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The States of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee are located in the central south region of the United States. They cover a vast area stretching from the Appalachian Mountains across the middle of the Mississippi River’s course westward to the beginning of the Great Plains. Geologically, the central south region covers a diverse topography of mountains, plateaus, hilly regions, and plains. Most of the region was submerged under shallow seas during several geological periods and is now covered in limestone rocks, which have eroded to make numerous caves in some areas and sweet soils for grass and crops.
Tennessee is named for the Over-the-Hills Cherokee Indian village of Tenasi. Tennessee’s eastern borders are with the states of Virginia and North Carolina. In the north, it borders Kentucky; its southern border bounds Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. It stretches over 500 miles from east to west. The state is usually described as the areas of East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee, which are each marked by distinct land formations.
East Tennessee begins in the Blue Ridge Region which includes the Great Smoky Mountains and other ranges. The area from Franklin westward has numerous springs and forested areas. The boundary with Virginia runs along some of the highest peaks of the Appalachians. The area has numerous rivers and quiet mountain coves where small groups of people farm as the Cherokee did before them.
The Southern Appalachians that are in Tennessee include beautiful natural forests and wildlife that includes black bears. The upper altitudes are usually above 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) in height. The flora of the area includes numerous rhododendrons that flower profusely in the spring; there is striking fall foliage in the autumn. Because of the altitude, the flora is closer to that of Canada than to the flora of the Mississippi River Valley.
Among the rivers either beginning or flowing through East Tennessee are the Clinch, Holston, Ocoee, Hiawassee, and the French Broad. These rivers join the Tennessee River in a transition from the Appalachians to the Tennessee River Valley west of Knoxville. The transition is to the last of the valleys of the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachians. Several ridges run in parallel lines from Georgia to Kentucky through the East Tennessee Valley. The area between Chattanooga and Knoxville is relatively flat and is excellent farmland.
The Tennessee River flows south from Knoxville to Chattanooga where it passes through a gorge and then continues in a looping circle through much of northern Alabama. At Florence, Alabama, it turns north again and flows to Tennessee where it separates the western part of the Highland Rim from West Tennessee. It continues flowing north to join the Ohio River in western Kentucky.
The third landform in the East Tennessee region is the Cumberland Plateau. It is a part of the vast Appalachian Plateau that runs from north of Birmingham and Gadsden, Alabama, into Kentucky. In Tennessee, the plateau in most places has rocky cliffs, which range from 1,500 to 1,800 feet (457 to 549 meters) in height. In the center are the Orchard Mountains, which are a range of peaks on top of the Cumberland, west of Knoxville. The area was extremely remote until the advent of modern automobiles and roads.
Middle Tennessee begins with the dramatic end of the escarpment that is the Cumberland Plateau. The area is part of the Highland Rim, which is a plain stretching to the Tennessee River at the boundary of West and Middle Tennessee. Nashville is located in a basin called the Nashville Basin.
The Cumberland River, flowing through the Highland Rim region, has left many eroded hills. The Cumberland River begins in the Appalachians near the junction of Tennessee and Kentucky. It flows through East Tennessee to Nashville where it turns to flow north. It joins the Tennessee River in Kentucky in the “Land-between-the-Lakes” a few miles from where the Tennessee River flows into the Ohio River.
The area of Middle Tennessee extending from north of Alabama north to Kentucky that lies between the Cumberland Plateau and the Nashville Basin is a garden area where enormous numbers of nursery farms are located.
West Tennessee is an extension of the Gulf Coastal Plain. It is an area of gentle undulations with rich farmland. In the northwestern corner of Tennessee lies Reelfoot Lake. The Lake was formed during the Mississippi River Valley earthquakes in late 1811 and early 1812. The quakes were centered along the New Madrid Fault. The severity of the earthquakes formed the shallow natural lake; it was filled by water from the Mississippi that for a while flowed north rather than south. Most of it is more like a swamp, however.
Eastern Kentucky is famous as an Appalachian region explored by frontiersman Daniel Boone. The area has also produced enormous quantities of coal. The eastern area is part of the Appalachian Plateau; in Kentucky, the area is triangle-shaped with many mountain ridges and deep canyons through which rivers flow. The area is a maze of narrow valleys caused by stream erosion. The two major mountain ridges in Kentucky are the Pine Mountains and the Cumberland Mountains. Between these ranges lies the Middleboro Basin. It is near Black Mountain, which is the highest in the state at 4,145 feet (1,263 meters).
The Bluegrass Region lies in the north-central area of the state and extends from the middle of the state to the Ohio River. In the northern part of the Bluegrass Region is a land that has a gentle roll and in which horses are raised for racing. Tobacco is also a major crop in the area. Surrounding the Bluegrass Region on the southern, western, and eastern boundaries are cone-like sandstone knobs. These are composed of light soils that easily erode, so much of the zone has been left wooded.
The southern and western areas of Kentucky are part of the Mississippian Embayment, or the Pennyroyal Region. The region has two arms that extend north to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi River. The name Pennyroyal comes from an herb of the mint family that is widespread in the region. The southern part of the Pennyroyal region has very productive limestone soils. Further north in the center of the Pennyroyal region is an area called the Barrens. The name was given by the first pioneers who found the area treeless and barren. The northern part of the Pennyroyal rises in elevation and has rocky ridges and bluffs. It also has numerous limestone caves, the most famous of which is Mammoth Cave.
