Street art on Lower Broad in Nashville


It's a city with many personalities. Nashville has been known as the Athens of the South and as Rock City. But today people know it best as Music City, USA. We could write a lot about the history of Nashville, but we're going to tell you a few of the more interesting tidbits: How the city was founded, how it became the state capital, how it became the home of country music, and what happened there when two trains collided on July 9, 1918..

A sign commemorating the founding of Nashville

The Donelson Party

Nashville's founding was not peaceful.

In 1775, a man named Richard Henderson invited Cherokee tribal leaders to a meeting on the Watauga River in East Tennessee. He offered to purchase from them an enormous piece of land (much of what is now Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky) for lots of free things.

Most of the Cherokee leaders agreed. After all, it wasn’t land on which they lived; only land on which they hunted, and they didn’t have any idea how big this settlement might grow. 

Dragging Canoe

However, one of the Cherokee men – who went by the name Dragging Canoe – didn’t like the idea. He made a big speech against the land sale. “The land is bloody ground and it would be dark and difficult to settle it,” he said. He then stormed away from the meeting along with many of his followers.

Click here to read Dragging Canoe's entire speech.

After the land purchase, Henderson sent a few people west to explore his territory. He sent about two hundred people – men, women and children – in two groups across the wilderness to settle a place on the Cumberland River that was then known as French Lick.

Most of the men came first, under the leadership of James Robertson. They walked and took horses, bringing livestock with them, and things went smoothly. When they got to French Lick they started building a fort and planting crops, and they waited for everyone else to get there.

The women, children, and the rest of the men came by boat, led by John Donelson. (If you look at the map, you can see what a long boat ride this was, down the Watauga and Tennessee rivers, then upstream on the Ohio and Cumberland rivers.) Along the way they met up with war parties led by – guess who – Dragging Canoe. His followers by now were known as Chickamaugans, and they attacked the settlers many times as they came down the river. Thirty-three of the people who came on the boat ride died along the way. But eventually most of them made their way to French Lick, which by now had a fort there called Nashborough.

Click here to read more about this incredible journey.

The State Capitol building

State Capital

Along the way, one of the biggest things to ever happen in Nashville was when it became the state capital. Here is what happened:

For the first few decades of Tennessee's existence, the legislature couldn't agree on a permanent capital. Knoxville was the first seat of government in 1796, followed by Nashville in 1812, Knoxville again four years later, Murfreesboro in 1819, and Nashville seven years later.

When the legislature met at the Davidson County Courthouse in October 1843, it spent the first week arguing where to put the capital. House and Senate members took turns espousing the virtues of their hometown, asking that the seat of government be placed there. Then the vote would be taken, the measure would fail, and another representative or senator would stand up and espouse the virtues of his hometown. 

It went on and on. Over the course of the week, just about every organized community in Tennessee got its chance, and lost. During one Senate debate on October 4, Kingston, Hamilton, Sparta, Knoxville, Clarksville, McMinnville, Shelbyville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, Franklin, Harrison, and Woodbury were all considered. Every town put up for a vote in the Senate that day got between 7 and 13 votes –short of the 17 needed for passage. 

After several days, it came down to Nashville and Murfreesboro, and the debate got interesting. Several legislators said Nashville was the logical choice. After all, the legislature was used to meeting there; it had better road and water connections; and it contained institutions (such as the prison) that the legislature needed to watch over. The city of Nashville was also offering the state a free piece of land on which to build a Capitol building. Several of Nashville’s wealthiest citizens promised to buy Campbell’s Hill for $30,000 to donate it to the state. 

But lawmakers advocating Murfreesboro did not go down easily. They pointed out that Murfreesboro, not Nashville, was the geographic center of the state. They also said that since the legislature moved to Nashville 17 years earlier, the government was spending more money than it did before it met in Nashville -- obviously the fault of the people of Nashville.

On Friday, October 6, 1843, the House voted 50-43 to make Nashville the state’s permanent capital. The next day the Senate concurred with 17 votes in the affirmative, making the state capital bill one of those rare pieces of legislation that passed both chambers without a single vote to spare.
Country Music

So how did Nashville become the home of country music? It has to do with life insurance.

