Nashville Founding Factors

by Mike Slate.

It’s difficult to imagine when Nashville wasn’t here—when Davidson County was a game-rich but otherwise uninhabited wilderness. Yet that’s the way it was 250 years ago. Who started all this civilization that we now take for granted and call our home? The traditional view is that Nashville was founded by pioneers James Robertson and John Donelson, who journeyed here in 1779-80 with a few hundred others, built a fort on the bluff above the Cumberland River, and persevered through much danger and hardship. The arrival of Robertson and Donelson was certainly the pinnacle of an uphill process, yet other founding factors are worthy of more emphasis than they sometimes receive.

For example, we should not forget the buffalo. The huge hump-backed beasts flourished here near the river and made paths to a salubrious spot in the vicinity of Sulphur Dell ballpark and the Bicentennial Mall. That spot was a salt lick on a creek called Lick Branch, long since smothered by modern infrastructure. So many bison and deer were here that reports from early hunters and explorers made our area attractive to adventurous colonials back east. Yes, our metropolis rides atop buffalo humps: without the bison there may never have been a Nashville, a circumstance that illustrates the interdependence of geographical, natural, and human history.

Painting from NHN collection

Despite 200 years of study the next factor remains mysterious and fraught with theory. Generally, we know that over the eons distinctly different cities were often built one on top of another. Nashville has risen upon a Mississippian-era culture commonly known as the Mound Builders, Indians so ancient that even the more modern Native Americans didn’t know where they came from or where they went. When early woodsmen arrived at our salt lick they found an old earthen mound close by, obviously man-made and apparently ceremonial in function. Ralph Earl, Andrew Jackson’s portrait artist, excavated the mound in 1821 and found the round base to be about thirty yards in diameter and the height about ten feet. Situated generally from the mound eastward to the Cumberland, an ancient burial ground held interments enough to indicate that a large population thrived here. These remains of a surprisingly sophisticated society were a few to several centuries old. In addition to Davidson County finds, other such sites were discovered in surrounding counties and across Tennessee—all a part of a nexus that extended throughout much of the Ohio River Valley and beyond. Was the existence of a previous society an encouragement to later pioneers? Did early Nashvillians assume, consciously or not, that since another culture had flourished here, so could they?

Photo by Paul Pierce

After the era of the Mound Builders, the Shawnee Indians also had villages along the Cumberland. In fact, an early name for the Cumberland River was the “Shawanoe,” an English derivative of the French “Chaouanon.”   The Shawnee were a rather nomadic tribe, but for a time they had a village near our salt lick, until driven north in about 1714 by Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes who sought to reserve Middle Tennessee for hunting only. Thus for many years before the Euro-American settlers arrived, our Middle Tennessee area was a kind of sacred game preserve. No wonder the Indians were enraged when the white man came. However, the settlers, knowing good land when they saw it, determined to have it regardless of the price they had to pay. That price was paid in blood, as Indian wars raged for the first fifteen years of white settlement. Evidently, no real estate is more desirable than that which someone else also desires!

During and after the Shawnee period, French hunters and traders headquartered at our salt lick. Around the year 1710 a young apprentice, Jean du Charleville, worked here for an old Frenchman whose name is lost to history.  Their trading post was located directly on top of our Indian mound. Arriving in the 1760s, another hunter-trader bore an auspicious name: Jacques Timothe Boucher de Montbrun. More commonly known as Timothy Demonbreun, he returned in later years to settle in Nashville, and today’s Demonbreun Street is named for him. Because of the intermittent presence of such French entrepreneurs, our locale became known as the French Lick, a name familiar to researchers of the American frontier. A remnant of French influence survives today in the word “Nashville,” the suffix -ville being French for town or village.

On the heels of the French traders came the Long Hunters, so called because of the lengthy time they spent in the woods. Notable hunters and explorers in our region during the 1760s and 70s include Thomas Hutchins, Henry Scaggs, Uriah Stone, Michael Stoner, Kasper Mansker, Isaac Bledsoe, Thomas “Bigfoot” Spencer, James Smith, John Rains, Daniel Boone, and John Montgomery. History knows a fair amount about these trailblazers, and their romantic era is fittingly memorialized in the name of today’s Long Hunter State Park along Percy Priest Lake. Serving as the vanguard of colonial civilization, the Long Hunters laid the foundation necessary for permanent settlement.

The Long Hunters gave rave reviews of the western wilds to a North Carolina judge, Richard Henderson, who was interested in land speculation. Together with like-minded partners, Henderson established a land company, the Transylvania Company; and in 1775 he negotiated with the powerful Cherokee Indians to gain tentative control of much of today’s Kentucky and upper Middle Tennessee territory, including the French Lick. He then organized emigrant groups to settle both the Kentucky and Cumberland regions, with Daniel Boone the head of the Kentucky contingent and James Robertson the Tennessee leader. Robertson, a North Carolinian, teamed with Virginian John Donelson and devised a plan to conduct a few hundred pioneers from northeastern Tennessee to the French Lick, Robertson by land and Donelson by river. Robertson’s group arrived here in December 1779 and built the fortification overlooking the Cumberland, and Donelson’s voyagers arrived the following April. A number of the newcomers established other stations nearby. Close behind the settlers came Henderson, who then penned our first organizational document—the famous Cumberland Compact—in which he referred to our compound as “Nashborough,” in honor of General Francis Nash who had recently died in the Revolutionary War. Some 256 men signed the Compact, and the primitive village was up and running, along with its sister stations.

But Nashborough had no real legitimacy. It was only a speck of civilization separated by hundreds of rugged miles from its territorial mother, the State of North Carolina. Finally, in 1783-84, the North Carolina legislature recognized it, upgrading the outpost to the status of a town in the new county of Davidson and changing its name to Nashville, an apparent attempt to disavow the English with whom the Revolutionary War was just ending.      

Of our Nashville founding factors—buffalo, Mound Builders, Shawnee, French hunters-traders, Long Hunters, Henderson, Robertson and Donelson, North Carolina legislature—perhaps the most under-appreciated is frontier opportunist Richard Henderson. So instrumental was his role in our beginnings that if someone were to claim him as our founding father it would be difficult to argue the point. While it is Robertson who is proudly and justifiably known as the “Father of Middle Tennessee,” Henderson was the CEO behind the initial enterprise. He didn’t do the heroic grunt work or Indian fighting necessary for our permanence, but he was our prime mover.

Like the trees that obscure the forest, hidden within the “how” of our founding is the “why.” Why did the founders come to this particular place? Nashville’s founding factors provide a fundamental answer: the colonial settlers were drawn to this location because it already had a magnetic history.


Helpful sources: Haywood’s The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee, 1823; Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, 1887; Thruston’s Antiquities of Tennessee, 1890; Williams’s Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, 1937; Arnow’s Seedtime on the Cumberland, 1960; Crutchfield’s Early Times in the Cumberland Valley, 1976; Satz’s Tennessee’s Indian Peoples, 1979; Hinton’s A Long Path, 1997; Finger’s Tennessee Frontiers, 2001.


This article was originally published in the September 2009 issue of The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here.