Flooding of Hallowed Ground The TVA Displacement and Relocation of Appalachians in the 1930s

In 1935, East Tennessee mountain man William Henry Hawkins grabbed his shotgun and marched with purpose out of his humble, box-frame home, where he lived with his wife and young daughter. He then drove to Norris Dam as a one man show of force to stop the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from taking his land. The situation was quickly deescalated. A few nights later, Hawkins peered out of his window and saw TVA removal workers walking around on his property, an act he regarded as an attack. It was out and out war. Hawkins encircled his home with brush and lit it on fire as a wall of defense against the removal men. The flames spread fiercely out of control and the fire burned down his house. Everyone inside escaped alive and unharmed. Hawkins eventually relented and agreed to move, so relocation arrangements were made near Jacksboro, Tennessee. Yet a few days after the move, Hawkins was pronounced insane and, with his brother’s signature, was committed to the East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane.1)Hawkins’ diagnosis of insanity was not uncommon for many people during relocation. People were either driven insane from what they deemed government overreach or were declared so by family members – sometimes legitimately, oftentimes for more nefarious reasons, like money grabbing. Hawkins is listed in the 1940 census as living with his wife and daughter in Jacksboro, Tennessee. So, it seems he was released from the facility fairly soon.

Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 was a grand scale government plan designed to provide much needed flood control to the Tennessee Valley area. The Tennessee River Valley includes states Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. The region flooded unpredictably and caused a greater blow to people and their homes, land, and businesses amidst the Great Depression. The Act also provided a solution for Wilson Dam and a nitrate system in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. During World War I, the federal government bought the plant to manufacture materials required for badly needed explosives. Once the war ended, the plant closed and remained dormant as congress debated over a decade about what to do with it. President Roosevelt, along with congressmen like Senator George Norris, dealt with these problems by forming a federal system of dams that would solve navigation issues along the Tennessee River as well. The TVA’s design would open clear waterways, transport fertilizer in cooperation with Alabama’s Muscle Shoals dam, and improve farming and land management. The act also sought to produce wide scale electricity and power distribution, attract industry and manufacturing, bring jobs to the region, and increase tourist attractions in state parks and wild life reserves.

With such possibilities, it would seem that citizens in the Tennessee River Valley shared a mutual excitement for the opportunities generated by the TVA. Some people did take advantage of these new prospects while others, like Hawkins, defiantly rejected the measure. To accomplish such a prodigious feat, the TVA had authorization, via eminent domain,2)Eminent domain is a policy where the government can condemn private land for the good of citizenry as a whole. to flood tens of thousands of acres of land, and displace over 3,000 families from the Tennessee Reservoir area. By 1946, the TVA went on to purchase “over 1,129,000 acres” and “had removed 13,449 families from sixteen reservoir areas.”3)Davidson, Donald. The Tennessee Volume Two. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company, 1992. The total numbers of “persons” removed is unknown. Some families rejected removal because they did not want to give up land that had been in families since the early to late 1700s. Therefore, actions taken by people like Hawkins were not uncommon. Those who resisted seemed willing to do just about anything to protect and keep their land from condemnation and flooding. In order to better understand why the people of the Tennessee Reservoir area had, and still have, grievances with the TVA, we must turn the focus to the makeup of the people living there, their history of government suspicion, and how the TVA treated them during and since the relocation.

Floodwaters rushed across William Henry Hawkins’s property on March 4, 1936. Hawkins knew once the waters escaped from Norris Dam, he would never see his homeland again. Good things seem to always come with sacrifice, and the TVA did offer good things. Yet, those who made the hard decisions to allow their land to succumb to the floods have never truly received any acknowledgement for their sacrifices. Instead, they seem almost like an echo, like a haunting, forgotten people whose legacy became merely pictures or interviews about the land they loved so much.

The first settlers of Appalachia came mostly from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and Africa. European immigrants settled the area beginning in the 1700s, while Africans were forced to the area via the slave trade. They came with their own experiences of poverty, political violence, land ownership denial, religious persecution, and bondage. Settlers longed for a chance to farm and live off the land. As independent pioneers and formerly indentured servants, they took the opportunity to develop their ideal way of agrarian life in the backwoods of Appalachia. After Reconstruction, freed African slaves also developed an agrarian lifestyle. Scotch-Irish and German settlers established homes on fertile lands along the deep gap valleys, or hollows, within the mountains.

