According to archaeologists, the first residents of what is now known as Nashville were Mississippian Indians. This agricultural society left behind significant evidence of their existence, including exquisitely painted pottery. The Mississippian Indians called this region their home from 1000 to 1400 CE and then mysteriously vanished. Historians and archaeologists are divided on the issue of their disappearance. Some believe the culture evolved into a nomadic society, and simply moved to another region. Others believe they fell victim to a plague of some type or were massacred by another Indian tribe, such as the Cherokee or Chickasaw who would later call this area their home.
Whatever the case, the disappearance of this indigenous farming community was strangely prophetic. The city of Nashville was destined for greatness, but only after an arduous journey of societal evolution. Agriculture would be king in early Nashville. The agricultural society would then be torn by war and Nashville would be destroyed. After rebuilding the city, the citizens would turn to heavy industry to survive. Eventually, industry would fail and the new king in town would be Country Music. It's a very interesting story, and it's a story the people of Nashville have not forgotten. It is woven into their culture, their art, and their lifestyle.
Of Forts and Fur Traders
The first European visitors to the area were French fur traders, who arrived around 1720. These traders prospered along the banks of the Cumberland River. The first English settlers ventured here in 1779. Led by resourceful pioneer James Robertson, they built a primitive fort and named it Nashborough after General Francis Nash, a hero in the United States Revolutionary War. (A reproduction of that first settlement can be seen at Fort Nashborough.) The new town was a part of the state of North Carolina, and soon became a hotbed of activity. Some 60 Families, led by John Donelson, moved southwest from the Colonies and began farming the fertile soil of the Cumberland Plateau. In 1784 the town changed its name to Nashville, and in 1796 Nashville and the surrounding area broke away from North Carolina and declared statehood. Tennessee became the 16th state and Nashville was its capital.
A Young Nation is Divided
In 1860 there were rumors that Southern states were planning secession from the United States. Southern plantation owners depended heavily on the slave labor. The Northern states condemned slavery and demanded the government abolish the practice. Tennessee, a border state, was reluctant to join the secessionist movement and voted to remain loyal to the Union. However, pressure from neighboring states, along with a strong desire to determine their own destiny, caused the citizens to reconsider. When the first shots of the war were fired at Charleston, South Carolina, the decision was made to join the Confederacy. In 1861, the Confederate States of America, or CSA, was formed and elected Jefferson Davis as their President. The divisive war lasted four years and left an indelible mark on Nashville's history.
Fort Donelson was constructed on the banks of the Cumberland River to protect the city of Nashville from Northern aggression. Fort Henry was erected further west, on the Tennessee River, to defend Middle Tennessee. The Union armies struck with surprising force, and the small band of Confederate soldiers was no match for the better equipped, more experienced Northern troops. Both forts fell in only three days. Confederate forces retreated and the mayor of Nashville surrendered the city on February 25, 1862. The Union wasted no time in reclaiming the city and set about the task of building forts of its own. Fort Negley, the largest, was the center of military operations in the Western theatre. Andrew Johnson was appointed by President Lincoln as governor of Tennessee and was charged with reestablishing the loyalty of its citizens to the Union. Most Tennesseans were reluctant to pledge loyalty, but were convinced by threats from Johnson that failure to pledge loyalty would result in loss of property and freedom.
The Union occupation wasn't a quiet one. Confederate troops routinely raided the city and attempted to regain control. On December 15, 1864, a final campaign was staged to recapture the city. The Battle of Nashville was fought for two days and resulted in victory for the Union army and the near devastation of the proud city. General Hood and his Confederate soldiers were forced to retreat and the city of Nashville was decidedly in the hands of the Union army.
Governor Johnson was elected Vice President in 1865 and left Tennessee for Washington, DC. After the assassination of President Lincoln, Johnson assumed the presidency and saw the war end on April 9, 1865. The business of reconstruction kept the citizens of Nashville busy for many years. As the Union armies returned to their homes, Nashville turned its attention to reclaiming its Southern heritage and found support from its neighboring states. The United States was one nation again, but the wounds would take decades to heal, and the scars would last even longer.
As the city of Nashville was rebuilt, the population grew once again. Riverboats and barges chugged up and down the Cumberland opening up the city to trade. Industry developed and the farming communities died away. Manufacturing goods, not growing crops, was the new source of commerce. By the beginning of World War II, the manufacturing industry was booming, and when the United States entered the war, the city retooled its plants to build military equipment and artillery. After the war, heavy industry saw a decline. Financial institutions such as banks and insurance companies took the lead in building the city's wealth. Today, Nashville depends on it's service and tourism economies, rather than manufacturing.
The Music City is Born
In the 1930s, Nashville began playing a new song. Country music was a hybrid of folk music with European roots and African American spirituals. Fiddler and songwriter Roy Acuff was the first real country music star and hosted the wildly popular live radio broadcast,The Grand Ole Opry. Country music gained popularity throughout the country and people everywhere tuned in to NBC radio to hear the latest tunes. The 1950s were the real heyday of country music. Artists like Hank Williams wrote songs about life, love and loss and the message connected with listeners. The recording studios on famed Music Row were filled with aspiring singers and songwriters hoping to make their mark. By 1960 the city was earning a reputation as the center of the Country, Pop, and Blues recording industry and became known as the Music City. Today, the early pioneers are remembered in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which also features exhibits on new country mega-stars like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, who found their success right here in Nashville.
Embracing the Future, Remembering the Past
Today, Nashville is a vibrant city. It is the home of Fortune 500 companies like First Tennessee Bank and telecommunications giant Bell South. It is also home to professional sports franchises like the National Football League's Tennessee Titans and the National Hockey League's Nashville Predators. Nashville's growing arts community has gained national recognition with the works of Norris Hall and it will always be the Home of Country Music.
With all its success, Nashville has not forgotten its roots. Throughout the city you will find reminders of the past. Museums like the Oscar Farris Agricultural Museum recall the city's primitive beginnings. The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson, is a memorial to one of the nation's more controversial leaders. Fort Negley is one of the few remaining reminders of the heinous battle that virtually destroyed the city during the United States Civil War.
Nashville is all grown up now. The small town has become a big city. Nevertheless, it has never lost that quiet, Southern way. Things are done differently here. People still stop to say "Good Morning" and enjoy a cup of coffee on the front porch of a neighbor. A handshake is still a binding contract, in most cases, and hospitality is a way of life.