Sycamore Shoals State Park is a small state historic area along the Watauga River dedicated to the history of Watauga, Sycamore Shoals, and parts of what is now northeastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The park has a nice visitors center, gift shop, a life-size recreation of Fort Watauga, a nature trail along the river, and a large butterfly garden.
But the latest addition to the park is perhaps its best: the Interpretive Museum. This museum was 30 years in the making before finally becoming a reality with a grand opening on June 29, 2013. Paid for as a state capitol project, the permanent exhibit tells some wonderful stories about early American history in the region. Even if you’re not a fan of history, this interpretive museum is sure to snag your attention with giant painted murals, text boards, life-size mannequins, and audio stories.
The museum is a smooth journey beginning with stories of the first settlers in the region, led by explorer James Robertson in 1770. Several text boards and an audio presentation tell the story of the creation of America’s first democratic government, the Watauga Association, in 1772. This association was created because the settlers realized they had moved into a region further west than any colonial boundary at the time, therefore living outside the governmental areas of the colonies.
As you continue walking through the large museum, you find more history with The Transylvania Purchase. In March 1775, Richard Henderson met with the leaders from the Cherokee Indians to discuss purchasing land from them. A judge from North Carolina, Henderson created the Transylvania Company to purchase the land with hopes of creating a new colony west of the Appalachian Mountains. Henderson negotiated the purchase of 20 million acres of land lying between the Cumberland River and Kentucky River, but south of the Ohio River, roughly half the present-day state of Kentucky. It was the largest private real estate purchase in American history, but led to a great Indian war.
Among the Cherokee leaders who signed the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals (which included the land purchase agreement) was Attakullakulla, a seasoned chief with years of dealings with the colonials and French (in the interest of full, but somewhat silly, disclosure, I should point out that Attakullakulla was my 7th Great Grandcousin). Although he supported the peaceful cohabitation of Cherokee Indian and frontier settlers, his son violently opposed any such treaty. Tsiyu Gansini, known as Dragging Canoe, warned that any “settlement would be dark and bloody”, thus beginning the Chickamaugan War. Dragging Canoe would lead a large force of Chickamauga Indian against the settlers in the area, who banded together to build Fort Watauga for defense.
Inside the Interpretive Museum, you will find a small recreation of Fort Watauga, along with several life-size mannequins demonstrating that attack on the fort. As you move further through the exhibit, you come upon the history of the Overmountain Men. The Overmountain Men were a group of frontier settlers who took park in the Revolutionary War, most notably the Battle of Kings Mountain. The state park gets its name from the Sycamore Shoals, a shallow section of the Watauga River near the present-day location of the park. The men crossed the shoals and mustered near where the Fort Watauga recreation in a large field. From here, they marched to Kings Mountain where they defeated loyalist Major Patrick Ferguson. Many consider this to be a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War because it resulted in the trapping of British General Charles Cornwallis in Charles Towne, leading to the end of the war.
The last stop before you leave the museum is a small room with a fantastic 15-minute video. The video tells much of the same history as you read by walking through the museum, but uses reenactors for the story. Thanks to the efforts of the Washington County Regiment, North Carolina Militia reenactors, the makers of the exhibit were able to film life of the early settlements, the battle at Fort Watauga, and the mustering of the Overmountain Men.
But after reading this travel story, don’t for a minute think you have no further reason to visit this museum. You can view artifacts like early settler’s tools, weapons, and machinery (made of stone, of course). You can step under a sound dome and listen to the voices of people approving the Watauga Association. The life-size mannequins are incredibly realistic and the decor of the museum is better than most I’ve seen in museums. It is an easy fifteen minutes to walk through the museum, with another fifteen minutes for the video, making it a fantastic way to spend a half hour of your life.