History of Nashville, Tennessee
This article pertains to the history of Nashville, the state capital of Tennessee.
The first known settlers in the area of modern Nashville were Native Americans who arrived in the region by at least 13,000 BC during the Paleoindian period of regional prehistory. For millennia the descendants of these first Tennesseans continued to live along the river terraces and uplands overlooking the Cumberland River, leaving behind a dense archaeological record spanning the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods. The final prehistoric Native American culture to inhabit what would become Nashville was a regional manifestation of the Mississippian Culture known as Middle Cumberland Mississippian, identified by archaeologists based on the specific combination of burial practices, artistic style, and ceramic typology. Recent studies suggest that Middle Cumberland Mississippian culture may be the result of interactions between local populations and outsiders from the American Bottom who moved into the western portion of the Nashville Basin around AD 1000, settling at the site of Mound Bottom. The archaeological footprint of the Middle Cumberland Mississippian culture appears throughout Nashville as the many earthen mounds, extensive stone box cemeteries, palisaded villages, and small prehistoric farmsteads that have been destroyed by antiquarian scholars, relic hunters, and urban development. All archaeological evidence for Mississippian culture appears to vanish from the Nashville area by around AD 1475-1500. Archaeologists believe this regional collapse may have been the result of extreme pressures brought on by rapid population growth and dwindling resource availability following prolonged droughts leading to increased occurrences of disease, nutritional deficiencies, and warfare.
There is no reliable historical or archaeological evidence for Native American presence in the Nashville area from 1500 the late 1600s. The region between the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers was a hunting ground for many tribes, and while the Shawnee occupied the area in the later part of the seventeenth century, by 1700 they were being challenged by the Cherokee and Chickasaw.
The first Europeans to enter what would become Tennessee were part of the expedition led by Hernando de Soto in the 16th century. Although the exact route of the Desoto expedition is unclear, they do not appear to have reached Middle Tennessee or the Nashville area. Instead, the earliest Europeans in what would become Nashville were French fur traders such as Jean du Charleville (aka Charles Charleville), who in 1710 established a trading post at a natural sulphur and saline spring near what is now Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park. The natural salt lick attracted animals, which in turn attracted Native American hunters with whom the French could trade, and the area became known as "French Lick." This same portion of Nashville would later be known as Sulphur Spring Bottom and Sulphur Dell. In 1769, French-Canadian hunter Timothy Demonbreun began a series of trips up the Cumberland to Nashville and built a cabin near the lick to use as a base of operations for fur trapping during his visits to the area. Demonbreun settled in Nashville permanently in 1788, and ran a tavern and mercantile business.
The first permanent settlement came when James Robertson and John Donelson left the Watauga settlement in northwestern North Carolina, traveled overland for two months, and arrived on the banks of the Cumberland River near the center of present downtown Nashville on Christmas Day, 1779. They cleared the land and built a log stockade they called the Bluff station. Richard Henderson had planned to call the settlement Nashborough in honor of General Francis Nash, who won acclaim in the American Revolution. For a brief time, court records did use the Nashborough designation but there is no evidence that any of the settlers did. Robertson's friend and fellow Watauga settler John Donelson, along with some 60 families, including women and children, came in 30 flatboats and several pirogues down the Tennessee River and up the Cumberland, arriving April 23, 1780. They founded a new community that was then a part of the state of North Carolina. The town was officially created and named Nashville in 1784, by an act of the North Carolina legislature.
As the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace, the town quickly developed as a cotton center and river port and later as a railroad hub. It soon became the commercial center of the entire Middle Tennessee region. By 1800, the city had 345 residents, including 136 African American slaves and 14 free blacks.
After the failed experiment of the State of Franklin, North Carolina ceded its land from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River to the federal government. In 1796, that territory was admitted to the union as the state of Tennessee. Nashville at that time was still a small settlement in a vast wilderness, but its central location and status as the state capital made it the political, commercial, financial and religious center of the state.
