The year is 1756. The United States is still thirty years from becoming an independent nation. Our state is an untamed land of rushing rivers and endless forests, the only outside human presence being the the occasional hunter or trailblazer.
Civilization lay east of the Appalachians, which formed a dangerous and almost impassible barrier for westward expansion. This was the land of the Cherokee, who for hundreds of years had roamed these hills and established settlements along the fertile river valleys.
Great Britain’s colonies were constantly fearful of attack on their western fronts by the Native American population. The French and Indian War had begun two years earlier, and the Cherokee Nation lay dangerously close to the colonies of North and South Carolina. Relations between the British and the Cherokee had generally been on good terms, and so it was important to confirm that friendship in order to reverse any negative influences the French may have been stirring up. South Carolina sent in a garrison of British troops to construct a fort just outside the Cherokee’s Overhill towns in the foothills of the Unicoi Mountains. Lying along the banks of the Tanasi River, Fort Loudon accomplished its goal of uniting the British and Cherokee nations and ensuring continued trade between the two groups.
As is often repeated through our nation’s history, abuse and broken promises lead to that friendship becoming frayed and finally torn apart. The Cherokee successfully captured the fort four years later and forced the garrison to leave the Overhill Territory. As the years passed by, time and the forest swallowed up what remained of the site, and the land sat undisturbed for many years. Interest in the historic site returned in the mid 30s when the land was purchased by the state. In 1977, the site became an official state historic park.
Today an amazing recreation of the original fort stands in the same spot as the original. Painstakingly constructed to be as historically accurate as possible, the palisade and bunkhouses seem untouched by the ravages of time. Outside the walls, however, the surrounding landscape has changed drastically. The thriving Cherokee towns which lay along the Tanasi, such as Citico, Tallasee, and the capital city of Chota, were abandoned long ago. Their sites now lie submerged beneath the waters of the Tellico and Chilhowee reservoirs, and even the river now bears a different name. These waters completely surround the fort, which now lies on an island.
Today’s park covers just about 1,200 acres and protects not only the main fort area, but also forests and fields populated by local wildlife. Fort Loudon Road leads visitors directly to the park’s main visitor center. Here is a wonderful museum which features artifacts unearthed from the site that are hundreds of years old. A fifteen-minute presentation highlights the history of the fort and surrounding region and provides a great introduction before you venture on to the fort itself. The rangers here are also very knowledgeable and can answer any further questions you might have, not only on the history of the fort but of the Overhill Cherokee as well. Ranger Will Kinton is a great storyteller and provided us with a wealth of information during our visit. Make it a point to stop by here on your visit.
After passing through the visitor center, a paved walking trail leads to the entrance of fort. Within the walls of the palisade lie over a dozen buildings, from a blacksmith shop to bunkhouses filled with bunk beds for the soldiers to sleep in. Cannons line the walls at well-placed intervals and small windows provided stations for soldiers to defend the fort. Walking out the lower entrance to the fort alongside the lake’s edge, you’ll notice a dry moat surrounding the area composed of a hedge of needle-sharp thorns. These served as a first line of defense in order to keep attackers away from the fort’s walls. One only needs a little imagination to hear the roar of cannons firing or the marching of troops on a drill.
On several occasions throughout the year, those images in your mind’s eye actually become reality, as Fort Loudon is host to several historical reenactments which populate the grassy fields with British soldiers. History buffs come from far and wide to reenact fierce battles between the Cherokee and the fort. The war cries of attackers mix with the smell of gunpowder to give visitors a vivid image of what life really was like for those who lived here. If wartime battles are not your interest, craft demonstrations and an eighteenth century trade fair provide plenty of alternatives for becoming immersed in history.
History is of course the main focus at a historical park, but the island does offer some activities to entice visitors to stay longer. Five miles of hiking trails roam the island, venturing through fields, forests, and along the water’s edge to provide some great views of the lake as well as the Unicoi Mountains beyond. This is a prime habitat for birding also, as the mix of open areas and woodlands is ideal for many species. While no campground is available here, the park does have a picnic area just before the main parking area that overlooks the lake. Fishing is also allowed from the shoreline and on the park’s fishing pier.
If you’re interested in visiting during the park’s garrison recreation weekends, please visit tnstateparks.com to get a schedule, as they may change from time to time. Currently the park has six regular events planned and one during the Christmas season. All events are completely free and open to the public.
Photo: Fort Loudon State Historic Park features a complete recreation of the original 1756 fort situated on the shores of Tellico Lake.
Directions: From I-81 South, merge onto I-40 West at exit 1B. In downtown Knoxville, use the right two lanes to take exit 386B onto U.S. 129 South. After 16.4 miles, continue straight onto U.S. 411 S/W and follow it 17.3 miles. Turn left onto Unicoi Turnpike and after 0.9 turn left again onto Fort Loudon Road. The main parking area is at the end of the road after 1.1 miles.