The Origins of the State Historic Markers and Historic Sites Programs

By Bobby Cooley

In 1919 the Tennessee General Assembly established the Tennessee Historical Commission, then called the Tennessee Historical Committee, with Senate Joint Resolution No. 53. The State Archivist and Historian, John Trotwood Moore, was appointed its chairman. Under its original legislative power, the Commission was to “collect, compile, index and arrange all data and information of every kind and character relating to the part that Tennessee has ever played, not only in the great world war which is now closed, but in all the wars in which citizens or soldiers of Tennessee were engaged, and also all data of every sort and kind which illustrates the life, history, development, resources progress, personalities, authors, orators, inventors, and statesmen of the state, and all such data information on these subjects shall be turned over to the state librarian for safe-keeping for the future history of the state.” In 1921, the General Assembly expanded the Commission’s role in preserving Tennessee history and added an amendment that gave the Commission permission to “properly mark and preserve battlefields, houses, and other places celebrated in the history of the state.” This amendment was the foundation for two of the Tennessee Historical Commission’s most successful and longest lasting programs, the State Historic Markers Program and State Historic Sites Program.

The initial collection of historic markers funded through the Tennessee Historical Commission were announced in July 1921. They included Bledsoe’s Fort, the Samuel Polk Home, Key Corner in Memphis, Blount’s Mansion, and the Crest of Breckenridge’s Charge. Based on a few surviving markers discovered stored in a West Tennessee barn over a decade ago, they were painted on wooden panels. The first generation of markers and their text is not recorded in the Commission’s current marker program, but many were rewritten and are represented on modern markers. These markers are significant because they indicate an earlier instance of the marker program that was previously forgotten after the Tennessee Historical Commission went dormant prior to reorganization in 1940. They also offer a glimpse into what people, places, and stories were important to Tennesseans before the Second World War. The process for erecting the original historic markers was also different. There were three sub-committees, one for each Grand Division of Tennessee, who recommended sites for historic markers. Interestingly, these original sub-committees were only entitled to erect three markers in each division. This contrasts significantly from today’s process, as any citizen can write an application for a historic marker to present to the Commission’s board for approval. Additionally, the Tennessee Historical Commission agreed to provided county markers for a brief time. Each county was limited to 10 per year and the markers were made with a cheaper material. than bronze, which was standard for the state markers

The historic sites program did not materialize as quickly as the marker program. The first steps towards a historic sites program occurred in 1920, when Governor Albert H. Roberts sent Chairman Moore and State Geologist Wilbur A. Nelson to represent Tennessee at the first National Conference for Parks. The conference’s goal included developing ideas on how state lands could be preserved as parks, so it’s no coincidence that after Moore returned from the conference the amendment of 1921 mentioned above included preserving battlefields, houses, and other places. Moore’s first attempt towards preserving a state-owned historic site happened in 1923, when he urged the General Assembly to repair the Meriwether Lewis Monument, a state funded memorial constructed in 1848. It’s difficult to say this repair was the first example of Moore creating a state historic site, but it is the first documented example of the Tennessee Historical Commission preserving a state-owned memorial or monument. In 1925 Moore additionally requested that the state purchase 150 acres around the Meriwether Lewis Monument and the James K. Polk Home to establish them as state parks. This request coincided with a failed attempt by Nelson to establish a system of state parks in Tennessee. If their joint plan succeeded, those sites would have been the first state parks in Tennessee. For his part, Nelson was instrumental in the early state park movement alongside Moore, but Nelson favored natural and recreational areas given his role as State Geologist. Nelson’s dream of a system of state parks for Tennessee came true in 1937 and 16 parks were all built around natural, scenic, and recreational areas by 1940. Notably, no historic sites were included.

After Moore’s state park proposal failed in 1925, President Coolidge designated the Meriwether Lewis Monument a National Monument in 19256. By 1928 it was designated a National Park under the authority of Shiloh National Military Park. Meanwhile, the State of Tennessee purchased the James K. Polk Home in 1928. In 1929 The Tennessee Historical Commission gained jurisdiction over the site, alongside the James K. Polk Ladies Association. This is the first example of a state historic site (as they are recognized in the modern era) and the James K. Polk Home is still a part of the State Historic Sites Program today. This also means that the State Historic Sites Program predates Tennessee State Parks by a decade and is one of the earliest examples of a state funded public lands project. Unfortunately for Moore, he did not see the program grow grow or the establishment of any state parks, as he passed in May, 1929. After his death the Tennessee Historical Commission was went  dormant for a decade, until Governor Prentice Cooper convened a meeting reinstating it in his office on April 18, 1940. The revitalized Commission established Marble Springs State Historic Site and Sparta Rock House State Historic Site in 1941, creating the modern state historic sites program. The State Historic Markers Program—today consisting of some two thousand signs with its familiar Tri-Star logo—followed suit in 1948, re-establishing two of the most significant programs operating today.

John Trotwood Moore’s role in the original incarnations of two of its most prominent programs of the Tennessee Historical Commission is admirable, but the historian is not without controversy. Moore filibustered Congress in opposition to the Dyer Anti-lynching Bill in 1922, and many of his writings are recognized today as ‘local color’, a literary style that encourages romanticism and the removal of race and class issues from the historical narrative. Recent decades have seen progress., and in 1985 the state established the first State Historic Site exclusively dedicated to preserving Black History, the Alex Haley Boyhood Home in Henning. Similarly, for years the State Historic Markers program concentrated on subjects typically associated with the contributions of those who were white, male, and affluent. Prior to the 1990s, the commission only approved and placed twelve historical markers related to the heritage of African Americans in Tennessee. Following an appropriation in the 1990s from the Tennessee General Assembly to fund markers highlighting Black History, by 1999 a sufficient number of signs had been were placed by the THC for it to publish a guidebook on African American markers titled A Journey to Our Past: African American Markers in Tennessee, edited by Mrs. Linda T. Wynn.  The process continues today, as the Tennessee Historical Commission is dedicated to accurate interpretation on markers and at its state historic sites run by its non-profit partner organizations. Interpretations of underrepresented people and places highlighted through markers are on the rise, expanding the types of stories preserved within the historic marker program. Similarly, the State Historic Sites Program encourages accurate historical narratives at its sites and incorporates a comprehensive and truthful interpretation of the individuals and groups who lived, were enslaved, or in other ways affected by the places or people that the sites preserve. The Tennessee Historical Commission recognizes that there is much to accomplish and continues to work towards these objectives. Through recognizing our complicated and controversial past, we can create a better collective future for ourselves and for our communities.