An Unexpected Gateway to the West—Or East, Depending on Who You Are

The Significance of the Tennessee-Savannah River Route in early America:

In February of 1701, a party of three Frenchmen lowered their birchbark canoe into the frigid headwaters of a snowmelt stream. They were clad in buckskins, and their boat was loaded down with a winter’s worth of peltry—beaver furs, buffalo hides, and deerskins ready to sell. Known as coureurs de bois (literally, “runners of the woods”) they were independent French traders, unsanctioned by the Crown. Men like these would have been a familiar sight in the expanse of French North America, plying their canoes anywhere from Quebec west to the Upper Great Lakes in search of furs and Indian markets. But these Frenchmen were paddling east and south, and they were bound not for the markets of Canada, or even French Louisiana, but an English settlement known as Savannah Town in the Carolina Colony. The would-be traders followed a route they had heard about the previous year during their travels along the Mississippi River, in hopes of establishing a water-route to more favorable markets. Their small commercial venture from the midcontinent to the Carolina Piedmont would force France to recalibrate its colonial policies, open up new markets of slave trading, and might even challenge our understandings of the early imperial contest for the North American frontier.image001

While the historical record is sparse, we know that two of the coureurs de bois on this trip went by the surnames Bellefeuille and Soton. They made contact with the English sometime in March of that year along the Savannah River, in what is now South Carolina, selling their furs and returning west. They arrived at a military post on the frontier of French Louisiana, Biloxy (Present day Biloxi, Miss.), in late July to share their exciting news with fellow traders. They reported that it was a mere 400 league canoe voyage from the mouth of the Missouri River to the headwaters of the Little Tennessee River, and from there only a league and a half portage into the tributary streams of the Piedmont country, which led eventually downstream to the Carolina colony and the sea. As exciting as the news of easy transport may have been to likeminded French coureurs, the commandant of the fort, Sieur de Sauvole, found the report troubling. He reported the incident to his superiors, worrying that “vagabonds and rebels” like these, untrustworthy at the best of times, might have opened up a route for English expansion westward, and the siphoning off of trade eastward.tennesseermfinal

As far-fetched as Sauvole’s fears may sound, the dangers of English incursions into the Mississippi River Valley remained a distinct possibility at the time. French Louisiana was less than two decades old in 1701, and French claims to the Mississippi south from the Great Lakes remained highly contingent on Native peoples’ cooperation and alliance. Rumors from the backcountry insisted that English traders had already infiltrated the region. The great French explorer La Salle predicted that, “the English would come from Carolina by a river which takes its rise near the boundaries of that province, and would draw off thither a large part of the French trade.” As early as the 1690s French in the Illinois Country had heard stories that “Doherty, a trader from Virginia, had visited the Seraquii” on “one of the southern branches of la Belle Riviere,” or Ohio River. That English traders were among the Seraquii, a French mispronunciation of ‘Cherokee,’ indicate their potential presence already in the upper stretches of the Tennessee River, in the heart of Cherokee territory.


Bellefeuille and Soton themselves had learned of the route to Carolina the year before from a vanguard of English traders they encountered among the Quapaw Indians of the Arkansas Country. These English had come into the region through the Savannah-Tennessee route following the guidance of a French trader named Jean Coutre who had been living among the Shawnee Indians in the upper reaches of the Piedmont. According to English colonial records, Coutre was a “great Trader and Traveller amongst the Indians” and knew the country well “beyond the Appalatean Mountains.” In 1699, he had offered his services to the English to guide a trading expedition back over the mountains, retracing his original route from the Piedmont to the west. Such a suggestion from a defected Frenchmen excited the English, who worried that French hegemony along the Mississippi River might “unreasonably cramp up” English expansion into the North American interior. Governor Francis Nicholson of Virginia, upon hearing the plan, suggested that traders might go west to “sell goods on terms so cheap as to exclude the French from competition.” Governor Joseph Blake of Carolina endorsed the plan and sent off the expedition, laden with trading goods, up the Savannah River in the winter of 1700.

Ironically, this English expedition’s successful reconnoiter of the Tennessee River route opened up more traffic moving east than moving west. Bellefeuille and Soton’s party of coureurs de bois was only the first in a number of French trading groups that made their way to the Carolina colony the following year. The English in Carolina offered a growing market for export goods, an appealing option to the illicit French traders cut off in the backcountry. Charles Town was exporting an incredible 68,000 deerskins annually by 1698, and there was always more demand for furs. Compounding these market incentives, unlicensed French coureurs could face severe fines and penalties if they returned to Canada to sell their merchandise, so the English colonial route offered a clandestine option and guaranteed profit.

trappers3Another point in favor of the Tennessee route for coureurs  was the bureaucratic regulations of New France. In an effort to funnel the lucrative fur trade exclusively through the government monopolies at Montreal and Quebec, the French Crown required that all backcountry furs be sold there, regardless of where traders acquired their pelts. For coureurs  working in the Illinois and Mississippi regions, a trip to Canada required weeks of paddling and backbreaking work across multiple overland portages. With Louisiana not included in the French monopoly regulations, a route up the Tennessee and into English lands could prove the easiest access to markets for many French frontiersmen.

