The ancient name Palmyra is unexpectedly in the news. Two months ago, the roving street gang that likes to call itself the Islamic State seized the old Syrian ghost town and destroyed some of its pagan statues. They staged some horrific scenes of mass murder among its solemn ruins. For students of Knoxville history, the name Palmyra might ring a bell.
The original Palmyra was the ancient capital on the fringe of the desert, a provisioning center like a metropolitan oasis, and a cultural crossroads. The fact that it was a spot of green in that arid landscape is believed to be the origin of the name. Almost 2,000 years ago Palmyra witnessed some dramatic scenes, like the doomed rebellion of Queen Zenobia, who opposed the Roman Empire. Palmyra also witnessed the subsequent massacre of her people. Some ancient themes keep stirring.
The name resonated in the West, even in America. There are Palmyras in a dozen states, including one in Tennessee, an unincorporated community near Clarksville.
You wouldn’t necessarily assume that people on the edge of the Southern wilderness would be students of the Roman Empire, and of ancient architecture. Some Knoxvillians of the 1790s had never seen the ocean. Others had crossed it more than once. Some had even been sailors upon it. One of the first Knoxvillians, George Farragut, had battled the Turks on warships in the Black Sea.
But everyone was fascinated with ancient stories, the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, to a degree that often surprises their descendants. Pioneers had an advantage over us in that they had fewer pop celebrities to keep up with. Bibles were pretty handy, and offered salvation and a primer to the basic geography and heritage of the Eastern Mediterranean.
William Blount thought of himself as a man of the world. He grew up in eastern North Carolina, near the coast. He had spent several weeks in Philadelphia, when he was waiting around in Independence Hall for everyone to finish arguing so he could sign the U.S. Constitution. And now that Washington was president, Blount was the territorial governor who put his capital in Knoxville and was concerned with French and Spanish ambitions for the region. Knoxville was serviceable, as far as it went, a practical little settlement on a bluff with some logistical problems and no great architecture, no stone columns, no amphitheaters, no statues. For a moment, at least, Blount was ambitious to build something much more impressive than the Knoxville he knew.
In 1795 he secretly collaborated with an obese, eccentric New Yorker named Nicholas Romayne, a Columbia University medical-school professor described by historians as “a strange, interesting man,” according to a Columbia historian, “erudite but emotional, calculating but rash, enormous but indefatigable.” Together, Blount and Romayne worked to “lay out a large city, two miles square” in the vicinity of Knoxville. It was so big it would have overshadowed the territorial capital, and surely taken its place.
“This great city is to be called Palmyra,” wrote Blount to his brother in North Carolina. It would be “handsomely delineated,” Blount continued, “laid out upon some new and elegant plan.” Blount was picturing 6,000 one-fifth-acre lots, suggesting a fairly dense city, and, by the standards of America in the 1790s, a very large one. Dr. Romayne was convinced the utopian spot would attract European immigrants.
It’s not obvious how they picked the name, but we can guess. In the latter half of the 18th century, largely thanks to some recent excavations there, Palmyra, Syria, was much-discussed among the educated, and even the uneducated curious.
Several years earlier, when Blount was a small child, an illustrated book called The Ruins of Palmyra had captured the imagination of romantics. It was the thinking man’s Shangri-La.
Whatever the root, it was a name that was in the air during that season. America’s largest Palmyra today, Palmyra, N.Y., was founded in 1796.
Like the historic Palmyra that fascinated the West in the 1700s, Knoxville was a fortified provisioning post on the edge of a great wilderness. In latitude, Knoxville and Palmyra are about one degree apart.
Blount and Romayne’s scheme also involved Scottish immigrant John Chisholm, who ran a tavern on the hillside near Blount’s home, and was a good sport about helping his pals with their long shots.
There may have been some idealistic city-building impulses behind Palmyra, but a line in a letter from Blount suggests a familiar motive: “It’s a Scheme that may afford Profits to us without the possibility of a Loss.” Romayne reportedly expected to make $80,000 off his frontier Palmyra, maybe a couple million in modern dollars.
If it had worked, no one would have begrudged him that. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if Palmyra had been successful. If all of those 6,000 lots were occupied with an average of three residents, Palmyra would have become, by far, the biggest city in the region. In fact, it would have been bigger than New Orleans or Baltimore at the time, with an urban density that suggests it would have been a pretty lively place.
That’s all we know about it. Palmyra may have existed only in a few lines in a few letters. The scheme was never announced publicly, and it’s not obvious what became of it. Was it ever realistic? Blount and Romayne were reckless adventurers, but they’d been around. They studied the real-estate market, and considered themselves pretty savvy.
Two years later, Blount, Romayne, and Chisholm were all in trouble for a much-more ambitious real-estate scheme, the conspiracy to seize Spanish Louisiana, not for the United States, but for Great Britain. It was one of the major national scandals of 1797. Romayne and Chisholm both did jail time as a result. Blount, facing charges of treason, was forced to flee his seat as one of the new state of Tennessee’s first two senators. William Blount caught one of the prevailing fevers and died in same old Knoxville, not Palmyra, in 1800. Romayne died in New York 17 years later. The secrets of Palmyra, the city that never was, may have died with him.