American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


THE beautiful site upon which the city of Nashville stands must have been famous in prehistoric times. Its natural salt spring near the bank of the Cumberland River was a noted resort of the Indian and buffalo. Some years ago, the huge bones of a mastodon were exhumed from the alluvial deposit upon its margin. Near the flowing spring was an ancient cemetery of the long vanished Stone Grave race, the mound builders, of Tennessee, and upon the opposite bank of the river and in the adjacent valleys have been found not less than ten thousand rude stone cists containing their mortuary remains. These interesting memorials have yielded a vast store of archaeologically treasures, illustrating their arts and industries and telling a pathetic story of aboriginal life in the valley of the Cumberland.

A race of Village Indians, probably akin to the Pueblo Builders or Village Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, once made their home in Middle Tennessee and the adjacent territory. These industrious pottery makers and mound builders must have dwelt for several centuries in this lovely Garden of Eden.

In an evil hour, unhappily, some destroyer came, perhaps the ancestors of the savage and vindictive Mohawk or Iroquois Indians of the north, and devastated their towns and homes and scattered or exterminated the humble and less warlike Villagers. The first white hunters and pioneers discovered in the shadowy forest only their strange and mysterious mounds, and the ancient lines of earthworks that had formed their forts.

For perhaps a hundred years or more before the advent of the white man, the beautiful valley of the Cumberland seems to have been a wilderness uninhabited save by the wild animals of the forest.

As early as 1714, M. Charleville, a French trader, came, and tarried for a time near the salt spring, known thereafter as the French Lick. In 1778, Timothy De Monbreun, a native of France, visited the spring, and later settled near the site of Nashville. Occasionally adventurous hunters and trappers passed down the valley. In 1778, a man of singular courage and gigantic stature named Spencer came with a party from Kentucky in search of homes and fortune, and settled near Bledsoe's Lick, north of the Cumberland. They planted a small field of corn. Spencer's companions soon became discouraged and returned to Kentucky, but this self reliant hunter, undismayed by the solitude of the wilderness and the fear of the crafty Cherokee, refused to leave his. new home in the lonely forest, and passed the long winter there, with only a great hollow sycamore tree as a shelter.

The story of the founding of Nashville is full of heroic incidents. It reads like a romance. About ten years had elapsed since the stout hearted pioneers of Virginia and the Carolinas had pushed their way westward through the blue ridges of the Alleghanies, and planted an independent colony upon the banks of the Watauga River. Its master spirits, John Sevier, James Robertson and Isaac and Evan Shelby would have been men of mark in any community.

From this parent hive, already grown into a strong and prosperous settlement, a new colony of two hundred and more hardy riflemen and pioneers, in the fall of 1779, set out upon a far journey to the west, under the leadership of James Robertson.

Allured by the wonderful stories of the beauty and fertility of the Cumberland Valley, they determined to seek there new homes. It was an heroic venture, unsurpassed in the history of the march of western civilization. No military force blazed a way for them. High mountain ranges, deep and unknown rivers, hundreds of miles of dense forest, lay before them. The dread of the crafty savage, upon whose hunting grounds they were encroaching, did not deter them.

Bidding farewell to their friends at Watauga they struck out upon the wilderness trail of Daniel Boone for the Far West. They passed through the gap in the Cumberland Mountains, across the headwaters of the Cumberland River, and still westward across the rivers and valleys of Central and Southern Kentucky, until, after weary weeks of marching, through storm and snow and ice, they finally reached the old French Lick on Christmas Day, 1779.

The wives and families of this advance guard of the frontier, unable to endure the hardships of the march, were sent in boats and canoes down the Holston and Tennessee rivers. Captain John Donelson was in command, a man of rare courage and judgment. His handsome young daughter, Rachel, one of the voyagers, afterwards became mistress of the White House as the wife of President Jackson.

They left Fort Patrick Henry on the Holston River, December 27, 1779. The distance by water around the long, winding circuit of the Holston, the Tennessee, the Ohio and the Cumberland up to the Cumberland Bluffs was more than a thousand miles. Captain Donelson's interesting journal, kept during the four months' journey and still preserved among the treasures of the Tennessee Historical Society, recounts in plain and modest words a story of heroism, of thrilling adventures, of singular pathos, scarcely equaled in the annals of our American frontier. It was a midwinter journey. The voyagers were attacked by the savage Chickamauga Indians. Their frail boats were swept through unknown rapids and floods. They had to force their way up the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. Many of the party perished, some were shot down by the Indians, others were wounded and ill; but with thankful hearts the survivors finally reached their anxious friends at the "Big Salt Lick" on the Cumberland, April 24, 1780. It was a joyful meeting, a reunion of happy families, long remembered in the settlement.