After the American Revolution, heroic veterans were offered large expanses of Appalachian land as compensation. Ridges and valleys allowed settlers a large degree of autonomy, as familial clans developed but had little interaction with others outside kinship groups, except for instances of turmoil and unrest. These farming people depended largely on the land and its resources to support their self-sufficiency. Despite obstacles from government and industry, descendants largely managed to maintain the agrarian lifestyle. Indeed, “By the 1930s, the region had become the home of the rugged Appalachian farmer of pioneer stock who produced little beyond the immediate needs of the family.”4)Schaffer, Daniel. “Environment and TVA: Toward a Regional Plan for the Tennessee Valley, 1930s.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 333-354.

Appalachians have a historically bad relationship with government. Contentious sentiment goes all the way back to the settlers’ countries of origin, with England’s subjugation and land grabs, Germany’s harshly enacted serfdom and persecution, and Africa’s enslavement and exploitation. Appalachians’ experience with industry was also antagonistic. For one reason, its land destruction interfered with their agrarian lifestyle. The Appalachian timber boom, for example, annihilated large swaths of trees, the dearth of which caused intense erosion and worsened flooding. For another reason, industry often used dishonest, underhanded tactics against mountain people. For example: At the end of the 19th century, “outside speculators, land developers, and industrialists” found various ways to cheat Appalachians out of their land. “Broad form deeds” supposedly gave only mineral rights to buyers, and landowners were guaranteed the acreage above the surface. In reality, minerals were connected to the land, so, landowners essentially gave up their land rights without realizing it. Mountain people lost “millions of acres of land” due to these tactics.5)Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. And, if anybody knows mountain folks, they don’t let things slide. They told tales of these experiences to subsequent generations through oral history. Up to the 1930s, Appalachians had been involved in their own fights with the U.S. government, from the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, to the coal wars of the 1920s. Appalachian people viewed the TVA with arguably greater suspicion because it was a government institution ran by a private corporation, a combination which, given the long, combative history, they vehemently opposed.

Mountain people had (and still have) deep connections with their ancestors through the land passed down to them. This connection and their agrarian, self-sufficient life meant their roots and livelihoods were fixed in that valley. Their strong relationship with the earth gave them a profound sense of place. When they gave up their land, they gave up everything they had ever known. All the landmarks that define community were gone. The TVA extracted millions of acres of trees and scorched the land to prepare for the reservoir flooding. This process left a shocking display of loss of place as the land sat bare and smoldering. No more Sunday hymns echoed through the holler churches. Children’s laughter no longer resounded there, and no ABCs or mathematical recitations would be heard there again. The loss of post offices disrupted connections with friends and family. Popular merchants and stores closed their doors to familiar customers. The clink of iron forges was silenced, and the flames of their furnaces were drowned beneath the water. Houses and mills were either torn down with hopes to relocate or left to inundation. Appalachia’s natural environment was turned upside down as the land flooded. The loss of wild game, gardens, medicinal herbs, and water sources, left the displaced person feeling the deficiency of sustenance. Fishing holes, which provided catfish, bass, or crappie, were gone forever. Salt caves, mined for seasoning, meat preservation, and medicine, were no more. Arguably, the most strongly felt loss was the forfeiture of connection with their ancestors and history. Appalachians along the reservoir area would never again walk the footpaths, or live in the homes of their great-great grandparents, as they were accustomed. Even the deceased’s resting places were dug up and relocated.

Relocation workers hired by the Tennessee Valley Authority saw Appalachian lives as more impoverished than agrarian. Some workers wondered how, given their perceived notions of poverty, these people could be content where they were. No doubt, poverty existed, and still does, in the Appalachian Mountains. The TVA thought they offered residents along the Tennessee Reservoir the chance of a lifetime. Many residents, considered the whole process federal government interference. In most instances, they were paid for their properties, though it’s doubtfull the amount was sufficient. Prosperous families had an option to move into wealthier towns or cities, while poorer families had few options. If they declined to move, condemnation proceedings began. Many people were relocated twice. Imagine how that would feel. Perhaps the most egregious relocations were those of African American farmers, who went from owning a home to “renting a company-owned house.”6)Walker, Melissa. “African Americans and TVA Reservoir Property Removal:  Race in a New Deal Program.” Agricultural History 72, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 417-428. JSTOR. They were offered no information on where to go, and were further suppressed being placed in unfamiliar, segregated areas during the Jim Crow era.