In 1806, Nashville was chartered as a city. The city's first debt and first large-scale public works project was the building of the Nashville Water Works, centered around the reservoir located on a bluff south of the city, now known as Rolling Mill Hill and located on Eighth Avenue South. The money was loaned by Philadelphia businessmen, and part of the amount was used to purchase around twelve enslaved Black men in Virginia to work on the project. The $50,000 loan was insufficient to cover the $55,000 cost of construction, but the rising value of the slaves purchased by the city covered the difference when all but one or two were sold at the end of the project. Water from the Cumberland River is pumped by steam engine into the reservoir, which remains in use today.
In the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson, a Nashville lawyer and politician, defeated the Creek  Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the British invasion army at the Battle of New Orleans, becoming a national hero, thanks in large part to the fighting skills of the Tennessee militia. Jackson became a western hero, and building on his militia connections, Jackson built a strong political base and in 1828, Jackson was elected President.
Capital of Tennessee
More than 30 years after receiving its charter, Nashville was selected as the permanent capital of Tennessee on October 7, 1843. Several towns across Tennessee were nominated; all received votes, but Nashville and Charlotte were the top contenders. Nashville won by only one vote. Previously, the cities of Kingston (for one day) and Knoxville in Eastern Tennessee, and Murfreesboro, like Nashville located in Middle Tennessee, had each served as the temporary capital.
The Tennessee State Capitol building was constructed over a period of fourteen years from 1845 to 1859. It was designed by Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who modeled it after a Greek Ionic temple. Commercial, convict, and slave labor were used in the project. Fifteen enslaved Black men worked on carving the Capitol's limestone cellar from 1845 to 1847; Nashville stonemason A.G. Payne was paid $18 a month for their labor. It is believed to be "the most significant project where the [Tennessee] state government rented slave labor." It houses the Tennessee legislature and the Governor's office.
Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy on June 24, 1861, when Governor Isham G. Harris proclaimed "all connections by the State of Tennessee with the Federal Union dissolved, and that Tennessee is a free, independent government, free from all obligations to or connection with the Federal Government of the United States of America." Nashville was an immediate target of Union forces. The city's significance as a shipping port on the Cumberland River and its symbolic importance as the capital of Tennessee made it a desirable prize.
The General Assembly was in session at Nashville when Fort Donelson fell on February 16, 1862. Soon after at the end of the month, Nashville became the first state capital to fall to the Union troops, under the command of Don Carlos Buell. Prior to that, Nashville was evacuated and Governor made a speech recommending the citizens burn their private property; retreating troops destroyed bridges crossing the Cumberland River. Governor Harris issued a call for the legislature to assemble at Memphis, and the executive office was moved to that city. In the meantime President Lincoln appointed future President Andrew Johnson Military Governor of Tennessee. He set up offices in the capitol at Nashville. Confederate uprisings and guerrilla attacks continued sporadically in the city.
On December 2, 1864, the Confederate Army of Tennessee (not to be confused with the rival Union Army of the Tennessee) arrived south of the city and set up fortifications facing the Union Army. After a lengthy stand-off, the Union forces attacked on December 15, starting the Battle of Nashville. The outnumbered Confederate forces were badly defeated and retreated south to the Tennessee River.
Refugees poured into Nashville during the war, because jobs were plentiful in the depots, warehouses and hospitals serving the war effort, and furthermore the city was much safer place than the countryside. Unionists and Confederate sympathizers both flooded in, as did free blacks and escaped slaves, and businessmen from the North. Nashville, with its very large transient population, had flourishing red light districts. Union wartime regulations forced prostitutes to purchase licenses and pass medical exams, primarily to protect soldiers from venereal disease. Their trade was deregulated once military control ended.
A secret Confederate underground operated in the city, smuggling arms, medicines and information to the Confederacy, helping prisoners escape, and giving information to Confederate spies.
