Having crossed more than 120 miles and with a stopping point near Dayton, Tenn., in his sights, Dr. Andreas Fath is making incredibly swift progress in TenneSwim, his epic project to swim and analyze the entire Tennessee River. In addition to the project’s world record potential and its unprecedented scientific ambitions, TenneSwim is both historic and historical, thanks to the millennia of significance the Tennessee River has held to indigenous occupants of the Southeast.

“Cherokee,” a sculpture by Maine-based Jud Hartmann, is erected near the Tennessee Aquarium. It overlooks the Tennessee River, which was of tremendous importance to the Cherokee people who inhabited the Chattanooga area long before the arrival of European settlers. (Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium)

Europeans first encountered the Tennessee River with the arrival of Hernando De Soto’s expedition in the mid-16th century, but its snake-like twisting and winding cut through the heart of a region that already had been occupied by American Indians for thousands of years. Near Dayton and southward toward Chattanooga, the Tennessee River flows through the homeland of the Cherokee, a people whose ties to the region are as deep as the roots of the mountains and as emotionally checkered as a patchwork quilt.

The links between the Cherokee and the state of Tennessee (and its namesake river) are as numerous as they are significant. The state derives its name from Tanasi, a Cherokee town which served as the capital of the Cherokee Nation in the mid-1700s. Tanasi was submerged in 1979 with the creation of the Tellico Dam. Dr. Fath’s route carried him about 17 miles north of this historic site when he passed by Lenoir City, where the Little Tennessee River branches off from the Tennessee River.

A barge pushes up the Tennessee River past Ross’s Landing. Now a city park on the river’s bank, Ross’s Landing is a living legacy to Chief John Ross, the leader of the Cherokee people who founded a trading post that was renamed Chattanooga in 1838. (Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium)

So fast are the ties between Tennessee and the Cherokee people that the Tennessee River was once popularly referred to as the “Cherokee River.” It was on the banks of the river in 1816 that Chief John Ross — the leader of the Cherokee nation at the time — established Ross’s Landing, a trading post that would be renamed Chattanooga in 1838. The same year the city was renamed, the site of Ross’s Landing served as an embarkation point for the Cherokee as they began their journey westward during the historic forced removal known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokee died on the Trail before reaching their destination in Oklahoma, an event that left an indelible mark on their cultural history.

When Fath arrives in Chattanooga tomorrow, he will discuss the TenneSwim project at the Tennessee Aquarium, which rises from the banks of the river at Ross’s Landing, now a city park and a 1974 addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Passage, an outdoor sculptural and historical monument, serves as a memorial to the Cherokee people and the thousands who died during their forced westward relocation to Oklahoma in the 1830s, an event known as the Trail of Tears. (Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium)

Flowing alongside the Aquarium down to the river, an outdoor sculptural, artistic and architectural monument called The Passage serves as a contemporary memorial to the Cherokee people’s historic impact on Chattanooga and to the mournful legacy of the Trail of Tears.

A timeline of Chattanooga regional history, from its years as a hub of Cherokee culture to its modern-day revitalization as a true “Dynamo of Dixie” is depicted in a series of 53 stone medallions embedded in the exterior of the Aquarium’s River Journey building. Many of the earliest medallions reflect the period before the arrival of Europeans.

Three of the 53 medallions affixed to the exterior of the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Journey building depicting various periods of life in the Chattanooga region. These medallions reflect the period of Cherokee occupation before the arrival of European settlers. (Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium)

So as Dr. Fath progresses with TenneSwim, he is quite literally immersing himself not only in the river, but in the history with which it intrinsically is associated. That adds an additional layer of interest to this project. (As if it needed one.)

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