The entire ordeal left a bitter taste in the mouths of displaced persons and they passed that sour cud on to their children. Descendants never forgot the government’s use of eminent domain (which is still employed today) against their families. Subsequent years saw the abuse of these beautiful mountains through strip mining of cheap coal for TVA. Polluted waters and air remain visible testaments to government and industry disregard. And let’s not forget December 2008 when over 5 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash sludge lumbered like a blob across the Emory River in Kingston, Tennessee. The sludge was tested and the following toxins were found: arsenic, copper, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, and thallium. The spill buried dozens of deer and “ejected fish from the Emory River onto the river bank as far as 40 feet from the shore.” Multitudes of river life were killed. Humans may have fared better. No one died during the spill. However, cleanup crews have developed life threatening illnesses like tumors and lung cancer. They’re still, after almost fifteen years, trying to be compensated for these illnesses.

Grudges flow deep in Appalachian veins against government and industrial entities, a feeling intensified through a blatant unrecognition of Appalachian sacrifices. Today, a plaque exists at Norris Dam celebrating George William Norris “in recognition of his public service.” But . . . no plaques of appreciation exist to thank the families and individuals who gave up their much-loved hallowed ground for the country’s benefit. The only recognition Appalachians have is amongst themselves – through oral history told to succeeding generations.

One day we were the happiest people on earth. But like the Indian we are slowly but surely being driven from the homes that we have learned to love, and down to the man we are not a friend of the Government for the simple reason that every move they have made has increased our poverty.
We were told that if we kept the fire out of the forest that we would have plenty of range for our cattle, but we found that after a few years that there is no range left. We were also told that we would have plenty and increasing flow of water in our mountain streams furnishing an abundance of fish for sport and food. But I’ve found that our streams are drying up and the fish in the ponds that are left are dying, and at times you can smell them as you pass along the highway. . .
Now what are we going to do, move on and try to fit in where we do not belong or undertake to face the situation and gradually starve to death? In the little mountain churches where we once sat and listened to the preaching of the gospel with nothing to disturb us, we now hear the roar of machinery on the Sabbath day. After all I have come to believe that the real old mountaineer is a thing of the past and what will finally take our place, God only knows.
Correspondence from William Wirt, mountain farmer and Epperson, Tennessee native, to Peggy Westerfield, about North Carolina’s Fowler Dam construction. September 19, 1938



  • Associated Press. “Coal Ash Workers Dying as Lawsuit Over Illnesses Drags On.” Associated Press. May 30 2022.
  • Dam at Cove Creek. Digital image. Clyde W. Roddy Public Library. 1933-1936.
  • Daughtrey, Larry. “Eminent Domain even has the Legislature Grouching about Greed.” The Tennessean, July 31, 2005, Main News, sec A.19.
  • Davidson, Donald. The Tennessee Volume Two. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company, 1992.
  • Drake, Richard B. A History of Appalachia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.
  • Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
  • Higgins, Benjamin. “The American Frontier and the TVA.” Society 32, no. 3 (Mar/Apr 1995): 34-42.
  • Holland, Frank R. “Benefits from the Development of the Tennessee River.” Landscape and Urban Planning, 1988, 16 ed.: 163-175.
  • Law, Harry L. Tennessee Geography. Norman: Harlow Publishing, 1964.
  • Norris Dam
  • Purcell, Aaron D. “Undermining the TVA: George Berry, David Lilienthal, and Arthur Morgan.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 57, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 168-189.
  • Schaffer, Daniel. “Environment and TVA: Toward a Regional Plan for the Tennessee Valley, 1930s.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 333-354.
  • Shapiro, Edward S. “Donald Davidson and the Tennessee Valley Authority: The Response or a Southern Conservative.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 33, no. 4 (1974): 436-451. JSTOR.
  • Unidentified “W”, “Conversation with 60 year old white female, White Pine, Tennessee.” Interview by Michael Montgomery, Center for Applied Linguistics Collection (AFC 1986/022), University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC. Library of Congress. 1977-1978.
  • United States Federal Census, 1940. Ancestry.
  • United States National Archives and Records Administration. Tennessee Valley Authority Act (1933). May 18, 1933.
  • U.S., Tennessee Valley, Family Removal and Population Readjustment Case Files, 1934-1953. Ancestry.
  • Walker, Melissa. “African Americans and TVA Reservoir Property Removal:  Race in a New Deal Program.” Agricultural Hi
  • Wilson, Marshall A. Norris Reservoir Scrapbook. LaFollette: The LaFollette Press, 1967.
  • Wirt, William and Wilma to Peggy Westerfield, 19 Sept. 1938, Peggy Westerfield Papers, No. 1430. Southern Historical Collection, Univ. of North Carolina.

