Nashville (Metropolitan Nashville/ Davidson County)
College Street (now Third Avenue) decorated for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

Nashville (Metropolitan Nashville/ Davidson County)

With a population of 545,524 in 2000, Nashville is the capital of Tennessee and a national business, transportation, and tourism center for the United States. The Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County government was organized in 1963, and the downtown stands on the banks of the Cumberland River, where the city began.

Middle Tennessee’s abundant natural resources and many animals attracted Paleoindians as early as eleven thousand years ago. American Indians of the Mississippian culture lived here ca. A.D. 1000 to 1400. They built towns around great earthen mounds, some of which survive today. Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Shawnees followed. Middle Tennessee became known as the “bloody ground” because of the battles fought over its rich hunting grounds. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, French fur traders came to “the Bluffs” (now downtown Nashville). Around 1710 Charles Charleville operated a trading post near a salt lick just north of town, later known as the French Lick. French-Canadian Timothy Demonbreun began hunting here in the 1760s and was here when the first settlers arrived from the East.

In 1778 James Robertson of the Watauga settlement in what was then North Carolina scouted the Nashville area with eight men. The following year he returned with a group of close to 250, mostly men and boys, to establish a permanent settlement. They arrived on Christmas Day 1779. Robertson’s partner, Colonel John Donelson, brought the families and provisions over one thousand miles by boat down the Holston and Tennessee Rivers and up the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to the Cumberland Bluffs, arriving April 24, 1780. Within a week, the Cumberland Compact, the first civil government in Middle Tennessee, was signed by 256 men. They named the settlement Nashborough for General Francis Nash of North Carolina. In 1784 Nashborough was changed to Nashville, probably as a result of anti-British sentiments following the Revolutionary War.

By the early 1800s Nashville was growing rapidly. In 1796 Tennessee had become the sixteenth state. Andrew Jackson’s resounding defeat of the British at the battle of New Orleans in 1815 brought new prominence to Tennessee and Nashville, his home. In 1828 Jackson was elected seventh president of the United States, the first “western” president. In 1843 Nashville became the permanent capital of Tennessee. Philadelphia architect William Strickland was hired to design the Greek Revival capitol, completed in 1859 and now a National Historic Landmark.

Its location on the Cumberland River was critical to the growth of Nashville during the first half of the nineteenth century. The arrival of the first steamboat in 1819 opened the way for trade with cities like New Orleans and Pittsburgh, and Nashville became the main distribution point for goods throughout the Mid-South. Steamboats brought rice, sugar, coffee, and household goods to Nashville and returned with cotton, tobacco, corn, and lumber. In addition to prosperous merchant enterprises, banking, printing, and publishing industries began to grow. There were also large farms and plantations. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Belle Meade Plantation, Belmont Mansion, and Historic Travellers Rest are among the nineteenth-century historic houses open to the public today.

The first recorded church in Nashville was a small stone structure built on the Public Square. It was commonly known as the “Methodist Church.” Baptists and Presbyterians were also among those who established the earliest congregations and were followed by Episcopalians, Catholics, Jews, and others. By the beginning of the Civil War there were also several African American congregations, including two Methodist Episcopal churches and one Christian church. Clergymen and church leaders established many educational institutions.

By 1860 Nashville was a thriving city with close to 14,000 inhabitants. Because of its location on the river and the newly built railroad links connecting Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, Nashville was an extremely important center for the distribution of supplies. In February 1862 the Union army occupied the city and held it until the end of the Civil War. The battle of Nashville, fought in 1864, was the last aggressive action of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The first shots were fired from Fort Negley, a Union fort built largely by African American labor.

After the war Nashville experienced renewed vigor in business and industry and substantial population growth. Already a printing center, the city continued to develop as an important distribution and wholesale center. The most remarkable growth, however, was in education. In 1866 Fisk University was founded as one of the first private schools dedicated to the education of African Americans. Vanderbilt University was founded in 1873, and Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University, began as an institution for teacher education in 1875. In 1876 Meharry Medical College was established for the education of black doctors.

In 1880 Nashville celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding. The culminating event was the unveiling of Clark Mills’s equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson on Capitol Hill, presented to the state by the Tennessee Historical Society. Two other castings of this statue stand in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

With the advent of streetcars–first mule-drawn, then electric–Nashville began to grow beyond the downtown area by the mid-nineteenth century. Germantown, Edgefield in East Nashville, and the Cameron-Trimble community were established at this time. In 1897 the Tennessee Centennial Exposition was held where Centennial Park stands today. A wood and stucco replica of the Parthenon was such a popular building that the city, already called the Athens of the South because of its educational institutions, built a permanent reconstruction in concrete in the 1920s, now the only full-scale facsimile of the Parthenon in existence.

In the early twentieth century Nashvillians wrestled with the same public issues and problems as most of the United States during this period: prohibition, the departure of its citizens to fight in World War I, woman suffrage, and the Great Depression. The final battle for woman suffrage was waged in Nashville in August 1920, when the Tennessee General Assembly became the thirty-sixth state legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving American women the right to vote.

As population increased, Nashvillians continued to move west and southwest to streetcar suburbs now known as Woodland-in-Waverly, Waverly-Belmont, Belmont-Hillsboro, and Richland-West End. The Great Depression and suburban expansion led to the decline of former residential areas downtown. In 1949 Nashville launched the first postwar urban renewal program in the country, the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project.

In the 1950s and 1960s, long unresolved problems of racial segregation and inequality came to a head in the national Civil Rights movement. In Nashville, Kelly Miller Smith, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, and other local religious leaders trained student volunteers in the principles of nonviolence and organized a well-disciplined sit-in movement that became a model for similar demonstrations throughout the South. Nashville became the first major Southern city to experience widespread desegregation of public facilities. In 1963 Nashville and Davidson County merged, becoming the first consolidated city/county government in the United States.

In the twentieth century Nashville’s business economy became increasingly diversified and service oriented. Following World War I, insurance, banking, and securities dominated the economic scene with downtown’s Union Street becoming known as the “Wall Street of the South.” In the final quarter of the century, health care services emerged as Nashville’s largest industry, beginning in 1968 with the founding of Hospital Corporation of America. Music and entertainment, printing and publishing, education, and tourism followed close behind. In the 1990s Nashville boasted eighteen institutions of higher education, a tourism industry drawing eight million visitors a year, and a thriving publishing and printing industry. In addition, the Middle Tennessee region is now the largest automobile production center in the southern United States.

Anglo-American folk music came to the Bluffs with the settlers, and music publishing is said to have begun in 1824 with The Western Harmony, a book of hymns and instruction for singing. In the 1870s and 1880s, it was Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers who first brought international fame to Nashville as a music center when they toured the United States and western Europe. Nashville’s reputation as a country music center can be traced to the 1920s, when WSM radio launched the WSM Barn Dance (later the Grand Ole Opry), a radio show used as a marketing tool by the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. The “Nashville Sound” emerged in the 1950s and is given credit for the successful comeback of country music after the advent of rock music in the late 1950s. The present music publishing industry began in 1942 with Acuff-Rose Publishing Company–the first non-Opry music venture in Nashville. Fed in the early days by Opry performers, the publishing industry has continued to grow. The city’s strong organized churches have also supported the growth of the gospel music industry. Recently, increased diversification and international recording activity have resulted in dramatic increases in employment and investment.

Suggested Reading

Don H. Doyle, Nashville in the New South and Nashville Since the 1920s (1985)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Nashville (Metropolitan Nashville/ Davidson County)
  • Ophelia Paine
  • Author John Lawrence Connelly
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018