If all you want is to know the six flags and when, it’s okay to skip to the end. Otherwise, enjoy the background and context.
Next to the temporary Viking camps at the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era, the earliest attempt to establish a permanent colony in North America was that of Spain at San Miguel de Gualdape, probably on Georgia’s Sapelo Island.
The Norse, by the way, continued trans-Atlantic voyages and trade with native Americans until around 1400.
The first Europeans to enter what is now Tennessee were the Spanish of Hernando de Soto’s expedition into the interior of what the Spanish called La Florida, which then included everything south of the Ohio River, from 1539-1542. Their path took them thru native towns in Tennessee that included Chiaha, Coste, Chalahume, Satapo, Tali, Tasqui, and Chisca.
Twenty years after de Soto’s expedition, 1559, another under Miguel de Luna y Arellano established the the Puerto de San Maria at site of Naval Air Station Pensacola, and two months later moved up the Alabama River to the native town of Nanipacana, where he founded the settlement of Santa Cruz. One of de Luna’s chief assignments is to cut a road from Pensacola Bay to Port Royal Sound off the coast of South Carolina, to come out in the vicinity of Parris Island.
Santa Cruz lasted for nearly a year, during which de Luna journeyed to the dominant chiefdom of Coosa (at Coosawattee in Georgia) to obtain supplies. The mico there (paramount chief) invited the Spanish to accompany his warriors in a raid to bring to heels the rebellious Napochi. Needing Coosa’s goodwill, de Luna complied.
The Coosa warriors and Spanish troops journeyed northwest to reach the town of those they called “Napochi”, which was deserted by the time the army reached it. Enraged by the Coosa scalps adorning the pole in the center of the town square, the Coosa went beserk and burned the entire town down to the ground. There is little doubt that this town stood at the site Robert Sparks Walker mistakenly called Little Owl’s Village at Chattanooga Audobon Acres, and which a later chronicler called “Olitifar”, which is very likely a corruption of the Muscogee name Opelika.
After the town was engulfed in flames, the combined army pursued its fleeing populace west and north, encountering what had once been a huge town and was then reduced in population to village size at the Citico site at the Tennessee River east of the Citico Creek. The village’s people joined those of Opelika to flee across the Tennessee River on foot just above the head of Maclellan Island. On the north shore, these were joined by warriors from the large town at the Moccasin Point archaeological site called Hampton Place, which may have been Taskigi (Tasquiqui or Tuskegee).
The two antagonistic parties reached a truce in which the “Napochi” agreed to resume tribute to Coosa in return for an end to hostilities.
In 1562, three years later, France beat the Spanish to the punch at Port Royal by establishing Charlesfort at the foot of Parris Island, South Carolina, and Fort Carolina near Jacksonville, Florida, naming the colony planned for these two forts to serve “Carolina” after their king, Charles IX.
To which Spain took offence and destroyed both French settlements finally founding the La Florida capital of Santa Elena on Parris Island next to Fort San Salvador (later San Felipe). At the same time, they also established the later capital San Agustin somewhat south of the former Ft. Carolina, which they renamed Ft. San Mateo. They kept the name “Carolina” for the immediate region in honor of their own king, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.
During an expedition into the interior of La Florida from Santa Elena in 1567, La Florida governor Juan Pardo established four forts at several interior towns, those of the major regional powers. These forts included the first European permanent settlement in the Tennessee country, Fort San Pablo, at what the Spanish called Cauchi and the Muscogee called Conasauga in Southeast Tennessee.
Pardo’s expedition also visited and/or stayed at Olamico (chief town of Chiaha), Coste, Satapo, Chalahume, Tasqui, Tasquiqui, and “Olitifar” (Opelika), all in Tennessee.
When Pardo travelled to San Agustin later that year, his adjutant Hernando Moyano raided into the interior, burning the Chisca (Yuchi) town of Maniateque at Saltville, VA, and the town of Guapere on the upper Watauga River. Afterwards, he established Fort San Pedro at the afore-mentioned chief town of Chiaha, which lay on what is now Zimmerman’s Island at the mouth of the Little Tennessee River.