The commanding bluff on the south side of the river seemed an ideal home for the new colony, united, hopeful and enthusiastic. The rich valley and the winding river added beauty to the landscape. Ranges of noble and picturesque hills, not far distant, surrounded the site. The land was fertile. Springs of pure water abounded, and here in the far western wilderness was planted the new germ of civilization, which in after years was to grow and blossom into rich fruition. In honor of General Nash, of North Carolina, a distinguished officer of the Revolution, the village was christened Nashborough.

And now the cheery sound of the woodman's axe rang out in the forest. Cabins were built. The land was cleared and crops were planted. Log forts were erected, planned after the good model of the fort at Watauga that had saved the precious lives of the little parent colony from the assaults of the Cherokees.

A regiment of riflemen was formed, with James Robertson as Colonel and John Donelson as Lieutenant Colonel. An independent civil government was organized and established. This isolated little settlement was rightly called by James Robertson "The advance guard of western civilization." It was six or seven hundred miles from the nearest established government It was over three hundred miles from the Watauga, and nearly as far from the Kentucky settlements, yet law, order and justice prevailed.

The carefully drawn articles of the compact under which the local civil government was organized, indicate the high character of its citizens. They bore the impress of the true Anglo-Saxon spirit, the love of order and equity. They required strict obedience to the will of the majority. Invoking the blessing of Divine Providence, the compact set up in the wilderness a temple of justice that secured ample legal protection to the citizen and the stranger, u n t the lawful jurisdiction of the parent State of North Carolina could be extended over the new territory.

James Robertson, the well recognized leader of the settlement, was not blessed with the genius and natural gifts of John Sevier, the soldier and statesman of the eastern section, but he was a born ruler and organizer, a man full of resources, of lofty personal character and purposes. Well might he be called the founder and father of Nashville. His life is an epitome of the early history of Middle Tennessee.

Dr. Ramsey, the historian of Tennessee, tells us that when the treaty was made with the Indians at Watauga, giving the whites the right to possess the rich hunting grounds of Middle Tennessee and Kentucky, the aged Indian chief Oconostota took Daniel Boone by the hand, and remarked with significant earnestness: "Brother, we have given you a fine land, but I believe you will have much trouble in settling it." How prophetic were these words ! The brave little colony upon the bluffs at Nashborough, with settlements stretching for many miles along the valley of the Cumberland, was destined to pass through years of peril and anxiety. The young warriors of the Cherokees and Creeks were not willing to confirm the surrender of their favorite hunting grounds to the insatiate and land hungry paleface. Their footprints were soon discovered in the forest. The settlers were ambushed near their homes, and were shot down by unseen foes as they drank at the springs. Horses and cattle were stampeded and stolen. The strongest forts were attacked. At times the dangers and discouragements were so great that it seemed as if this vanguard settlement, with all its hopes and promises, must be abandoned. A number of the settlers yielded to their fears, and returned with their families to Kentucky or to their old homes in the East. In those dark days the exalted character of James Robertson stood out in noble relief. He resolutely stemmed the tide of apprehension. He would not discuss a retreat. He was the very life and mainstay of the settlement. "These rich and beautiful lands," Robertson said, "were not designed to be given up to savages and wild beasts. The God of Creation and Providence has nobler purposes in view." "Each one should do what seems to him his duty. As for myself, my station is here, and here I shall stay if every man of you deserts."

Solitary and alone, and apparently unmindful of danger, Robertson made long journeys through the forest to confer with the Cherokee chiefs in the interest of peace. When the ammunition at the forts was exhausted, and an attack was threatened, he set out in midwinter upon a lonely trail through the wilderness for the Kentucky settlements, and never rested until he had returned to Freeland Station with an ample supply.

