The winter of 1779 was the coldest on record. The land west of the Allegheny Mountains was not known for the harshness of its climate, and yet, as James Robertson and his road-wearied party of two hundred reached the end of their two month journey, their breath hung thick in the air, snow drifted high upon the ground, and the Cumberland River was eerily still, frozen solid. No fireside warmth or shelter from the cold waited for them on the river’s banks, only the promise that had drawn hundreds before them and would continue to draw hundreds after: the unspoiled potential of the land that would become Nashville, Tennessee.
Though centuries of Native American tribes and a handful of European explorers had long known of the game rich forests and fertile soil of the region, Robertson and his party were the first Europeans to traverse the five hundred hostile miles through the Alleghenies Mountains with the intention of establishing a permanent settlement. French trappers returning to Watauga, North Carolina, tempted the residents there with tales of the western region’s lush abundance, and to many, the allure of bountiful unclaimed land outweighed the perils of striking out into the virtually uncharted wilderness. Two parties were formed. The first, led by Robertson, traveled over land with supplies and livestock, while the second, led by John Donelson, undertook the journey on flatboats and pirogues, carrying the trappings of sixty families across over one thousand miles of interconnected waterways. The first party arrived on Christmas Day and quickly set about constructing a log stockade, christening it Fort Nashborough in honor of Revolutionary War general, Francis Nash. The stockade would serve not only as a central hub for general council and the seat of government but also as a rally point of protection against the anticipated aggression of nearby Native American tribes. Ironically, it was only when other Europeans became involved that the perceived threat of native hostility became a reality. Embroiled in the final throes of the Revolutionary War, the British incited local tribes to violence against the fledgling colony, and the animosity bred of these attempts to destroy the settlement is still evident in the city’s name. Determined to eschew any implied relationship with England, the public of Nashborough indignantly cast off what they perceived to be the British undertones of their name, replacing the suffix with the now familiar “ville”.
Because of its central location, strategic position on the Cumberland River, and abundance of natural resources, the newly dubbed Nashville soon blossomed into a bustling center of trade, a fact that drew the unwelcome attention of Union forces at the onset of the Civil War. Not only the capital of Tennessee but also the origin point of a major artery of the Southern railway, Nashville proved to be too tempting to resist. Its capture in 1862 marked the first major victory of the Union, and the struggle to reclaim it during the Battle of Nashville in 1864 marked one of the Confederacy’s final and bloodiest battles. Three years of Union occupation, however, yielded unexpectedly positive results for the city itself. As a hub of wartime production and an invaluable axis of Union strength, Nashville was protected at all costs from the destructive effects of war, and as a result suffered minimal damage to its economy and infrastructure. At the war’s end, the city was home to a vigorous railroad system and a number of flourishing factories, leaving it much better equipped than its neighbors to emerge from Reconstruction with strength. The rings of trenches that once surrounded the city were soon replaced with bands of successful public institutions: universities including Vanderbilt and Fisk, a blossoming printing industry, and ever-expanding manufacturing and transport enterprises. When combined with the post-bellum floundering of agrarian elements in much of the South, the city’s success encouraged rural to urban migration on an unprecedented scale. Though the massive influx of people yielded a large number of negative results—overcrowding, poor sanitation, and the ultimate suburb-bound exodus of the upper and middle classes—there was a silver lining to be had. In 1925, the National Life and Accidents Insurance Company began catering to those nostalgic for the bygone era of rural simplicity, hosting the “Saturday Night Barn Dance,” a country music radio show that would eventually become known as the Grand Ole Opry, a hallmark of Nashville’s future designation as Music City USA. World Wars I and II only intensified the issues of overcrowding in Nashville. As the twenty-four-hour forges of wartime production once again roared to life, they offered the increasingly rare allure of employment. The resulting combination of escalating economic disparity and increasing residential and public segregation put Nashville on the frontlines of yet another war, this time at home. A body of strong black leaders—lawyers, business owners, and students drawn by the city’s successful black colleges—put Nashville on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. One of the earliest illustrations of the efficacy of non-violent, direct action protest in the South, thousands objected to the city’s segregated lunch counters through sit-ins, boycotts, and marches, eventually prompting Mayor Ben West to become one of the first leaders of a Southern city to openly give his support to the desegregation movement.
Today Nashville continues to be at the forefront of Southern innovation and success. In the 1960’s, the city dealt with its eroding tax base and duplicated services by combining city and county governments, becoming the first metropolitan government in the United States. In more recent years, Nashville has also become a major contender in the battle against the bulldozer, working diligently against the prevalent inclination to raze and reconstruct Southern cities, and instead opting to preserve the integrity of the city’s architecture and historical sites, ensuring that the rich and complex history of Nashville will remain at the forefront of the city’s consciousness.