Moccasin Bend: At the Crossroads of Slavery and Freedom

A lush, horseshoes shaped peninsula surrounded by the Tennessee River near Chattanooga.
Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, as it appears from Point Park on Lookout Mountain

NPS Photo

In early December, 1818, John Owens of Norfolk County, Virginia, traveled across Moccasin Bend in present-day Chattanooga along what is now known as the Brown's Ferry Federal Road Trace. As his party began to cross at Brown's Ferry, one of the women he enslaved, named Nelly, escaped and found, at least for a brief moment, freedom in the quiet woods of Moccasin Bend. Her story is a glimpse into the complicated lives of enslaved people living and traversing across Moccasin Bend.

The first enslaved people on Moccasin Bend were likely owned by the Cherokee. A number of prominent Cherokee leaders were slaveowners, and it is likely that at least a few enslaved people crossed Moccasin Bend at Brown's Ferry. In 1819, the Cherokee and the United States agreed to a treaty that ceded the land north of the Tennessee River, including Moccasin Bend. As part of this, Hamilton County was established, and white landowners began to acquire property along Moccasin Bend. A number of them were slaveholders, including James Smith, who enslaved more than a dozen people on his farm along the northern neck of Moccasin Bend between the present-day Moccasin Bend National Archeological District and Baylor School.
Black and white photograph of an elderly African American man with white hair and wearing a suit.
Jacob Cummings escaped from slavery on Moccasin Bend in July 1839, and became an agent on the Underground Railroad

Ohio History Connection/Wilbur H. Siebert Collection/MSS 116 AV; Box 78, Folder 5

One of the people James Smith enslaved was Jacob Cummings. Cummings primarily worked at Smith's lower farm on Moccasin Bend, and his work occasionally took him into Chattanooga. While there, he met a man named Leonard, who was an abolitionist from Albany, New York. Leonard encouraged Cummings to escape, and taught him how to find his way north. On July 29, 1839, Jacob Cummings took an old Indian canoe and pushed off from the shores of Moccasin Bend near Brown's Ferry and crossed to Williams Island in the Tennessee River. A few days later he crossed back to the north side of river and made his way north.. He eventually made it to Canada, where he became an active agent on the Underground Railroad - the same network that he had navigated out of slavery on Moccasin Bend. For Jacob Cummings, pushing off from the shores of Moccasin Bend was his first act of freedom.

Not all enslaved people on Moccasin Bend in the late 1830s had freedom in their immediate future. In October 1838, just a few months before Cummings escaped, the United States government forced the Cherokee to leave east Tennessee and northwest Georgia on what became known as the Trail of Tears. A number of Cherokee slaveholders took their slaves with them to the western territories. These enslaved people were some of the last to be freed at the end of the Civil War, with emancipation not enforced in the Cherokee Nation until 1866.
A group of enslaved people chained together and escorted by white men on horseback
Slave coffles like this one crossed the Brown's Ferry Federal Road in the 1840s on their way to the cotton plantations of the Deep South

Library of Congress

Throughout the 1840s, slavery thrived on Moccasin Bend. The Brown's Ferry Federal Road Trace was one of the major thoroughfares for the movement of people and goods in the region. In the years before the Civil War, slave owners sold a large number of slaves to the new cotton states of the Deep South. Often forced to walk chained together in what were known as coffles, enslaved people crisscrossed the road networks between the Upper South and Deep South, including the Brown's Ferry Federal Road Trace. Slave trade activities on Moccasin Bend subsided after 1850 when the rail lines replaced the slave coffle as the primary means to transport people against their will to the cotton plantations of states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 1858, a printer in Cincinnati published Chattanooga, a novel set, in part, on a fictional slaveholder's plantation on Moccasin Bend.

Today, Moccasin Bend National Archeological District is an important component of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Visitors from around the community, and from around the nation, can find solitude in this quiet forrested peninsula just minutes from the bustle of downtown Chattanooga. But for generations, this place sat at a crossroads of suffering and hope, and of freedom and slavery, for both the Cherokee and enslaved people who crossed this peninsula against their will.