Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to enter the area. Hernando de Soto came in 1540 on his way to the Mississippi River and crossed it in 1541 near the site of present-day Memphis. In northeastern Mississippi he met the Chickasaw, whom he recorded as “Chicaza.” From an early time they maintained a landing place at the site of present-day Memphis, which was connected to their settlements in Mississippi by a 256-km (160-mi) trail.
Another Spaniard, Juan Pardo, explored eastern Tennessee in the 1560s and built several forts, including one near present-day Chattanooga. The forts were later abandoned, and Spain showed little further interest in the area. The Spanish contact was a disaster for the Native Americans because the Spanish brought European diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity. A severe population decrease soon occurred, most likely caused by the spread of these diseases.
The central Mississippi valley was thinly inhabited by the time the French arrived in 1673. Those who survived the plague merged into larger groups and developed a consciousness of national identity such that, by the time of white settlement, the Cherokee and Chickasaw particularly were capable of concerted action in both war and peace. Both nations were quick to adopt elements of white culture, and by the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783) lived in substantial log cabins like those of the white settlers.
In 1673 English explorers James Needham and Gabriel Arthur led an expedition from Virginia into eastern Tennessee. Others followed. In the same year the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet described the Chickasaw Bluffs, near the site of Memphis, on their voyage down the Mississippi.
Another Frenchman, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, set up a temporary post, Fort Prud’homme, on the Chickasaw Bluffs near the site of Memphis in 1682. La Salle continued down the Mississippi to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. On the basis of this exploration he claimed all the land drained by the Mississippi for France, naming it Louisiane (in English, Louisiana). The claim to Louisiana gave the French an enormous but not clearly defined area for trade and settlement. Thirty years later, French traders built a temporary post at the site of Nashville, which was later called the French Lick after them. However, they never founded a true settlement in Tennessee, and even their trading priority was disputed by the English. The English maintained that they had rights in the area because their explorers, Needham, Arthur, and others, had been there before La Salle. "Tennessee" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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