Archived records of lands taken through eminent domain

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Natl_Archives_Exhib_shoppeThe Southeast Region Archives, supported by your tax dollars, house diverse historical records collected by the government. They note on their website:

Records in the National Archives tell the story of southern families and communities, technological advances that changed lives, and social and economic forces that shaped the makeup of our society.

Most people go to the Archives to look up records and do research. I went there recently and looked at photographs and records of houses and farms purchased and destroyed to create an impounded lake in Tennessee. This project was done by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was chartered by Congress in 1933. The lakes were created primarily to reduce flooding and to enable power generation at the dams. They also became important recreational destinations, and improved opportunities for economic development.

Below is a photograph of a farm that was destroyed so the land could be flooded, I think to make Douglas Reservoir, near Dandridge, Tennessee.

The Douglas Dam was completed in 1943, and lies on the French Broad River, which is part of the Tennessee River drainage, which has nine TVA dams with hydroelectric plants. Hydropower constitutes only about 10% of the power TVA generates; other power sources are from fossil-fuel plants (60%) and nuclear plants (30%). Green power contributions are negligible. Hydroelectric facilities are integrated into the dams that impound the water, and use the power of the water flowing because of gravity from higher in the reservoir to the lower elevation below the dam to generate electricity. The water flows through a turbine as it falls, making the turbine move. This movement is converted into electricity. The TVA provides a drawing of this here.

The TVA cautions fisherfolk to eat smaller, younger fish and avoid the fatty flesh and skin to reduce exposure to toxins like PCBs, chlordane, DDT, dioxins, and mercury, which are mostly in the mud at the bottom of the reservoirs, rather than in the water.

Many families were uprooted when these dams and reservoirs were built. The government can legally take people’s land through laws pertaining to eminent domain, even if the owners do not consent. The government can do this if the land is converted to public use.

Eminent domain laws are a legal means for our country to balance the needs of all (public needs) against the rights of the few. In the USA, eminent domain was adopted from British laws extant at the time the Constitution was drafted in the late 1700s. However, our government cannot take lands (property) without just compensation, and only if it benefits the public good.

A family who loses their farm and lands so that a dam and reservoir can beconstructed suffers a great loss; however, a whole region that endures less flooding and has more and more inexpensive electricity enjoys considerable benefits. Nevertheless, balancing the good of all against the rights of few is tricky and difficult. Should the family receive the same money for their farm as they would if they sold it to another farmer or a neighbor? Should they receive more or less?