**Featured image: Hans, Pixabay


1 Hawkins’ diagnosis of insanity was not uncommon for many people during relocation. People were either driven insane from what they deemed government overreach or were declared so by family members – sometimes legitimately, oftentimes for more nefarious reasons, like money grabbing.
2 Eminent domain is a policy where the government can condemn private land for the good of citizenry as a whole.
3 Davidson, Donald. The Tennessee Volume Two. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company, 1992.
4 Schaffer, Daniel. “Environment and TVA: Toward a Regional Plan for the Tennessee Valley, 1930s.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 333-354.
5 Eller, Ronald D. Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
6 Walker, Melissa. “African Americans and TVA Reservoir Property Removal:  Race in a New Deal Program.” Agricultural History 72, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 417-428. JSTOR.


  1. I’m currently researching my Campbell County roots, and I’ve been saddened by the TVA grave removals and the eradication of people’s communities. It sounds like the TVA was a mixed bag.

  2. Delonda, I appreciate your perspectives on TVA’s direct and indirect impacts on Appalachians in the agency’s region. Your criticisms are hard-hitting but fair. I agree that more recognition should be given for the sacrifices by those who lost their homes and other property. Without eminent domain, most of the country’s public infrastructure, including TVA’s, would never have been built. However, the powers of eminent domain, can and have been abused. Even if market rates are paid for the properties, the loss of heritage, of a sense of place, are uncompensated. I too was appalled by the coal ash catastrophe in East Tennessee, and make no excuses for TVA’s many other misbehaviors and mishaps. However, given my Chattanooga roots, I want to point out one other benefit from the TVA (per the CDC): “An organized and effective malaria control program stemmed from this new authority in the Tennessee River valley. Malaria affected 30 percent of the population in the region when the TVA was incorporated in 1933. The Public Health Service played a vital role in the research and control operations and by 1947, the disease was essentially eliminated. Mosquito breeding sites were reduced by controlling water levels and insecticide applications.”

    1. Author

      Thank you, Jim, for reading the article and understanding my writings about the TVA and their flooding event(s). The TVA did do good things for people. That’s true. I didn’t know about TVA’s efforts to stop malaria. That piqued my interest and allowed the old noggin gears to turn toward a possible article about diseases in Appalachia. I guess my beef is the lack of recognition for all the people who gave up everything they ever knew and allowed their land to be flooded. What we have today is due to their sacrifice. The plaque for Norris is well and good. He should be recognized for his accomplishments. However, the poorer people, those Appalachians, and others throughout the country, whose land ownership was something in which to take pride have never had a plaque recognizing them.

  3. Delonda, I always appreciate your scholarly and humanistic approach to your subjects. This was exceptional. I especially liked the small photographs with the identifying notations.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Peg. I’m glad you liked the article. That photographer took these pictures before the flooding. I’m glad he did, but it’s really quite haunting to see them and think about what they lost for our gain.

  4. Delonda, I appreciate your article. I grew up near Center Hill Dam in Middle Tennessee, and the same thing happened. I was born after my parents relocated. Often my dad would go back to the dam and look at where he used to live. He would point out every detail although I could only see forests of trees. Fortunately, I can still visit where I never was–only in spirit–through pictures. My mother always admired FDR because she said he brought electricity and indoor water to the small towns and rural areas. As a young woman she taught at Center Hill School, all eight grades in one room, riding her horse every morning and afternoon. She said she was scared when the river flooded and her horse’s head went under water. I’m convinced my parents and others like them had something I surely don’t have. Many of the homes were left standing when the land was flooded. I’ve often thought about those “ghost” houses underneath the surface, living without their inhabitants.

    1. Author

      Hello Linda. I’m so glad you shared your family’s experiences with the TVA, flooding, and relocation. I think the flooding was so severe at the time that the government didn’t quite know what to do. The solution was, in the long run, better for everybody. I do think, though, that all the people who were displaced to make it better (like your family) should be recognized. They never have been. I remember as a little girl the lake receded quite a bit one year. I don’t know if there was a drought or if the TVA withdrew water, but I remember seeing the tops of steeples sticking out of the water. It was memorable because my mom and dad told me it was because the TVA flooded the place. As time went on, I guess those structures finally crumbled and rotted, because I never saw them again.

  5. Hi, Delonda!

    My name is Madeline Hagan and I am currently writing my master’s thesis on the Norris Dam. I am wondering where you found access to Marshall Wilson’s scrapbook. I didn’t see it when I went to see his archives at the McClung Collection. Do you own a copy? Do you have access to a digitized copy?

    I would so appreciate more info on this! I would love to have more access to his photography for my thesis!

    Thank you so much,

    Maddie Hagan

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