Tennessee River & Muscle Shoals

Carved through limestone of the massive Highland Rim, the Tennessee River flows from the eastern highlands of Tennessee, bending southward into modern Alabama and Mississippi, then back north through Nashville and into Kentucky, where it feeds into the Ohio River and then the Mississippi River, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.


Prior to European contact, the Shoals had been inhabited in various ways for at least ten-thousand years. The earliest inhabitants found shelter in caves along the valley, and later constructed large earthworks that can still be visited today. The Florence Indian Mound Museum, located within the Port of Florence, is a prime example of the engineering marvels these peoples constructed prior to European contact.

Portion of a map of 1815 Alabama. Note, in the center, Fort Hampton, one of the few forts built to protect Native American lands from white settlers. The fort was abandoned the following year.

During the earliest days of Euro-American migration in the eighteenth century, traders identified the Muscle Shoals as notoriously difficult to traverse, making it a barrier between the upper and lower Tennessee River. They also noted that the Native American population held the Shoals in high regard and staunchly defended it. The Alabama wilderness had very little Euro-American immigration or federal control at all until the early nineteenth century, except for small frontier outposts that were far from other settlements. The earliest known Shoals area outpost was a contingent of French who lived along Spring Creek.


The Muscle Shoals are named after the bi-valved mussels native to the area. The mussel population is now nearly non-existent due to the construction of the canals and dams during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.