The western coal field region has rolling lands under which are beds of coal that are strip-mined. The region also is very productive farmland. The far western end of Kentucky is called the Jackson Purchase Region. It is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain. It is also an area of rich Mississippi River flood plains. It acquired its name in 1818 after Andrew Jackson participated in the purchase of the land from the Native Americans. The area has numerous ox bow lakes and swampy areas.
Arkansas lies across the Mississippi River from Tennessee and south of Missouri. In the south, it is bounded by Louisiana and Oklahoma and in the west by Texas. The Arkansas River flows from Oklahoma across the state to the Mississippi River. The eastern area of Arkansas is occupied by the Mississippi Alluvial Plan. The region is very flat and, in some areas, wooded and swampy. It is also very productive agriculturally. Rice and soybean fields stretch for vast distances during growing season. The area is also attractive to wildlife: Many migrating geese and ducks feed in the fields on their way south.
In the middle of Arkansas’s eastern alluvial plain is a strange formation called Crowley’s Ridge. It is a narrow ridge between half a mile and 12 miles wide that runs north and south for over 150 miles from the Missouri state line to near Helena. Its elevations reach nearly 550 feet at its northern end. The ridge was once covered with loess. Some geologists have explained Crowley’s Ridge as a product of the Mississippi River’s changes in its bed. This view contends that the ridge is the remains of a much larger formation eroded by the Mississippi before it shifted its course to the east. Other geologists believe that the ridge is the product of the earth’s folding. Its elevation has increased over the decades in which measurements have been taken. Crowley’s Ridge has flora that is different from the surrounding alluvial plain; its flora is much more like that of the Appalachians. It also is a source of garnet gemstones.
The southern part of Arkansas is a part of the West Gulf Coastal Plain. From Monticello west to the Texas state line, the area has reddish sandy soils and is forested with pines. Significant oil and gas discoveries have been worked at El Dorado and surrounding areas. In the area of the Red River at Hempstead County, the soil in prairies is a gumbo type of clay that expands and contracts significantly with increases and decreases in moisture. Across Hempstead and Howard Counties and other areas is a line of sandy hills that are believed to be the sand dunes of prehistoric times. At Murfeesboro are several volcanic pipes, which form the Crater of Diamond State Park. Patrons can mine for diamonds and keep whatever they find.
The small area west of the Red River is in Miller County. The area was a swampy no-man’s-land before the Mexican-American War. Today, very rich farmland produces cotton and other crops.
Between the Arkansas River Valley to the north and the Gulf Coastal Plain in the south are the Ouachita Mountains. The mountains are a series of ridges that are heavily forested. The highest peak is Blue Mountain at 2,623 feet (799 meters). Hot Springs lies at the eastern extremity. Quartz crystals are mined in the area, as is novaculite, which is a type of chert or flint used for sharpening whetstones. The Arkansas River Valley also produces rice and other crops and has deposits of gas and oil. Large vessels travel its waters to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The Ozark Plateau covers the area of northern Arkansas from the western edge of the Mississippi alluvial plain to Oklahoma. It is an area of rugged ridges and eroded valleys. The Buffalo River, which flows through the area, is a favorite place for canoeing. The Boston Mountains form the southern boundary with the Arkansas River. The region is heavily forested and filled with man-made lakes.
Missouri has four major land regions. First, in the southwest is the Missouri boot heel, which is a part of the Mississippi alluvial plain. It is also where the New Madrid Fault is centered. This seismic zone has historically had several major earthquakes. Second is the Ozark Plateau, which extends in southern Missouri from Arkansas to about the Missouri River. It is heavily wooded with narrow river valleys, numerous caves, and springs. Its elevation is about 500 to 1,700 feet (150 to 518 meters) above sea level.
Third are the Dissected Till Plains in northern Missouri, which was covered with glaciers during the ice ages. The soil is deep and rich, which makes it a major corn-growing region. Fourth are the Osage Plains, which lie roughly in the triangle formed by the Osage and Missouri Rivers. It is a plain with several areas of low hills.
Lead mining has played an important role in the economy of Missouri; the eastern Ozark region is the location of the Old Lead Belt.
- James Lane Allen, Blue Grass Region of Kentucky and Other Kentucky Articles (Reprint Services Company, 1989);
- Richard B. Drake, A History of Appalachia (University of Kentucky Press, 2003);
- Ann Heinrichs, Arkansas (Capstone Press, 2006);
- James Kavanagh, Tennessee Birds (Waterford Press Ltd, 2001);
- Charles P. Nicholson, Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 1998);
- John Rehder, Appalachian Folkways (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004);
- Henry R. Schoolcraft, View of the Lead Mines of Missouri: Including Some Observations on the Mineralogy, Geology, Geography, Antiquities, Soil, Climate, Population, and Productions of Missouri and Arkansas, and Other Sections of the Western Country (Arno Press, 1972);
- Charles W. Schwartz and Elizabeth Schwartz, Wild Mammals of Missouri (University of Missouri Press, 2001).