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.

Daniel Boone in Nashville

by Mike Slate.

Legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) is most often associated with blazing the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in 1775 and establishing Kentucky settlements. However, his many wide-ranging expeditions arouse our curiosity as to whether he also explored Middle Tennessee in general and the French Lick-Nashville locality in particular. Kentucky’s plucky pioneer has generated a torrent of literature, and I invite the reader to hike with me down the Nashville fork of the Boone trail. Along the way I think we’ll find that history’s subplots are both interesting and informative.

(photo by Bob Bowman)

Daniel Boone’s short “autobiography,” romantically ghostwritten by Kentucky land speculator John Filson (ca. 1753-1788) and published in 1784, launched the intrepid woodsman to national and international fame. A pertinent but inconclusive sentence therein reports that Daniel and his brother Squire Boone (1744-1815) “proceeded to Cumberland river, reconnoitring [sic] that part of the country until March 1771, and giving names to the different waters” (The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, Kessinger reprint, p. 56). The Life of Daniel Boone, the seminal tome of renowned archivist Lyman C. Draper (1815-1891), seems to place this exploratory event within a geographical swath ranging from near today’s Bowling Green, Kentucky, south to Castalian Springs (formerly Bledsoe’s Lick) in Sumner County, Tennessee (see p. 264 of the Stackpole Books edition, edited by Ted Franklin Belue). One contemporary writer, Robert Morgan, expands this expedition even farther south, all the way to the French Lick (Boone: A Biography, p. 121).  

Draper reports a more conclusive episode – occurring as much as two and a half years after the exploratory journey mentioned above – in this fascinating passage: “During this period, one Joe Robertson, an old weaver who had a famous pack of bear-dogs and was devoted to the chase, often accompanied Boone into the Brushy Mountain and over to the Watauga, securing loads of bear-skins, which they packed to the settlements and sold. On one of their adventurous trips, they penetrated as far as the French Lick on Cumberland and found several French hunters there” (pp. 283-284). Here we have the earliest narrative I know that places Boone squarely in the heart of Nashville. The time frame for this visit is some seven or more years before the town was founded in 1779-80 by James Robertson (1742-1814) and John Donelson (ca. 1718-1785). Incidentally, I have discovered no familial kinship between Joe Robertson and Nashville co-founder James Robertson, yet the possibility remains intriguing. Furthermore, the fact that French hunters/traders occasionally headquartered at the salt lick on the Cumberland River known as the “French Lick,” site of today’s Nashville, has always been known, the most famous of these traders being Timothy Demonbreun (1747-1826), Nashville’s “First Citizen.”

Through the years other biographers have repeated Draper’s account of Boone at the French Lick: Reuben Gold Thwaites (1853-1913), though he places Boone “sometimes with one or two companions” but not with Joe Robertson or his dogs specifically; John Bakeless (1894-1978); and more recently, historians John Mack Faragher and Michael A. Lofaro. In his acclaimed 1992 chronicle, Faragher sometimes even tags the event with seasons: “Whether with his family or alone, Boone certainly spent the fall and winter of 1771-72 hunting in what would become the state of Tennessee. With a North Carolinian named Joe Robertson, the owner of a notable pack of bear-tracking hounds, he hunted bear, pushing as far west as French Lick (later called Nashville) on the Cumberland River, where he met hunters of some of the numerous French parties that came to those licks each year to hunt buffalo” (Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, p. 88).

Other than in biographies, I am aware of no complete reference to Draper’s Boone-at-French Lick anecdote in any other Nashville or Tennessee history. The most obvious reason is, of course, that for well over a century Draper’s Boone manuscript existed only in handwritten form and often only on hard-to-read microfilm, until Murray State University’s Ted Franklin Belue brought it to print in 1998. Several state and local historians, however, do place Boone at least in the Middle Tennessee area. A.W. Putnam (1799-1869) notes that “Boone, Rains, Mansker, and others . . . hunted and explored in 1769-70 upon the Cumberland” and reported “its marvelous herds of buffalo and deer” (History of Middle Tennessee, University of Tennessee edition, p. 619). Similarly, Samuel Cole Williams (1864-1947) comments in his discussion of 1769-70 exploratory crews that “Daniel Boone after a hunt in Kentucky joined one of the groups on the Cumberland in the Tennessee region” (Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, Watauga Press edition, p. 330). Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986), who used Draper and many other primary sources, mentions that Boone “hunted over and explored most of the Cumberland at intervals between 1769 and 1775” (Seedtime on the Cumberland, Univ. of Nebraska edition, p. 169). And contemporary historian John R. Finger, using a Draper-like phrase, observes that in 1772 Boone “hunted as far west as French Lick” (Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, p. 42—which book includes, by the way, the finest bibliographic essay on frontier Tennessee sources that I know of).

