Big Harpeth River

by Ilene Jones Cornwell.

Middle Tennessee’s Big Harpeth River drains a basin of 895 square miles. With headwaters in southwestern Rutherford County, the river meanders in a generally northwest direction through the counties of Williamson, Davidson, and Cheatham. The tree-lined waterway is fed by several tributaries–West Harpeth, Little Harpeth, and South Harpeth–as well as Trace, Brush, Turnbull, and Jones creeks. The river flows in loops and lazy curves about 118 miles before its confluence with the Cumberland River near Ashland City.

Harpeth River

The earliest recorded descriptions of the river we know as Big Harpeth mention its abundance of fish and the fertility of the soil along its course. Surveyor Thomas Hutchins labeled the river in 1768 as Fish Creek, apparently an appropriately descriptive name. Traveler John Lipscomb noted in his journal of 1784 that the wild cane along the river was “so thick a man could scarcely ride”; a profusion of wild cane indicated fertile soil, since cane grew in the most productive earth.

The name Fish Creek remained with the river until the 1780s, when the stream was shown on maps as the Harpath. The name continued to be spelled H-a-r-p-a-t-h as late as 1796, when the Map of the Tennessee Government, Formerly Part of North Carolina was published in Philadelphia. By the early 1800s, however, the name’s spelling had changed to Harpeth and that spelling appeared on nineteenth-century maps and in publications and correspondence. Pioneer surveyor John Davis, who had claimed a land grant “about twelve miles southwest of Nashville” and settled on Big Harpeth after the Revolutionary War, gave as his address in 1851 that of “Harpeth, Davidson County, Tennessee.”

Whether Harpath or Harpeth, what does the word mean and why was it applied to this beautiful stream in Middle Tennessee? Several theories have been offered, but the conjecture that seems to be most plausible is that the river was named by early Tennessee settlers for a mythical stream in English literature. Edward D. Hicks IV, a descendant of pioneer John Davis, read a paper entitled “Origin of the Name Harpeth” in 1892 to members of the Tennessee Historical Society in Nashville. He referred to an “Oriental legend” published by editor Joseph Addison in the August 23, 1714, issue of The Spectator, a popular London periodical. “Among our early settlers were some, if not many, scholarly men,” said Hicks. “Books were not so abundant then as now, but to these gentlemen the classics were as familiar as household words, and The Spectator was an English classic.”

In the legend there were two brothers, Harpath and Shalum, who lived in China and became rivals for the affection of a beautiful woman named Hilpa. After Harpath won the hand of lovely Hilpa, Shalum cursed him and prayed for a mountain to fall upon his brother. Harpath fearfully avoided the mountains, hoping to prevent such harm to himself, but he eventually drowned in a river issuing from the mountains and the river was forever called Harpath.

However the Harpeth River acquired its name, the winding waterway served as a magnet for the earliest settlers of southwestern Davidson County and is both a mythical and tangible part of the heritage of Middle Tennessee. The Harpeth by any other name would be just as scenic and historic.

Across the Harpeth Valley from the Davis-Hicks home stood the circa 1845 tollhouse beside Richland Turnpike (now Old Harding Road), west of the Harpeth River bridge.  The general route of the Richland Creek and Wharton Road was in existence in 1809, but it wasn’t until 1843 that the Richland Turnpike Company was chartered to extend the road to the “west bank of Harpeth and bridge the same.” The tollhouse gatekeeper collected the appointed (by turnpike charter) tolls and raised the long wooden tollgate to allow passage for those traveling to and from Nashville through the Harpeth Valley. The log structure stood until 1971, when it was demolished. (Photograph (c) 1967 by Ilene Jones Cornwell.)

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