THE EARLIEST DAYS  Long before Europeans set foot in Middle Tennessee, Native Americans populated the rolling hills, dense forests, and grasslands. Herds of deer and buffalo made the region an excellent hunting ground. However, by the late 18th century when the first Europeans arrived, warfare over access to the area’s rich hunting grounds forced battling tribes to move away. Though there were no native villages in the immediate area, tension and violence between Native Americans and settlers was very real.

FRONTIER DAYS —The first Europeans to arrive in middle Tennessee were French fur trappers and traders: Charles Charleville, who established a trading post at a salt lick in 1710 near what’s now Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, and Timothy Demonbreun, who made his home in a cave on a bluff above the Cumberland River. By the 1750s, the area that is now Nashville came to be known as French Lick. During that time, the only other whites to explore the area were long hunters, who got their name from extended, months-long hunting trips over the Appalachian Mountains (the chain that runs from Canada to central Alabama today). These hunters would bring back stacks of buckskins, which at the time sold for $1 apiece, which is how a dollar came to be called a “buck.” Daniel Boone, the most famous long hunter, is thought to have passed through French Lick in the 1760s.

In the 1770s, the Indian Treaty of Lochaber and the Transylvania Purchase gave settlers access to land west of the Appalachians. Settlements had already sprung up on Cherokee land there, forming the Watauga Association, which was one of the early forms of self-government. However, it was not until the late 1770s that the first settlers arrived in Middle Tennessee. In 1778, Watauga Association member James Robertson brought a scouting party here during his search for a place to build a new settlement. The bluffs appealed to Robertson, and the following year he returned with a party of settlers who arrived at French Lick on Christmas Eve 1779. Women and children, under the leadership of John Donelson, followed by flatboat, traveling 1,000 miles by river and arriving in April 1780. The new settlement of nearly 300 was named Fort Nashborough after North Carolina General Francis Nash. As soon as both parties were assembled, settlers drew up a charter of government called the Cumberland Compact, which is largely recognized as the first form of government in Middle Tennessee.

Fort Nashborough was founded while the Revolutionary War raged, and the first settlers soon found themselves battling the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Cherokee Chief Dragging Canoe strongly objected to the sale of land to the settlers because he predicted it would result in the extinction of the Cherokee, so his tribes fought back. The worst confrontation was 1871’s Battle of the Bluffs, though Native attacks on the settlements would continue for the next 14 years.

By 1784, the situation had grown quieter, and the settlement changed its name from Nashborough to Nashville. Twelve years later, Tennessee became the 16th state in the Union. Nashville was still a tiny settlement in a vast wilderness, but in less than 20 years, the city would become known nationwide due to one now-famous resident.

In 1814, at the close of the War of 1812, Nashville lawyer Andrew Jackson led a contingent of Tennessee militiamen in the Battle of New Orleans. The British were soundly defeated, and Jackson became a hero. A political career followed, and in 1829, Jackson was elected the seventh president of the United States. At home in Tennessee, during the early part of the 19th century, the state government bounced back and forth across the state before finally staying put in Nashville, where the capitol building was completed in 1859.

THE CIVIL WAR & RECONSTRUCTION — By 1860, when the first rumblings of secession began across the South, Nashville was a prosperous river port. Tennessee became the last state to secede and side with the Confederacy, and that decision sealed Nashville’s fate. The city’s significance as a shipping port was not lost on either side, both of which wanted to control key river and railroad transportation routes. In February 1862, the Union army overtook Nashville, razing many homes and making Nashville the first state capital to fall to the Union.

Throughout the Civil War, the Confederates repeatedly attempted to reclaim Nashville to no avail. In December 1864, the Confederate army made its last attempt. They were easily defeated at the Battle of Nashville, where 6,000 Confederate soldiers went up against 45,000 Union soldiers. Many historians believe more black Union troops fought in the Battle of Nashville than in any other battle of the Civil War.

Though the war left Nashville severely damaged and in dire economic straits, the city quickly rebounded. Within a few years, it had reclaimed its important shipping and trading position and developed a solid manufacturing base. The late 19th century brought prosperity and left the city with a legacy of grand classical-style buildings, which can still be seen downtown.

In 1886, Fisk University, one of the nation’s first African-American universities, was founded. Vanderbilt University followed in 1873, and in 1876, Meharry Medical College, the country’s foremost African-American medical school. 

THE 20TH CENTURY — At the turn of the twentieth century, Nashville was one of the South’s most important cities. The nation had elected three presidents from Tennessee (Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson). This newfound significance had culminated 3 years earlier with the ambitious Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897, a 6-month long world’s fair commemorating the state’s 100th birthday. It was unusual at the time for a city of our size to host a world’s fair, but 1.8 million people showed up, including Booker T. Washington and President William McKinley. During that year, Susan B. Anthony made her first and only visit to Nashville, which would later become significant when Tennessee tipped the scales to give women the vote.

It was for this event that the full-size reconstruction of the Greek Parthenon was built in Centennial Park. With more than a dozen colleges and a growing reputation as a center of higher education, Nashville was reinforcing its reputation as the “Athens of the South.” At first, however, Nashville’s nickname was actually the “Athens of the West” before expanding borders put the city in the middle of the U.S. rather than at the western front. Today the Nashville Parthenon houses “Athena,” a 41-foot-tall statue that’s the largest piece of indoor sculpture in the Western world. It was meant to be temporary but proved so popular that the city left it in place. Over the years, the building deteriorated and became unsafe to visit, so the city planned to demolish it. However public outcry brought about reconstruction with permanent materials.

Spectacular Centennial

Nashville’s centennial celebration was huge, even by today’s standards. Cities and states constructed actual buildings on the “Vanity Fair,” the event’s central hub, showing off their personalities. Memphis constructed a great pyramid as a nod to its Nile River namesake, and new technologies debuted, including the University of Tennessee’s X-ray machine. Thomas Edison introduced the city to motion pictures with short films, and people were so dazzled they referred to it as “Edison’s Mirage.”

During the same time period, trains began using the new Union Station. The grand waiting hall of the Roman-Gothic train station featured a stained-glass ceiling with gilded plasterwork and bas-reliefs, which you can still see today inside Union Station Hotel.

In 1920, Tennessee played a pivotal role in passing the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. As the 36th state to ratify, the Tennessee vote became crucial to women’s suffrage. Oddly, both the pro-suffrage and antisuffrage organizations were headquartered in the Beaux Arts–style Hermitage Hotel. In 1994, this hotel was completely renovated and is now known as “The Hermitage,” the city’s premier historic hotel.

The 20th century brought the emergence of country music, with the genre's first recordings coming from Tennessee. Though it took a quarter of a century for “hillbilly” music to catch on, by 1945 Nashville was the center of the country music world, and that remains true today. 

African-American History in Nashville

*  Nashvillian William Edmonson was the first black artist to exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1937. Today, his work can be seen in a permanent exhibit at Cheekwood Botanical Garden.

*  From the 1940s to the 1960s, Jefferson Street was the jazz, blues, and R&B district. Legendary performers, ranging from Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald to Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Ike and Tina Turner, played in nightclubs (now long gone) such as the Del Morocco and New Era.

*  In 1960, civil rights pioneer and lawmaker John Lewis and activist Diane Nash helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters across the city. The song “We Shall Overcome” was first used as an anthem of the civil rights movement during the Nashville sit-ins, some of which took place at the Woolworth department store, now Woolworth on 5th, a downtown Nashville restaurant. 

*  Former Nashville resident Oprah Winfrey was a Tennessee State University sophomore when she became the first female and first African-American in Nashville to anchor a local newscast.

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