Equally germane to the case for a Boone visit to Nashville are his professional and personal ties to the Lower Cumberland region. He was above all a Long Hunter extraordinaire who stayed in the woods for months or even years at a time. It strains credulity that he would not at some point come to the French Lick, heralded at least since the late 1760s for its excellent hunting. In addition, Boone was (or became) well acquainted with several Cumberland pioneers including Michael Stoner (1748-1813), Kasper Mansker (ca.1750-1820), and, most notably, Nashville co-founder James Robertson. Both Boone and Robertson worked for the prominent Transylvania Company under Richard Henderson (1734-1785), with Boone the overseer of Henderson’s Kentucky land interests and Robertson of his Tennessee holdings. Williams provides insight into the duo’s personal relationship in his report that Boone’s children, along with Robertson’s, were christened or baptized in Robertson’s Watauga home in East Tennessee, perhaps around 1772-73 (see Dawn of Tennessee Valley, p. 344). Moreover, Draper asserts that their friendship directly influenced the founding of Nashville. Upon returning to North Carolina after the famous 1778 Boonesborough siege, “Boone went by way of Watauga and was there enabled to make such representations to his old friend Capt. James Robertson as induced him the following year to visit the Cumberland country and become the pioneer father of Middle Tennessee” (The Life of Daniel Boone, p. 521).

An argument against a Boone visit to Nashville could pivot on Draper’s interviews with the pioneer’s last-born child, Nathan Boone (1781-1856), who was an intrepid frontiersman in his own right, as well as Draper’s greatest wellspring of information. Fortunately, Draper cites sources for his Boone-at-French Lick passage, with this endnote: “MS. notes of conversations with Col. Nathan Boone and the late Henry Rutherford of Tennessee. Soon after the Revolutionary War, [Joe] Robertson resided in the family of Mr. Rutherford’s father, Gen. Griffith Rutherford, of Rowan County, North Carolina, and used to speak of his hunting and exploring with Boone (The Life of Daniel Boone, p. 294). But his citation of Nathan Boone as a source for the French Lick event is problematic in view of his 1851 interviews with Nathan as presented in a 1999 book. in one interview with Nathan, Draper asked, “Did Colonel Boone ever mention hunting at the French Lick on the Cumberland River?” Nathan’s answer: “Not that I recall” (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 45, edited by Neal O. Hammon). Throughout his Boone manuscript Draper cited Nathan often, apparently at least one time too many.

Now we come to the testimony of Henry Rutherford (1762-1847), who is ultimately Draper’s chief source for the Boone-at-French-Lick account. If Henry did not receive Robertson’s story firsthand, then he may have garnered it from his father, Gen. Griffith Rutherford (1720-1805), in honor of whom, incidentally, Rutherford County, Tennessee, was named. Recycled reminiscences are common fare for historians of the American frontier, especially when researching such mythologically infilled lives as Daniel Boone and David Crockett (1786-1836); but this one seems fairly straightforward and plausible. A relevant example, however, of the vagaries of memory is that Nathan Boone remembered Joe Robertson and his bear-hunting dogs (though not specifically with any French Lick outing), but recalled him as “John” Robertson (My Father, Daniel Boone, p. 37). Still, whether Joe or John, our Robertson hunting companion no doubt existed.

Did Daniel Boone ever visit the French Lick-Nashville area? A reasonable, one-word answer would be “probably.” If we zoom out a bit and ask whether Boone was significant to the process that led to the founding of Nashville, the consensus would be “absolutely.” Not only was Boone integral to Richard Henderson’s 1775 Transylvania Purchase, which included the French Lick area, but his Wilderness Road was the very route James Robertson and companions took to establish Nashville in late 1779. Although he died in Missouri in 1820, Daniel Boone belongs to many locations, certainly including Nashville.


Note: The author is grateful to Ted Franklin Belue, Michael A. Lofaro, and John Mack Faragher for taking time from busy university schedules to read and comment on this article. A special thanks, also, for the helpful comments of Katy Schuster-Luck.