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Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / The view of Moccasin Bend from Point Park on Lookout Mountain in September 2021.

News that the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute may move to an easily accessible and therapeutically supportive location in the Chattanooga area has sparked interest in an expanded national park at Chattanooga's doorstep.

Moccasin Bend has a rich history. With its location at the base of Lookout Mountain, the peninsula has lain at a strategic crossroads for more than 10,000 years of human history. Its rich bottomland along the Tennessee River first attracted nomadic hunters and later permanent settlements including ceremonial centers of the Woodland and agricultural-based Mississippian cultures. When Spanish explorers came through the South, the site on the Bend now known as Hampton Place was one of the region's principal population and political centers. Sometime in the second half of the 16th century, the Hampton village was decimated by fire and sealed beneath fire-hardened clay-thatched roofs, much as Pompei was encased.

Native Americans in the Southeast had never before had contact with Europeans and their Old World diseases until DeSoto and other explorers came through and brought trading opportunities as well as sickness and economic upheaval. Mississippian peoples became refugees and fled down river. Muscogee (Creek) tribes followed and settled in the rich bottomland but by the time of the American Revolution were displaced by Cherokees migrating into the region. Under duress from the emerging colonial economy, those tribes of Iroquois origin had shifted from a village-based culture to farm-steading, which allowed for individual ownership of one square mile (640 acres). One such parcel on Moccasin Bend was owned by a Cherokee man named John Brown, who operated at a site still known today as Brown's Ferry.

After tribes in the 1819 treaty ceded land north of the Tennessee River, white settlers began to acquire property, including tracts on Moccasin Bend. As with other landowners in the area, James Smith owned several slaves who labored on his farm along the northern neck of the Bend, toward today's Baylor School. One such enslaved man, Jacob Cummings, liberated himself from bondage in July of 1839 by pushing off from the shore of the Bend near Brown's Ferry in an old Indian canoe. He crossed to Williams Island, made his way to Canada, and became an active agent on the Underground Railroad.

Native Americans were forcibly removed from the area in the late 1830s and deported to reservations to the west. Local Cherokee families were corralled in stockades at Ross's Landing. Some were shipped down the Tennessee River around the Bend, while others crossed the Moccasin Bend peninsula on foot to Brown's Ferry on what is now part of the Trail of Tears National Historical Trail.

During the Civil War, Moccasin Bend became the weak point in the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. Union artillery pieces on Stringer's Ridge at the toe of the Bend bombarded the defense routes over the shoulder of Lookout Mountain, thus allowing United States soldiers to pour up Lookout Valley and open up the "Cracker Line." Federal supplies were able to cross the Bend at Brown's Ferry, move directly into Chattanooga and break the Confederate siege.

Chattanoogans began to debate the future of Moccasin Bend almost a century ago. The first recorded effort to preserve the Bend came in 1920, when Adolph Ochs, publisher of the Chattanooga Times and The New York Times, offered to put up half the cost to develop the land as a park — if local interests provided the other half. The matching money never came. Ochs went on to purchase the Civil War battlefields on the eastern and western slopes of Lookout Mountain and donate them to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

In 1926, Charles Howard, manager of the Industrial Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce, stated the Bend must be used for industry instead of a "nice, lady-like park." Citizens quickly rallied to protect Moccasin Bend. Mrs. J.W. (Nell Evans) Johnson, chairman of the parks and playgrounds committee of the planning board, called a meeting of all both for and against a park.

Speaking for the park, she stated that, "My view is that the proposed improvement is the most outstanding project, and if the city and county can purchase the property, it would be a great feather in the cap of the mayor and county judge." County Judge Will Cummings warmly endorsed preservation, but the city and the county failed to provide the funds to buy the land, then valued at $450,000.

Frank "Mickey" Robbins coordinates the Local History column. Visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org for more information.

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