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Nashville: History

First Settlers Face Perils

The first settlers in the area that now forms Nashville were attracted by the fertile soil, huge trees, plentiful water, and an abundance of animal life. Native Americans such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee hunted throughout Middle Tennessee in the 1700s, but ongoing fighting over hunting rights kept them from establishing any permanent settlements. The first Europeans to reach the area were French fur traders, who built trading posts in the dense woods. As more and more hunters brought glowing reports back to settlements in the East of the abundant, unoccupied land in the "west," 400 people in North Carolina eventually decided to band together and move to the area.

On Christmas Eve 1779, they reached the future site of Nashville. The men, women, and children of the James Robertson party (named for the man who would eventually become an early community leader) first survived in primitive camps at the base of what is now the state Capitol Hill. As spring arrived, they spread out to build cabins, the largest group settling on the banks of the Cumberland River in a "fort" of log blockhouses. They christened the community "Nashborough" for North Carolina's General Francis Nash, a hero of the American Revolution. Months later the pioneers found themselves swept up in war as the settlement became a western front for the American Revolution. Incited by the British, the Native Americans in the area turned on the white settlers, which caused most of them to move to safer ground in nearby Kentucky. The 70 people who remained gathered in the fort and managed to hold off their attackers until frontier conditions became less hostile.

In 1784 the community incorporated and changed its name to Nashville, dropping the English "borough" as a result of anti-British sentiment. The years following the war were a time of growth and prosperity. James Robertson helped to establish Davidson Academy, which would later become the University of Nashville. Churches were erected, public buildings developed, doctors' offices opened, and stores began doing business. In 1796, Tennessee became the sixteenth state of the Union.

"The Age of Jackson"

The period in Nashville history between 1820 to 1845 is quite simply known as "The Age of Jackson." Andrew Jackson, a brash, young local lawyer and public prosecutor, was a formidable figure in the new frontier. He first came to national attention as a hero of the Creek (Native American) War. When he trounced the British army in New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812, he was wildly embraced as a national hero. Jackson served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and he was eventually elected the seventh president of the United States in 1829. Jackson's popularity gave Nashville considerable prestige, power, and clout in the nation's eye, and the city was made the permanent capital of Tennessee in 1843. State leaders soon commissioned construction of a new state capitol building, an impressive neo-classic structure erected over the next 14 years on the summit of the city's highest hill. Designed by noted nineteenth-century architect William Strickland, the Capitol ushered in an era of unprecedented building and design in Nashville of which Strickland was the uncontested leader. His distinct, clean, classic structures shaped the frontier town into a city, and left a lasting imprint on the community. Many buildings, such as the Capitol and St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, are still in use today.

The mid-1800s was also an era of unprecedented development for the city. Traffic on the Cumberland River made Nashville a shipping and distribution center. Wealthy businessmen built lavish estates. A medical school was founded. The Adelphi Theater opened with a series of plays by Shakespeare. The first passenger train pulled into the depot. A board of education was established. P. T. Barnum even brought Jenny Lind, the world-renowned singer, to town. By 1860, all the qualities that had made Nashville such a boom town in times of peace also made it a city of strategic importance in times of war. At first a giant supply arsenal for the Confederates, Nashville was soon taken during the Civil War by Union troops who seized control of the railroad and river. They occupied the city for three years. In a last attempt to turn the war around, Southern troops tried to retake the town in December of 1864. The Battle of Nashville was one of the bloodiest confrontations between the North and South, and the last major conflict of the Civil War.

Post-War Rebuilding

It took nearly ten years to pick up the pieces, but Nashville recovered to experience new growth in business and industry. The city became a printing center, an educational center (both Vanderbilt University and Fisk University were established in 1873), and an important distributing and wholesale center. An elegant new hotel, the Maxwell House, opened its doors and began serving a special blend of coffee that President Teddy Roosevelt said was "good to the last drop." One hundred years after Tennessee was admitted to the Union, the city celebrated with a giant Centennial Exposition that attracted visitors from throughout the United States. A wood and stucco replica of the Parthenon built for the fair was such a popular attraction that the city constructed a permanent version that now stands in Centennial Park. The railroad built a magnificent terminal building, Union Station, making Nashville a major railway center and greatly spurring population growth.

Development During Twentieth Century and into Twenty-First Century

The twentieth century brought business and skyscrapers. The National Life and Accident Company was formed along with Life & Casualty Insurance Company. In the area, local financial institutions blossomed, manufacturing reached all-time highs, and the city's neighborhoods swelled with workers as a result of World War I and World War II. After the wars, Nashville was part of the country's new wave of technology with a new airport, factory automation, and even a local television station. In time, the recording industry became a mainstay of the local economy, and tourism and convention business became big business. By the 1960s, Nashville was infused with a spirit of urban renewal. Surrounding Davidson County had become a fragmented collection of local governments that lacked unified direction. On April 1, 1963, the city voted to consolidate the city and the county to form the first metropolitan form of government in the United States.

The system of metropolitan government has streamlined the city's organization and become an effective agent of progress. The city has undergone major municipal rehabilitation projects, and has renovated the historical district near the old Ft. Nashborough site. Second Avenue, once a row of dilapidated turn-of-the-century warehouses, has become a bustling center of shopping, offices, restaurants, clubs, and apartments. In recent years, many historic buildings have been saved from the wrecking ball. The Hermitage Hotel, built in 1910 as a showplace of Tennessee marble floors and staircases, was totally renovated in the 1990s and is once again packed with guests. Renovation has also come to Union Station, the massive railroad house that now towers over Broadway as one of Nashville's premiere hotels. Unprecedented investment in Nashville in the mid-1990s placed the city on the verge of explosive growth as a sports and entertainment venue. Its Gaylord Entertainment Center, home of the National Hockey League team the Nashville Predators, has become a major catalyst for urban development, which continues into the twenty-first century. In addition to Nashville's mainstay industries of banking, insurance, printing, education, health, and medicine, the city is becoming recognized for its growth as a hotspot for biotechnology and plastics companies, and growing real estate market. Nashville enters the twenty-first century as a thriving metropolis with extensive kudos for its quality of life, business climate, diversified economy, and top tourist destinations.

Historical Information: Nashville Public Library, The Nashville Room, 615 Church Street, Nashville, TN 37219; telephone (615)862-5782. Tennessee State Museum Library, Fifth and Deaderick Streets, Nashville, TN 37243; telephone (615)741-2692. Tennessee Western History Association Library, PO Box 111864, Nashville, TN 37222; telephone (615)834-5069