History of Nashville, Tennessee

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This article pertains to the history of Nashville, the state capital of Tennessee.

Early history[edit]

The Mississippian culture was a mound-building Native American culture that flourished in the United States before the arrival of Europeans.

The first known settlers in the area of modern Nashville were Native Americans of the Mississippian culture, who flourished in the area from approximately 800 to 1600 AD, varying regionally. This great culture had centers throughout the Mississippi Valley and its tributaries, with trade with other cultures ranging from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. They sowed and harvested corn, made great earthwork mounds and fortifications, and painted richly decorated pottery. They mysteriously disappeared; in some areas it is believed that locations became deforested or environmentally exhausted. Later other Native Americans, such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Shawnee entered the river valley, using it as a hunting ground.

First Europeans[edit]

The Spaniard Hernando de Soto came through the area on his explorations in the 16th century but made no settlement. French fur traders were the earliest tradesmen in Middle Tennessee, establishing a trading post around 1717. The first of these fur traders to appear was a young trapper from New Orleans named Charles Charleville who, in 1714, built his post on a mound near the present site of Nashville. Extensive trade was carried on with Native American tribes frequenting the hunting ground. However, Charleville's station did not remain, and by 1740, Middle Tennessee was again without a single white resident. The establishment of this and subsequent posts by men of French descent gave the locality around Nashville the name "French Lick", by which it was known to early historians. In 1769, French-Canadian hunter Timothy Demonbreun built a cabin near a natural sulfur spring (the area would eventually be called Sulphur Dell) to use as a base of operations for fur trapping during his visits to the area.

Fort Nashborough[edit]

Artist's depiction of Donelson's flatboats descending the Cumberland River in 1784

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] By 1800, the city had 345 residents, including 136 African American slaves and 14 free blacks.[4]

Early statehood[edit]

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.[5]

Andrew Jackson[edit]

In the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson, a Nashville lawyer and politician, defeated the Creek [6]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,[7] Jackson built a strong political base and in 1828, Jackson was elected President.[8]

Capital of Tennessee[edit]

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.[9] 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."[10] It houses the Tennessee legislature and the Governor's office.

Civil War[edit]

Map of Nashville during the Civil War

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."[11] 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.[12] 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.[13][14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

After the Civil War[edit]

The Nashville Wharf, photographed shortly after the American 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.[17] 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.

Tennessee was the state that put the 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, over the top, and the ratification struggle convulsed the city in August 1920.

On March 1, 1941, W47NV (now known as WSM-FM) began operations in Nashville, becoming the first FM radio station in the U.S.

Recent history (post-WWII)[edit]

Map of the Nashville area in 1960, prior to consolidation

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.[18] The Second Avenue/lower Broadway district supports a large music industry as well as a musically flavored tourist center.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Albright, Edward (1909). Early History of Middle Tennessee. 
  2. ^ Crabb, Alfred Leland (1957). Journey to Nashville: A Story of the Founding. New York: Bobbs-Merrill. 
  3. ^ Creighton, Wilbur (1969). Building of Nashville.
  4. ^ Cumfer, Cynthia (2007). Separate peoples, one land: The minds of Cherokees, Blacks, and Whites on the Tennessee frontier. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. p. 132. ISBN 9780807831519. 
  5. ^ Hoss, Elijah Embree; Reese, William B. (1890). History of Nashville, Tenn. ... Nashville: H.W. Crew. pp. 131–35. 
  6. ^ http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/54horseshoe/54horseshoe.htm
  7. ^ Charles Grier Sellers, Jr. "Jackson Men with Feet of Clay," American Historical Review Vol. 62, No. 3 (Apr., 1957), pp. 537–551
  8. ^ Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson (1999)
  9. ^ tnmuseum.org
  10. ^ Iv, Thomas Joseph Broderick (2008-06-03). "They Moved the Earth: The Slaves Who Built the Tennessee State Capitol". Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal 4. ISSN 1555-788X. Retrieved 2015-02-23. 
  11. ^ Biography of Isham Green Harris
  12. ^ Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 596. 
  13. ^ Durham, Walter T. (1985). Nashville: The Occupied City, 1862–1863 ISBN 1572336331
  14. ^ Durham, Walter T. (1987). Reluctant Partners: Nashville and the Union, 1863–1865 ISBN 0961596619
  15. ^ Jeannine Cole, "'Upon the Stage of Disorder:' Legalized Prostitution in Memphis and Nashville, 1863–1865," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 2009, Vol. 68 Issue 1, pp 40–65
  16. ^ Stanley F. Horn, "Dr. John Rolfe Hudson and the Confederate Underground in Nashville," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Winter 2010, Vol. 69 Issue 4, pp 330–349
  17. ^ U.S. Census Bureau data for 50 largest cities, 1850 to 1990
  18. ^ John Rumble. "Roy Acuff". The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (1998), pp. 4–5.
  19. ^ Ola Johansson. "Form, Function, and the Making of Music-themed Entertainment Districts in Nashville and Memphis". Material Culture, Spring 2010, Vol. 42 Issue 1, pp. 47–69.
  20. ^ John Egerton, "Walking into History: The Beginning of School Desegregation in Nashville," Southern Spaces, 4 May 2009
  21. ^ Hawkins, Brett W. (1966). Nashville Metro: The Politics of City-County Consolidation. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Carey, Bill (2000). Fortunes, Fiddles, & Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History. Franklin, Tennessee: Hillsboro Press. ISBN 1-57736-178-4. 
  • Doyle, Don H. (1985). New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860–1910 excerpt and text search
  • Doyle, Don H. (1985). Nashville Since the 1920s
  • Egerton, John (1979). Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries, 1780–1980. Nashville, Tennessee: PlusMedia. LCCN 79089173. 
  • Houston, Benjamin. The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0820343273
  • Lovett, Bobby L. (1999). African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780–1930: Elites and Dilemmas. University of Arkansas Press. ISBN 1-55728-555-1. 
  • Wooldridge, John (editor) (1890). History of Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville, Tennessee: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. LCCN 76027605. 
  • Zepp, George R. (2009). Hidden History of Nashville. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press. ISBN 978-1-59629-792-0. 

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]