After the Civil War
After the Civil War, Nashville quickly grew into an important trade center. Its population rose from 16,988 in 1860 to 80,865 by 1900. In the late 1880s, its African-American and poor white populations were affected by changes to laws by the state legislature, which made voter registration and voting more difficult by requirements including imposition of a poll tax in 1889. The effect was to disenfranchise most blacks and many poor whites, after Tennessee had been one of the most competitive states politically after the Civil War. About one-third of the state's citizens were thus shut out of the political process, a status that lasted for decades, until after passage of legislation during the mid-1960s as a result of the civil rights movement.
In 1897, Nashville hosted the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition, a World's Fair celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tennessee's entry into the Union. A replica of the Parthenon was built for the event. The Parthenon replica is now the centerpiece of Centennial Park.
An interesting sidenote occurred during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt visited Nashville and took his lodging at the Maxwell House Hotel. Joel Cheek, proprietor thereof, had served a special blend of coffee at the hotel's restaurant, and after drinking a cup of this coffee, Roosevelt proclaimed it "good to the last drop!" Cheek subsequently sold the blend to General Foods and to this day, Maxwell House coffee is enjoyed by millions.
In 1913 Nashville was the last of several major cities in Tennessee to adopt a commission form of government, with all members of a small commission elected at-large. Compared to single-member districts, this change resulted in further limiting the political power of any African Americans who were able to vote, as their candidates were unable to gain support by the majority of the city, which was white. Other cities that adopted this form of government in this period were Clarksville in 1907, Chattanooga and Knoxville in 1911, and Jackson in 1915. As a result of legal challenges beginning in the late 1970s, all these cities have adopted new systems, most by 1990. These established council or commissions with more numerous members, most of whom are elected from single-member districts, when enables minorities to elect one or more candidates of their choice.
The Great train wreck of 1918 occurred on July 9, 1918, in Nashville when an inbound local train collided with an outbound express, killing 101 people. This was one of the most deadly rail accidents in U.S. history.
Recent history (post-WWII)
Music entrepreneurs such as Roy Acuff (1903–1992) made Nashville the country music capital after World War II. Acuff joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1938, and although his popularity as a musician waned in the late 1940s, he remained one of the Opry's key figures and promoters for nearly four decades. In 1942, he co-founded the first major Nashville-based country music publishing company—Acuff-Rose Music. The Second Avenue/lower Broadway district supports a large music industry as well as a musically flavored tourist center.
Nashville was a center of the U.S. civil rights movement. In 1957, public schools began to be desegregated using the "stair-step" plan as proposed by Dan May; people protested integration and, at Hattie Cotton Elementary School, a bomb was detonated. No one was killed, and after that the desegregation plan went on without violence. On February 13, 1960, hundreds of college students involved in the Nashville Student Movement launched a sit-in campaign to desegregate lunch counters throughout the city. Although initially met with violence and arrests, the protesters were eventually successful in pressuring local businesses to end the practice of racial segregation. Many of the activists involved in the Nashville sit-ins—including James Bevel, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis and others—went on to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which emerged as one of the most influential organizations of the civil rights movement. The first movement credited to SNCC was the 1961 Nashville Open Theater Movement, directed and strategized by James Bevel, which desegregated the city's theaters.
Nashville has had a consolidated city-county government (also known as a "metropolitan government") since 1963. Although a similar proposal had failed in 1958, Davidson County voters approved consolidation in a referendum on June 28, 1962.
On April 16, 1998, an F3 tornado struck the downtown area at around 3:30 p.m., causing serious damage and blowing out hundreds of windows from skyscrapers, raining shattered glass on the streets and closing the business district for nearly four days. Over 300 homes were damaged, and three cranes at the then incomplete Adelphia Coliseum were toppled. Though only one person was killed, it was one of the most costly urban tornadoes on record in the U.S.
In 2000, Nashville native Bill Frist rose to national political prominence when he became majority leader of the U.S. Senate. Frist was formerly a transplant surgeon at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
On April 30 through May 7 in 2010, significant flooding impacted Nashville and its suburbs.
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