Local History: The Promise of Moccasin Bend

News that the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute may be moving to an easily accessible and therapeutically supportive location in the Chattanooga area has sparked interest in an expanded national park on Chattanooga’s doorstep.

Moccasin Bend has a rich history. With its location at the foot of Lookout Mountain, the peninsula has stood at a strategic crossroads for over 10,000 years of human history. Its rich lowlands along the Tennessee River attracted first nomadic hunters and later permanent settlements, including ceremonial centers of the forest and farming-based Mississippian cultures. When Spanish explorers traveled south, the site of the Bend, now known as Hampton Place, was one of the region’s major political and population centers. During the second half of the 16th century, the village of Hampton was decimated by fire and sealed under fire-hardened clay thatched roofs, just as Pompeii was enclosed.

Native Americans in the Southeast had never had contact with Europeans and their Old World diseases until DeSoto and other explorers arrived and brought trade opportunities as well as disease and economic upheaval. The Mississippian peoples became refugees and fled the river. The Muscogee (Creek) tribes followed and settled in the rich lowlands, but at the time of the American Revolution they were displaced by Cherokees migrating to the area. Under the duress of the emerging colonial economy, these tribes of Iroquois origin had shifted from a village culture to a farm, which allowed for individual ownership of one square mile (640 acres). One of these plots on Moccasin Bend belonged to a Cherokee named John Brown, who operated at a site still known today as Brown’s Ferry.

After the 1819 treaty tribes ceded land north of the Tennessee River, white settlers began to acquire property, including parcels on Moccasin Bend. Like other landowners in the area, James Smith owned several slaves who worked on his farm along the North Bend Pass, towards present-day Baylor School. One such slave, Jacob Cummings, freed himself from bondage in July 1839 by sailing away from the shore of the Bend near Brown’s Ferry in an old Indian canoe. He crossed Williams Island, made his way to Canada, and became an active agent in the Underground Railroad.

Native Americans were forcibly removed from the area in the late 1830s and deported to reservations to the west. Local Cherokee families were herded into stockades at Ross’s Landing. Some were shipped down the Tennessee River around the Bend, while others hiked across the Moccasin Bend Peninsula to Brown’s Ferry on what is now part of the Trail of Tears National Historical Trail.

During the Civil War, Moccasin Bend became the weak point of the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. Union artillery pieces on Stringer’s Ridge at the foot of the Bend shelled the defense roads over the shoulder of Lookout Mountain, allowing American soldiers to dump Lookout Valley and open the “Cracker Line” . Federal supplies were able to cross the Bend at Brown’s Ferry, move directly into Chattanooga, and break the Confederate siege.

The Chattanoogans began debating the future of Moccasin Bend nearly a century ago. The first recorded effort to preserve the Bend came in 1920, when Adolph Ochs, publisher of the Chattanooga Times and New York Times, offered to pay half the cost to develop the land into a park – if local interests provided the other half. The matching money never came. Ochs then purchased the Civil War battlefields on the east and west slopes of Lookout Mountain and gave them to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

In 1926, Charles Howard, director of the Industrial Office of the Chamber of Commerce, said the bend should be used for industry instead of a “beautiful women’s park”. Citizens quickly rallied to protect Moccasin Bend. Mrs. JW (Nell Evans) Johnson, Chair of the Planning Board’s Parks and Playgrounds Committee, called a meeting of all for and against a park.

Speaking on behalf of the park, she said: “I think the proposed improvement is the most remarkable project, and if the city and county can purchase the property, it would be a big feather in the mayor’s cap and from the county judge.” County judge Will Cummings warmly endorsed the preservation, but the city and county failed to provide the funds to purchase the land, then valued at $450,000.

Frank “Mickey” Robbins coordinates the Local History column. Visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org for more information.

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