His return was none too soon. That very night, at the dead hour of midnight, a band of savage Chickasaws attacked Freeland Station. The moon was shining brightly, but they crept up noiselessly through the shadows to the very gates of the fort. They finally unlocked its bars and were pushing through the opening, when the quick ear of Robertson, who was sleeping near by, caught the sound of danger. He shouted a cry of alarm. A shot from his rifle rang out on the still night air. His comrades within the fort grasped their guns and fired from every cabin door. It was a sharp contest, but the Indians were finally routed and driven from the fort.

In the early spring they attacked the station at Nashborough in almost overwhelming numbers. They forced their way nearly to the gates of the old fort, located near the present corner of Market and Church streets, intercepting the retreat of many of the settlers. There was a desperate struggle for possession of the fort. At an opportune moment, the pack of powerful watch dogs and hounds in the fort was turned loose, attacked the Indians fiercely, and greatly aided in repelling the onslaught. Both sides lost heavily, but the fort and settlement were saved.

For long and anxious years the settlements upon the Cumberland River were in constant warfare and danger. There was no period of peace or repose, yet year by year the restless march of the western pioneers and "movers" continued. The colony grew in strength and numbers, and at the end of the first decade of its history, several thousand thrifty and prosperous settlers occupied the fertile territory along the valley.

The village of Nashborough had become the ambitious town of Nashville. North Carolina had taken the settlements under her motherly protection. A courthouse and prison had been erected. Davidson Academy, that later grew into Nashville University, had been chartered and endowed. In 1788, Andrew Jackson, a young lawyer unknown to fame, came to the town bearing a commission from the Governor of North Carolina as attorney of the Mero District. Colonel James Robertson was appointed a Brigadier General. Tennessee was organized into a State and admitted into the Union in 1796.

From its infancy as a village, Nashville has been something of a historic center. It has been the home of a number of men of national reputation. Under the leadership of Generals Jackson and Coffee, the gallant Tennessee troops who helped to win the famous victory at New Orleans assembled at Nashville.

One of the happy events in the early life of the city, still treasured in our local histories, was the visit of General Lafayette in 1825. He was received and entertained with joyful demonstrations of affection, and it is said that he long remembered and often recalled with pleasure the cordiality of his reception.

Nashville has been the arena of many hotly contested political battles. The eloquence of Sargeant Prentiss, of Henry Clay, of Meredith P. Gentry, of Haskell and the old time orators is still remembered. The city was the home of Felix Grundy, of Thomas H. Benton, later the famous Missouri Senator, of General Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto, and of John Bell. The historic and hospitable mansion of President Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage, a few miles east of Nashville, in those early days, as now was the Mecca of many pilgrimages. Visitors are always charmed with the beauty of the surrounding country. A picturesque avenue lined with overshadowing cedars leads to the house. Its stately pillars and broad porch remind us of an old Virginia homestead.

Here the hero and his beloved wife, Rachel Donelson, lived many happy years, and entertained their friends and neighbors with generous hospitality. Here Aaron Burr was a welcome visitor, before he was suspected of treasonable purposes, and Lafayette, James. Monroe and Martin Van Buren were honored guests. In a field adjoining the mansion, two hundred or more friends and neighbors were entertained at a dinner given in honor of the election of James K. Polk as President.

Like the home of Washington at Mt Vernon, the residence at the Hermitage was a veritable museum of souvenirs, arranged and treasured by Mrs. Jackson and her adopted daughter. The walls were adorned with family and historic portraits, the work of noted artists.

Near by, in a corner of the garden of the Hermitage, the remains of President Jackson and his dear wife lie side by side, under a modest but beautiful marble tomb, prepared by him for their reception. In his later years the old General rarely exhibited the sterner side of his nature. He was mild and courtly in manner. His kindness was proverbial among his neighbors. He became deeply interested in religion. To please his devoted wife, he had a modest chapel erected near their home, and they were faithful attendants at all religious meetings held there.

By an act of the Legislature of Tennessee, the Ladies' Hermitage Association, a society of patriotic ladies of Nashville, has charge of the Hermitage, its mansion and surroundings, and through their untiring devotion the historic old home and its many treasures are well preserved and cared for.

The residence of President James K. Polk still stands upon an elevated site in the center of the city of Nashville. It was a stately dwelling in its day, worthy to be the home of a President. His remains were deposited in a tomb of noble proportions erected in front of the mansion, but some years ago, by an act of the Legislature, they were removed to the grounds of the State Capitol.