The coureurs de bois were not the only ones to begin considering trade with the English through Tennessee as their best option. Illinois and Miami Indians of the upper Mississippi and lower Great Lakes, who had traditionally traded furs and bison meat with the French, began to view the Tennessee route as a new outlet for yet another commodity. The Illinois Confederacy specialized in the Indian slave trade, capturing Siouan Indians from farther west and reselling them to the Algonkian tribes of the Great Lakes. As of 1701, however, there was a strict ban on the purchase and ownership of Indian slaves within French Canada. The English in Carolina, on the other hand, had no such compunction against slavery, be it Indian or otherwise. From 1675 to 1700, conservative reports estimated that the colony of Carolina purchased at least 51,000 Indian slaves, in most cases from local Indians like the Catawba and Chickasaw who had captured them from farther west and resold them to the colonists for trade goods. With the opening of the Tennessee route, Indian slave traders in the Illinois country saw the potential for a new market for their own Siouan slaves in Carolina.images

For French officials in Canada and Louisiana, the defection of coureurs de bois seemed bad enough, but the prospect of losing Indian allies to the English proved untenable. Understanding that in Native custom, trade and alliance were inseparable, the French worried that the inception of a robust slave trade between the Indians of the midcontinent and the English in Carolina “threatened not only a loss of revenues, but also a loss of military allies to a wartime enemy.” France could not afford to lose the support of Native nations in the Mississippi Valley, as this endangered their entire colonial project in North America, connecting Louisiana with Canada.


By 1708 things were bleak for French officials as the hemorrhaging of trade and travel up the Tennessee to Carolina continued. Reports from the French posts along the Illinois confirmed that French coureurs  “living among the Kaskaskia Illinois were inciting the savage nations in the environs of this settlement to make war upon one another, and that the  [coureurs] themselves were participating in order to get slaves, that they afterwards sold to the English.” With both coureurs and Indians looking east towards the English, Louisiana Governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville sent an emissary to Kaskaskia to distribute gifts to the local headmen and demand that trade with the Carolinas cease. In the meantime, other French officials petitioned back home for a temporary dispensation on the ban to sell furs in Louisiana, opening up a downriver route for coureurs of the Mississippi River Valley to reach French markets.


An Illinois Slaving Party, circa 1735

With these measures, the French colonial government began to curtail the allure of the Tennessee country, but the real victory came in 1709 when New France passed a slave ordinance condoning the purchase and ownership of Indian slaves within Canada for the first time. Reasoning that, “it would be better for the French to buy and sell Indian’s slaves in Montreal than to trade them with the English of Carolina,” Jacques Raudot, the Intendent of New France, opened up Canada as a market for the Illinois. With the option of this new French market, Miami and Illinois Indians were happy to divert most of their trade back north. Through the trading lanes of the Great Lakes, thousands of Pawnee, Osage, and Sioux Indian slaves were pouring into Canada by 1710, where one French resident rejoiced that “now we might use these native slaves for all manner of labor, on farms and in towns, as the other colonies do.” That French officials were willing to radically alter the social makeup of their colony with the introduction of Indian slaves in 1709 shows just how powerful these backcountry trade routes were for maintaining French hegemony throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

As the Illinois Confederacy reoriented themselves back north towards the Great Lakes, traffic along the Tennessee River began to wane. Coureurs de bois abandoned the route as quickly as they had adopted it, opting for the much easier paddle downstream to Louisiana. By 1718, the young settlement of New Orleans had sprung up near the terminus of the Mississippi, providing plenty of access to local and Atlantic markets for the fur traders of the Mississippi Valley. By reacting to this unexpected river route with radical policy changes, French officials successfully consolidated their own control in the Illinois and Mississippi regions and shut down a potentially lucrative lane between the midcontinent and the eastern seaboard. French, British, and Indians all saw such geographical linchpins as the crucial points for trade and hegemony on the continent, and similar routes remained the flashpoints of competition for control into the eighteenth century. In many ways, the Tennessee-Savannah route, and France’s reaction to it, foreshadowed the contests over sites like Niagara and the forks of the Ohio later in the century. While these more famous sites loom large in American histories of the frontier, we tend to ignore the myriad other routes that could, and at times did, affect imperial policies and connect a continent long before “American” westward expansion proved the norm.



Crane, Verner. “The Tennessee River as the Road to Carolina: The Beginnings of Exploration and Trade,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 3 (1916), 3-18.

Crane, Verner. The Southern Frontier: 1670-1732, Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1929.

DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.

Margry, Pierre. Memoires et Documents Pour Servir a l’histoire des Origines Francaises des pays d’outre-mer (Paris, 1879).

Morrissey, Robert Michael. Empire by Collaboration Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Rushforth, Brett. “A Little Flesh We Offer You’: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France,” William and Mary Quarterly, 60, no. 4 (Oct. 2003), 777-808.

Rushforth, Brett. Bonds of Alliance Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Snyder, Christina. Slavery in Indian Country : The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.





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