Monday, May 7, 2018

The History of Nashville

By Michelle Shocklee

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James Robertson, the "Father of Middle Tennessee"
After living in Texas for more than thirty years, hubby and I moved to Tennessee last October. It's been an exciting adventure for a history lover like myself. The entire state is rife with historical sites, museums, historic houses, graveyards, and more! My brain can hardly keep up with all the fabulously thrilling story ideas that fill my head with each new tidbit of information! 

Today I'm going to share some things I've learned about the history of Nashville. 

The Nashville area was originally inhabited by peoples of the Mississippian culture, dating from A.D. 800 to the 1600s. Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee later moved into the region. French fur traders established a post known as French Lick on the site in 1717, but that was the extent of settlement by whites for many years.

James Robertson, born in Virginia in 1742, would grow up with an insatiable appetite for adventure. As a young man he accompanied Daniel Boone on his third exploration of the lands beyond the Allegheny Mountains, part of the vast Appalachian Mountain range. Near the area along the Watauga River at present day Elizabethton, Tennessee, James parted ways with Boone and stayed to plant a crop of corn. Over the next several years, James served as an Indian Agent, a farmer, and a soldier. As we'll see, he was instrumental in the founding of Nashville, and is known today as the Father of Middle Tennessee. 
The Cumberland River in downtown Nashville
The land surrounding the Cumberland River, which runs right through Nashville, belonged to the Cherokee Indians in the 1700s. One month after an American named Richard Henderson purchased a large portion of land from the Cherokee--an agreement called the Transylvania Settlement--the American Revolution broke out. Chief Dragging Canoe was not happy sharing the land with white settlers, and he saw the war as an opportunity to put up a resistance. Unfortunately he was eventually forced to relocate his people farther west/southwest. 

Until that point, there had not been an attempt to settle the area known as the French Lick. With the Cherokee moving south, the land along the Cumberland was now readily available, and men like James Robertson and John Donelson, a land speculator, were not afraid to take advantage of it. The two men were elected to lead settlers into the Cumberland River region, although they would each take very different routes getting there.

In February 1779, Robertson set out with a group of nine "Overmountain" men, American men from the Appalachian Mountains, to explore the area. They arrived with little trouble along the way and selected a possible site for the settlement. Late that same year, Robertson returned with a group of men to prepare temporary shelters for their families and friends who were set to follow a few months later. The men arrived on Christmas Day and drove their cattle across the frozen Cumberland River. Crude cabins were erected for immediate winter housing, and a fort was built atop a bluff along the river. The fort was named Fort Nashborough, in honor of Francis Nash, who had fought alongside Robertson at the battle of Alamance in 1771.

Donelson and approximately thirty families embarked from Fort Patrick Henry on December 22, 1779, headed to Fort Nashborough. Their boat, the Adventure, accommodated several families, household goods, and supplies necessary to sustain a settlement in a new land. At the mouth of the Clinch River, another group of emigrants joined Donelson's party. He led this flotilla of thirty or so canoes, flat boats, and dugouts on an expedition traversing the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio, and Cumberland Rivers. During the four-month voyage, the pioneers suffered Indian attacks, a smallpox outbreak, hunger, exhaustion, extreme cold, swift currents, and treacherous shoals. On April 24, 1780, Donelson's party reached the end of their thousand mile journey. 

The community was renamed Nashville in 1784. Chartered as a city in 1806, Nashville developed as a river trade depot and manufacturing site for middle Tennessee and became the political center of the state. Its commercial importance was further enhanced by the advent of the railroads in the 1850s. Nashville was occupied by Union troops in February 1862, and the last major battle of the Civil War (December 1864) took place outside the city.

In November 1925, The Grand Ole Opry, a weekly-country music stage concert, was founded in Nashville. It was a one-hour "barn dance" and is the longest-running radio broadcast in US history. In the 1930s the show began hiring professionals and expanded to four hours. Needless to say, the Opry changed the face of Nashville as well as country music.

Today, Nashville's population is nearly 700,000. It is home to Vanderbilt University, President Andrew Jackson's home, the Hermitage, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the historic Ryman Auditorium, several professional sports teams, and a downtown District that features honky-tonks with live music. 

We'll never know what those early settlers dreamed of when they first landed on the banks of the Cumberland River, but I'm willing to guess they could have never imagined the shining metropolis Nashville has become. 

Have you been to Nashville? What was your favorite thing to do there?

The Nissan Stadium directly across the Cumberland River from the replica and site of Fort Nashborough
in downtown Nashville

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 31 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?


  1. Hubby and I went to Nashville twice. We enjoyed the small town feel. We visited Andrew Jackson's home. The mansion was smaller then we imagined and his life story was both interesting and sad. We would love to go back and take a few tours.

  2. No, I've never been to Nashville. Thanks for the information!

  3. I've been to Nashville and enjoyed it. Thank you for the history lesson about Nashville.

  4. Very interesting...I'll be visiting Nashville a couple of times in the coming months, so thanks for sharing!

  5. Welcome to Middle Tennessee, Michelle! I'm glad you and about a billion others have discovered our little piece of paradise. Okay not a billion, but over the past decade, our population has doubled. There is so much to love here, and I'm proud to call this area home.

  6. I love Nashville! The music, the food, the zoo, the homes...I could go on and on.

  7. Fascinating! I have family in Middle Tennessee, and Nashville is one of my favorite places.

  8. Thank you, ladies, for the comments!! We're loving the Nashville area. So much rich history and fun things to do! Come and visit, y'all! =D