An early poster for the WSM Barn Dance, later called the Grand Ole Opry.
Do you know what life insurance is? Simply put, it is something that people, especially parents, pay for that makes certain that the people that they leave behind are taken care of in case they die. In the early 1900s there was an insurance company in Nashville called the National Life & Accident Insurance Co. -- a fairly respectable, and kind of boring company. Well, National Life, as it was known, needed to invest some money. And in the early days of radio the idea of starting a radio station seemed like a good way to invest money and to promote its products. In 1924 National Life started a station at 650 AM, calling it WSM for "We Shield Millions."

About a year later National Life brought in a new disc jockey named George Hay. George Hay loved hillbilly music, and without really getting anyone's permission he started a radio show on Saturday night. He first called it the "Barn Dance," but he later came up for a funny name for it: the Grand Ole Opry.

The Grand Ole Opry show in the 1930s. George Hay is sitting in the back row wearing a suit.
George Hay had a knack for talent when he heard it, and before long the Grand Ole Opry was one of the biggest radio shows in America, with stars like Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. Soon people were coming from all over the country to watch the show being performed live.

After World War II executives from national record companies started flying to Nashville. In those days, country music records were often recorded in hotel rooms, with one band playing a song for a microphone while another band sat in the room waiting their turn. It was the beginning of what they now call in Nashville the "record business," and today it means big bucks for Nashville.

The scene after the July 9, 1919, event
PHOTO: Henry Hill III
Dutchman's Curve accident

The year 1918 was a rough year in Nashville. Many people still had loved ones away at the war, in Europe. In the fall, the influenza epidemic was so severe that church services had to be called off for months, and undertakers could hardly keep track of the dead bodies. And early in the morning of July 9 of that year, Nashville became the site of the deadliest train collision in American history. One hundred and one people died when two trains belonging to the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway collided just west of Nashville, near a place called Dutchman's Curve.

This monument in Nashville commemorates the Dutchman's Curve train wreck of 1918
To this day, no one is exactly certain about what caused this horrible accident, in which two trains traveling 50 miles an hour collided head-on. The west-bound train was supposed to pull over along the way and allow the east-bound train to pass before heading on its way, but for some reason it didn't.

Among the many dead were about 80 African-American workers who were on their way to work at the Old Hickory powder plant in Nashville, then under construction, and a few soldiers enroute to the war. Those who came upon the scene never forgot the horror of what they saw.

For more information about this tragedy, click here.

Cornelia Fort
More on Nashville

There is more about Nashville history scattered throughout the Tennessee History for Kids site.

Among the more important people from Nashville, for instance:
Andrew Jackson is probably the most famous Tennessean ever. William Walker affected the boundaries of the United States. James Napier was one of the most important African Americans in the United States during the years following the Civil War. Anne Dudley was a great suffragette leader. Cornelia Fort was a brave aviator for whom an airport is now named. Jack C. Massey is a national business legend. Perry Wallace was the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. And Reese Witherspoon is... well, you probably already know.

You can also click here to take a virtual tour of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park and here for a tour of The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson.

The Nashville skyline in the 1940s.
The Nashville Quiz

1. (TRUE OR FALSE) Dragging Canoe was friendly to the people who founded Nashville
2. (TRUE OR FALSE) Nashville has been the Tennessee state capital ever since Tennessee became a state.
3. (TRUE OR FALSE) When the legislature picked Nashville to be the state capital, the vote was unanimous.
4. The company that started WSM radio in Nashville was called the ________ _____ ___ ________ ________ ______.
5. Andrew Jackson's home is called ____ _________.
6. Name the Nashville native who was signing all American money in the year 1912.
7. Name one of the three companies that Jack Massey took to the New York Stock Exchange.


Street art on Lower Broad -- Bill Carey for THFK
Fort Nashborough sign -- Bill Carey for THFK
Dragging Canoe sketch -- Unknown
Flatboat painting -- Northern Illinois University
State Capitol photo -- Bill Carey for THFK
National Life Poster -- Courtesy Bill Carey
Grand Ole Opry Show -- Courtesy Bill Carey
Cornelia Fort -- Hill Aerospace Museum
Nashville skyline -- Courtesy Bill Carey