The revered widow of President Polk survived him many years, and the old home and her gracious welcome added a charm to the social life of the city and attracted visitors from near and far.

It was not until the year 1843 that Nashville became the seat of government of the State of Tennessee. The city presented to the State the splendid grounds upon which its beautiful capitol building stands. The famed Acropolis at Athens did not afford a nobler site for its temples. The traveler can see it from afar, and from the broad porticos of the State House one can survey the winding Cumberland and the varied beauties of the surrounding hills.

Nashville continued to grow in importance and prosperity year by year, until the shadows of the great conflict between the States clouded its happy life. The hearts of the people were mainly in sympathy with the Southern cause. True to the history of the Volunteer State, its young men enlisted in the army, and its devoted women nursed the wounded in the hospitals.

Unhappily, Fort Donelson soon fell; the Federal gunboats steamed up the river; General Buell and his troops appeared on the north bank of the Cumberland, and in February, 1862, the proud city was forced to surrender to the Union army.

Nashville became a vast military camp. Federal brigades and divisions marched through its streets and camped in the beautiful woodland parks about the city. A cordon of elaborate forts and earthworks was built along the chain of suburban hills to the south and west. An imposing fortress soon encircled the stately Capitol building, in the very heart of the city, and towered threateningly above the homes of its people. Its battlements and sharp angles, the very porticos of the Capitol, bristled with cannon. It became the central citadel of Federal defence. The fierce cannonade that announced the bloody battle at Murfreesboro, thirty miles away, could almost be heard by the anxious mothers and friends within the walls at Nashville.

General N. B. Forrest, with his cavalry force, came and threatened the city for a time, but made no serious attack. Later, General Hood marched up from the south with a splendid army, reviving the hopes of the Confederates in Nashville; but the fatal disaster at Franklin, and the overwhelming defeat of the Confederates by General Thomas on the hills south of the city, shattered all hope, and left the Union forces in possession of the coveted prize until the close of the war.

Ah! those were days that tore the heartstrings. East Tennessee had cast its affections and strength with the North, and remained loyal to the Union. Each section of the State had followed its convictions as to the right, and Tennessee may well be proud of her sons who fought on either side. Nashville was the home of gallant Frank Cheatham, of General William H. Jackson, General William B. Bate, General Rains, General Maney and a host of other Confederates who won honor and distinction in the Southern cause. Buell, Rdsecrans, Thomas, Sherman, Grant, distinguished generals on the Federal side, had all held command there.

Happily, peace came at last, and the long beleaguered city breathed more freely. The remains of the Confederates who fell in the battles about Nashville were lovingly gathered into the beautiful grounds of the "Confederate Circle" at Mt. Olivet. The Federals sleep peacefully in the National Cemetery not far away, under the kindly care of the government.

Soon the wheels of industry began to revolve. New life and prosperity came. The heart of Cornelius Vanderbilt was warmed toward the desolated South, and a noble institution of learning was endowed in his name. The Trustees of George Peabody came to the rescue also, and founded the Peabody Normal College. The Jubilee Singers of Nashville sang Fisk University into life, and endowed a useful institution dedicated to the education of the colored race recently freed from slavery.

A new Nashville has adjusted itself to the changed order of things in the South, and is assuming the appearance and proportions of a metropolis. Its borders have extended to the picturesque hills that circle the city. Its fame as an educational center perhaps more than rivals its importance in commerce and manufactures. More than five thousand students from other sections of the country are included in its scholastic population, and within the city limits there are not less than eighty schools and colleges - schools of theology, law, medicine, pharmacy, music and art. They are the glory of Nashville.

The throng of teachers and students help to give it the charm of a literary and intellectual atmosphere. Right justly may it be called the "Athens of the South." Vanderbilt University and Peabody Normal College, with their beautiful parks and clusters of fine buildings are institutions of which any city might be proud.

In 1880, Nashville celebrated its Centennial in honor of the founding of the city. It was an inspiring occasion, but the Centennial of the State of Tennessee, celebrated at the capital in 1896-97, crowned the city with laurels that will long be remembered with honorable pride. It was a revelation, a noble memorial of a century of statehood. The dream of James Robertson, the father and founder of Nashville, was more than realized. In a little more than a century of progress, the camp of the brave little colony on the bank of the Cumberland had grown into a splendid Southern city.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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