Eighteen months later, the natives burned all the interior structures of the Spanish and killed all the members of the garrisons, save for one soldier and any of those who had already left and “gone native”.
In 1570, Spain established the mission of Santa Maria in Ajacan (their name for what later became Virginia) on the coast of Virginia, but it was destroyed a year later.
The Spanish finally abandoned Santa Elena and Fort San Marcos (which had replaced San Felipe) for good in 1587, but established their first mission in what later became Georgia the same year, San Pedro, at the Timucuan-speaking town of Mocama. In 1602, the Spanish established the mission Santa Catalina on St. Catherine’s Island off the northern coast of Georgia in the territory of the Guale, which became headquarters for their mission efforts in the region.
I want to reiterate that no human has ever lived on or in Moccasin Bend, since that would require either gills or the extraordinary ability to tread water for an entire lifetime. The land upon which the town at Hampton Place (and the other aboriginal sites) stood is Moccasin Point; the Bend is the path of the Tennessee River itself.
That said, more 16th century Spanish artifacts have been recovered from the Hampton Place site on Moccasin Point than from the entire rest of the eastern United States combined, and that’s including the still extant city of Saint Augustine.
The London Company reestablished the Colony of Virginia, which had collapsed after the failure of its first settlement on Roanoke Island, at Jamestown in 1607.
In 1663, a group of Lords Proprietor in England with a charter from Charles II established the Province of Carolina, named for the king’s father and predecessor, Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This colony was the grand-mother of Tennessee.
The French re-entered the region in 1682 with the establishment of Fort Prudhome at the later site of Randolph, Alabama, and Fort Assumption on the Chickasaw Bluffs on the Mississippi River, now known as Memphis, Tennessee.
A little known episode in the European colonization of the Southeast was the founding of a Scottish colony in 1684 (23 years before the Union), between the outskirts of Charles Town and the edge of Spanish territory. Its center was Stuarts Town at Port Royal, former site of the French and Spanish colonies. So the St. Andrew’s Cross flew on the soil of the territorial United States too (in addition to Nova Scotia in Canada and Darien in Central America), if only for a short time.
Two years later Stuarts Town was destroyed by the Spanish and their Indian allies, though the 150 survivors of an epidemic escaped ahead of time after being warned by their Yamassee allies.
The northern part of the (English) Province of Carolina divided off as Albemarle in 1691 and was renamed North Carolina in 1712, when Carolina became South Carolina. North Carolina was the main mother colony of what became Tennessee, along with Virginia, which got out of the game early on.
In 1698, Col. Daniel Coxe of England launched one of several known episodes of abortive colonization attempts (Charlotiana in 1764, Vandalia in 1768, Transylvania in 1775) after being granted a patent for a colony called Carolana between the 31st and 36th parallels from the west border of the Carolinas to New Spain. He sent expeditions from England to Charles Town and to the mouth of the Mississippi River to secure his claims. Had his colonization been successful, it would have included the area of the modern cities of Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, and Knoxville but fallen just short of Nashville, down to the border of the later West Florida.
Coxe, however, was beaten to the areas by the French and the Spanish. The Spanish established the city of Pensacola in 1698 with the building of the Presidio Santa Maria Galve, which contained Fort San Carlos de Austria and an attached village. The next year, 1699, the French established La Louisiane in the Mississippi Valley with Fort Maurepas at the present Ocean Springs (aka Old Biloxi).
In 1702, the Spanish missions in the provinces of Guale and Mocama (in what’s now coastal Georgia) collapsed under pressure from English privateers from the colonies of Virginia and Carolina and attacks by their Westo (Yuchi) allies, the survivors fleeing to the safety of San Agustin.
The parliaments of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland were united in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.
In 1714, the French established Fort Charleville at the Great Salt Lick on what was then known as the Wasioto (later Cumberland) River along with Fort Toulouse near the later site of Montgomery, Alabama. Several decades later, the Great Salt Lick became home to Fort Nashborough, now called Nashville.
The French began building New Orleans as the capital of La Louisiane in 1714.
