A visit to James White Fort in Knoxville, Tennessee will leave you feeling oh so grateful to be living in the 21st century. Life on the frontier was crowded, uncomfortable, and difficult.
I went to see the Fort on a sleepy summer afternoon, when most sensible folks were inside enjoying the air conditioning. I had the place all to myself, but the guide in attendance was happy to show me around. He introduced himself as a descendant of James White, and sat me down in a shady spot between buildings to tell me all about the fort and its inhabitants. It was a fascinating account of how the fort came to be, and how the people lived in this outpost on the frontier.
It's tough being the first, but that's what James White did. He came here from North Carolina to claim the 1,000 acres that he received as payment for his service in the Revolutionary War. He built a two story log house in 1786 to house his family, and it soon became a refuge for travelers and a temporary residence for new settlers. The place was always crowded, and nobody slept alone. Usually people were packed 3 or 4 to a bed, alternating heads and feet like packed sardines.
Things got to be a bit ridiculous, with 35 to 40 people sheltering in the house at any given time. So White began constructing new buildings and enclosed the whole business in a palisade fence, mostly to keep wild animals out and domestic animals in. James White enjoyed good relations with the Cherokee, who respected him as a man of integrity.
When you visit James White Fort, you'll find the original house and kitchen, but the rest of the buildings and the palisade are restorations. There's a smoke house, museum, guest house, black smith, and gift shop. The central courtyard is a pleasant grassy area, but in James White's day it would have been a muddy mess from the domestic animals kept there -- horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and the like.
James White Fort is located at 205 East Hill Avenue, right across the street from the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. There's ample free parking. This isn't the original location, which was near what is now the corner of Clinch Avenue and State Street. But time marches on, and we're lucky to have these buildings preserved at all.
For details on visiting the fort and information on special events, visit the James White Fort web site