Tennessee Topography

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Topographically considered, Tennessee presents eight natural divisions. These divisions are described as follows:

First, the Unaka division, including the extreme eastern portion of the State, and embracing a belt of the country from Virginia to the Georgia line. It includes the greater portion of the counties of Johnson, Carter, Greene, Sevier, Blount, Monroe and Polk. The face of the country is exceedingly rough. Many of the mountain peaks rise to the altitude of from live to six thousand feet and are on top entirely destitute of timber. The chains of mountain ridges are cut in numerous places by deep, rocky channels, through which the limpid mountain streams rush to the valley below. Nestling among these giant Unakas are many beautiful coves and valleys which afford homes for a contented and happy people.

Our second division having distinct topographical features is the Valley of East Tennessee. This division extends across the State from north to south, being limited on the east by the Unakas and on the west by the Cumberland Mountains. It is called a valley with reference to these mountain ranges, and, with outlying coves and valleys, embraces in whole or in part the following counties: Hancock, Hawkins, Grainger, Union, Jefferson, Knox, Roane, Meigs, Bradley, Hamblen, Carter, Johnson, Washington, Greene, Sevier, Cocke, Blount, Monroe, Polk, Claiborne, Anderson, Rhea, James, Hamilton, Bledsoe, Sequatchie and Marion.

This so-called Valley of East Tennessee is, in point of fact, a succession of narrow ridges and valleys, of greater or less width, trending from northeast to southwest. The ridges sometimes rise to the altitude of mountains. The valleys are traversed by beautiful streams, some of which are navigable and all of which afford abundant water-power. This division affords much valuable arable land which has been converted into beautiful farms, and which constitutes one of the best developed and most populous agricultural districts of the State.

The Cumberland Plateau or Table Land constitutes our third division, embracing the whole or parts of the following counties, to-wit: Scott, Morgan, Cumberland, Fentress, Van Buren, Bledsoe, Grundy, Sequatchie, Marion, Claiborne, Campbell, Anderson, Rhea, Hamilton, Overton, Putnam, White, Franklin, Warren and Coffee. As this division has already been described under the head of the Cumberland Mountains a repetition is unnecessary. This is the coal region of Tennessee.

The fourth and fifth divisions must of necessity be spoken of in connection with each other, as the fifth is entirely encircled by the fourth. In the very center of the State there is a depression of an oval form, extending nearly across the State from north to south, having in this direction a length of about 80 miles, by a breadth from east to west of from 30 to 60 miles. This depression is known as the Great Central Basin, and is our fifth division. Surrounding this basin is a circle of highlands, known as the Highland Rim of Middle Tennessee. This is our fourth division and extends from the western base of the Cumberland Mountains to the western valley of the Tennessee River, and from the northern to the southern boundary of the State. This highland rim has an elevation of about 1,000 feet above the level of the sea. These highlands, though called a rim, in many places spread into extensive plateaus. The edges of the rim which immediately surround the basin are much cut and fringed by narrow valleys that reach out into the highlands. The streams which have their sources at high altitudes have cut deep channels, down which they rush impetuously over rapids or leap in cataracts to the basin below. The Cumberland River forces its way through the surrounding rim into the central Basin, whence it escapes in a northwesterly direction.

The Central Basin is essentially different in its topographical features from the surrounding highlands. The surface is generally undulating, though rounded knobs and hills are frequently met with. The land is generally fertile and well adapted to cultivation, though considerable areas are found which are covered with shaly limestone, which renders them unfit for tillage.

These two divisions extend over all of the civil division of Middle Tennessee, except so much of it as lies upon the Cumberland Plateau and in the western valley of the Tennessee.

Our sixth division is a comparatively small one, being restricted to the generally narrow and somewhat rugged valley of the Tennessee River in its western passage across the State after its return from Alabama. This valley is irregular in form; sometimes the ridges or spurs of highlands upon the one side or the other jut quite into the river bank. At some points where the valley has greater width, it is partly occupied with lagoons and marshes. Some points in this valley present considerable areas of fertile tillable land. On some of the tributaries of this stream, especially Duck River on the eastern side and Big Sandy on the western, arms of the valley extend far into the interior and have much arable land. The ascent from the valley on each side is generally abrupt and often precipitous.

The seventh division comprises the great plateau or Slope of West Tennessee, extending from the valley last described to the bluffs bordering the alluvial bottom of the Mississippi. This vast area, covering nearly all of seventeen counties, is, for the most part, a gently undulating plain. Rising rapidly from the Tennessee Valley till an average elevation of about 700 feet is reached, this plateau then gradually falls off to the west, or northwest, till the western bluffs are reached, at a distance of about 100 miles. Traversing this area are occasional ridges of low hills, generally irregular in direction, but with a tendency from northeast to southwest. There are also numerous streams, rimming generally to the northwest, with broad valleys and sluggish currents. In some localities these valleys are marshy and unfit for cultivation, but, taken as a whole, this section is one of great fertility, and capable of sustaining a dense population.

The eighth and last of these divisions embraces the Alluvial Valley of the Mississippi, so far as it lies within the limits of Tennessee. On its eastern side, where it is outlined by the bluffs, it pursues a tolerably direct line from northeast to southwest; but on the western side, where its limits are marked by the devious course of the river, it is quite irregular. At Fulton, Randolph and Memphis the river washes the foot of the bluffs, cutting the valley into sections. The general aspect of this valley is low and marshy. Many small lakes and lagoons are found in its limits. It is covered with a dense growth of timber and is of exceeding fertility. Portions not marshy are in cultivation and yield heavy crops.

Hawkins, A. W., and Colton, Henry E., eds. Hand-book of Tennessee. Knoxville: Whig and Chronicle Steam Book and Job Printing Office (1882), pp.8-10.