James Oglethorpe established Georgia as a slave-free colony of former indentured servants and penal prisoners in 1733, but worried about the Spanish in Florida, the French in Louisiana (who by now had spread eastward into much of Alabama). So, he invited a group of Scottish Highlanders to settle Darien District, the seat of which was the town of New Inverness. This colony, which supported the Highland Independent Company of Foot and the Highland Rangers, proved longer-lasting than the previous Scottish colony at Stuarts Town. New Inverness was later renamed Darien and became the seat of McIntosh County.
The French and Indian War of 1754-1763, in large part the American extension of the Continental Seven Years’ War, caused large amounts of territory to change hands towards its end. In the meantime, however, the French set up a forward base on Long Island-in-the-Tennessee, below the series of river hazards in the river gorge. They may have also established an outpost on the west bank of the Chickamauga Creek where the Great Indian Warpath crossed it, later the site of Brainerd Mission. Their Muscogee allies re-established themselves at the former site of Coosa in support of the pro-French elements among the Cherokee at Tellico and Chatuga.
In 1762, France secretly ceded New Orleans and Louisiana west of the Mississippi to Spain in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. At the conclusion of the war, France ceded New France (Canada), Grenada, and Louisiana east of the Mississippi to Great Britain while Spain cedes its territory east of the Mississippi, including Florida and New Orleans, to Great Britain in return for recognition of its claims to western Louisiana. It was after this that he British divided Florida into East and West, with capitals at St. Augustine and Pensacola respectively.
In 1768, a Virginian named Evan Shelby purchased the land where he established Sapling Grove (now Bristol, Tennessee) from my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather land speculator John Buchanan, becoming the first British colonist in the later Tennessee. In 1771, Jacob Brown of North Carolina and John Carter of Virginia founded colonies along the Nolichucky River and in Carter’s Valley respectively, and John Sevier led a group of Regulators into the Watauga Valley.
The American Revolution against the Kingdom of Great Britain began in 1775 and the United Colonies declared independence within a year, but the new country’s first flag, the Grand Union Flag or Continental Colors, was not adopted until 1777.
At the conclusion of the war, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States of America and ceded the two Floridas (East and West) back to Spain. All other territory south of Canada and east of the Mississippi River then belonged to the new government, with the exception of the Republic of Vermont.
In 1785, Washington County seceded from North Carolina as the State of Franklin but never adopted a flag.
The Kingdom of Spain returned to the Tennessee country in 1795 when the government of New Spain (Mexico) erected Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis). However, they abandoned the fort two years later.
In 1796, Tennessee became the 16th state to join the Union.
In 1861, Tennessee seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. It was the last state to do so and also the first to return, in 1866. There were three national flags of the C.S.A. but they only count as one.
Although a state flag was proposed in 1861 (the Stars and Bars with the state seal in the upper right quadrant), it was never officially adopted. The first official state flag was flown 1897-1905, and the current flag adopted in 1905.
So, now let’s count the flags of Tennessee:
1. The Kingdom of Spain’s flag flew over forts San Pablo and San Pedro, both within the current borders of East Tennessee, 1567-1569, and again at Fort Barrancas at Chickasaw Bluffs (Memphis), 1795-1797.
2. The Kingdom of France’s flag was planted in Tennessee when Fort Assumption was erected on the Chickasaw Bluffs in 1682, and later at Fort Charleville at the Great Salt Lick (Nashville) on the Cumberland River in 1714.
3. The Kingdom of Great Britain’s flag came to Tennessee with the establishment of Sapling Grove (Bristol) in 1768.
4. The United States of America flag began flying over Tennessee in 1777.
5. The Confederate States of America flag flew over Tennessee 1861-1865.
6. An official state flag has flown over Tennessee since 1897.
Had the State of Franklin adopted a flag, there would be seven, but since that was not the case, there have only been six. Besides, since the territories in East and Middle Tennessee were never completely independent since the “free republic” operated under a dual system of government (quasi-independent and as part of North Carolina), it doesn’t really count as a separate government.