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Located in Knox County, on the eastern side of the state, Knoxville was founded on June 11, 1792 and named in honor of General Henry Knox, Secretary of War in General George Washington’s cabinet. Knoxville, the county seat, had been founded, named and laid out the year before, in 1791, when the area was still a part of Greene and Hawkins Counties. It had formerly been called White’s Fort, named after a frontier stronghold.

When Tennessee entered the Union as the sixteenth state in 1796, Knoxville officially became the state capital, and remained so until 1813, when it was moved to Nashville for the first time. Knoxville was subsequently again the capital for a brief period in 1817, however, when the state Legislature met there.

The Civil War uniquely impacted Tennessee. The last state to secede from the Union, it was also the first readmitted to statehood. Internally, it was deeply divided before, during and after the conflict.

Tennessee generally aligned with the southern cause, but slaveholding was far more prominent in Middle Tennessee than East Tennessee due to geographic differences that made cash crops such as cotton and tobacco lucrative in the former region, and almost impossible in the latter. The most widely recognized division was the Cumberland Gap, a strip of elevated tableland that divided the early counties of Washington and Mero.

Change occurred rapidly. While eastern Tennessee was more heavily populated in 1790, by the turn of the century the population had shifted dramatically with the west overtaking the east.  The population of slaves in each section was even more dramatically uneven; by 1830, the region west of the Cumberland Plateau held almost seven times as many slaves as did eastern Tennessee. The 1830 cencus lists less than 18,000 total slaves in East Tennessee, and nearly 124,000 in the western district.

This contrast created marked sectionalism, as eastern Tennesseeans watched their western neighbors surge past them in affluence based on the economics of slave labor and cash crops. As W.A. Walker, Jr. writes:

“There is little evidence to show that a better or wrose breed of masters lived in Tennessee than elsewhere. We can assume that the moral and humane qualities of Tennessee slaveholders made slavery neither more nor less acceptable as an institution in Tennessee than it was elsewhere in the South. The peculiar geographical characteristics of the state served, however, to modify the economic circumstances in which slavery was applied, and both public opinion in regard to the slave institution and the lot of the slave no doubt varied according to these circumstances.”

East Tennessee, therefore, became more sympathetic to abolitionist principles, and it was in Jonesboro that the first explicitly abolitionist publication, Elihu Embree’s “The Emancipator” was published. Both the Blair and Gammon families had strong ties, both business and personal, to the Embree family.

Knoxville in particular was torn by the Civil War. In 1861, the City of Knoxville voted in favor of scession, while the county at large overwhelmingly favored remaining with the Union. The conflict among residents with divided loyalties characterized both the war years and the Reconstruction period.

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