for upcoming experiences.
Chattanooga's oldest wildlife sanctuary, Audubon Acres, offers more than five miles of hiking trails over 130 acres on South Chickamauga Creek, along with abundant opportunities for picnicking, wildlife viewing, and photography. It’s also a spot steeped in Native American history. The visitor center houses an archeological museum showcasing one of the largest publicly viewable Native artifact collections in Chattanooga, while the Spring Frog Cabin, a Trail of Tears site, is a wonderfully preserved example of Cherokee architecture from the mid-1700s. Going back even further, Little Owl Village at Audubon Acres is believed to be the site of a 16th century Napochie village that the Spanish Tristan DeLuna expedition encountered during their travels north from Florida.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
As the first great gateway to the American west, Cumberland National Historic Park is a must-visit for anyone with an interest in Tennessee’s Native American history. Located an hour north of Knoxville where the borders of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia converge, the 24,000-acre park features miles of game trails that were originally used by Native Americans, allowing visitors to literally walk in the footsteps of the original stewards of the land. Later, those same trails became the footpaths for more than 300,000 settlers heading west over the Appalachian Mountains.
The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum
With the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation at the helm, the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is Tennessee’s only tribally operated historical attraction. The East Tennessee museum telling the amazing story of Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee writing system. Never before, or since, in the history of the world has one man, not literate in any language, perfected a system for reading and writing a language until Sequoyah. Located in the Great Smoky Mountains on the shores of beautiful Tellico Lake, the museum recently added the Max D. Ramsey Shoreline Trail, with 1.5 miles of walking trail, along the shoreline, bridges and boardwalks through the marshy areas.
Red Clay State Historic Park
The tragic Trail of Tears begins at Red Clay State Historic Park. Encompassing 263-acres of narrow valleys formerly used as cotton and pastureland, the park site was the last seat of Cherokee national government before the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in most of the Cherokee people in the area being forced to emigrate west in the 1830s. It was here that the Cherokee learned that they had lost their mountains, streams and valleys forever. On the 263-acre property, you’ll find hiking trails, reconstructed sleeping huts, homesteads, council houses, the Blue Hole Spring, which served as a water supply during council meetings and the Eternal Flame, a memorial for the Cherokee people and those who were lost on the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee Removal Memorial Park and Museum
Cherokee Indian Removal Memorial, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Birchwood, was one of the main staging areas for the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokee Indians camped here before their infamous trip to the west. Lying near the center of the ancestral land of the Cherokee Nation, this area had nine encampments of thousands of Cherokees that waited weeks to be sent across the river here at Blythe Ferry. Today, a History Wall feature offers visitors a detailed visual re-telling of not only the Trail of Tears, but also the centuries-long saga of the literate and highly civilized Cherokee culture in Tennessee. A Memorial Wall, meanwhile, pays tribute to the people who died during the Trail of Tears — a necessary reminder of this tragic episode in our nation’s history.