The Nashville skyline


Nashville is the Tennessee State Capital and a place known throughout the world as “Music City, U.S.A.”

Five stories associated with Nashville which come up in the Tennessee curriculum are:

* The Donelson Party saga
* How Nashville became the Tennessee state capital
* What happened to Nashville during the Civil War
* How Nashville became associated with country music
* The sit-in protests during the Civil Right Movement

The Donelson Party

In 1775, a man named Richard Henderson invited several Cherokee leaders together at the Sycamore Shoals of the Watauga River (in present-day Carter County). At this gathering, Henderson offered to purchase from them an enormous piece of land.

Today this land consists of much of middle Tennessee and central Kentucky.

A reenactment that shows what the Transylvania Purchase might have looked like
PHOTO: Harold Jarrell

Most of the Cherokee leaders agreed. After all, it wasn’t land on which they lived; only land on which they hunted. Among the Cherokees who went along with the deal was Little Carpenter.

However, one of the Cherokee chiefs–Little Carpenter’s son Dragging Canoe–didn’t like the idea. He and his followers stormed away from the meeting and formed a new tribe known as the Chickamaugans. The Chickamaugans set up villages along the mountainous part of the Tennessee River, just west of the present-day site of Chattanooga.

This land trade is known as the Transylvania Purchase. After it took place, Henderson decided to create a settlement at a place along the Cumberland River known where a salt lick and natural spring lured wild animals from all over the region. He named the place Fort Nashborough, although the settlers referred to it as French Lick. Henderson sent settlers there in two groups.

A reenactment at Fort Nashborough in 2011.

One group, led by James Robertson, came overland, through the Cumberland Gap. A larger group came down river, on a flotilla of boats that went downstream along the Holston and Tennessee rivers and upstream along the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. Its leader was John Donelson.

The community Robertson and Donelson co-founded eventually became known as Nashville. But it did not start peacefully. During the first 15 years that small forts existed in and near the present-day site of Nashville (1780 to 1795), settlers and Native Americans were constantly fighting each other.

A book called Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements lists the names of 435 settlers who were killed in battles against Native Americans during this era of Middle Tennessee.

The best known of these fights was the so-called Battle of the Bluffs, at the fort on the Cumberland River known as Fort Nashboro, in April 1781.

State Capitol

The Tennessee State Capitol

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 1843, it spent the first week deciding where to put the capital. House and Senate members took turns asking that the seat of government be placed in their hometown. Then the vote would be taken, the measure would fail, and they would consider another town.

Over the course of the week, just about every organized community in Tennessee got its chance.

It came down to Nashville and Murfreesboro. 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.

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–which they said was a bad thing, and which they said was the fault of the people of Nashville.

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

The view of the Cumberland River at Fort Donelson

Civil War

When the Civil War started, most Nashville residents sided with the Confederacy. However, Confederate leaders were mistaken in their belief that their army could defend a hastily-built fort on the Cumberland River west of Clarksville called Fort Donelson.

In February, in one of the first great Union victories of the war, Fort Donelson fell to a army and navy force led by General Ulysses S. Grant.

When news of the fall of Fort Donelson spread to Nashville, people realized that the fall of the fort meant that the U.S. Army would invade their city. Thousands of people packed up their possessions and fled Nashville in what is now referred to as the “Great Panic.”

The Union Army did invade, and would occupy the city of Nashville for the duration of the war.

U.S. Army soldiers during the Battle of Nashville
PHOTO: Library of Congress

The relationship between Nashville and the Union Army was, as one historian has described, a “reluctant partnership.” Dozens of large buildings and churches were converted to use as hospitals during the war. The beautiful Maxwell House Hotel was turned into a barracks for U.S. Army soldiers. The state capital had so many Union soldiers living in it that it became known as “Fortress Andrew Johnson”–named for the military governor of Tennessee during the war.

Only once did the Confederate army even threaten to take back Nashville. This was in December 1864–a few weeks after the Confederate loss at the Battle of Franklin. The two-day Battle of Nashville was a disaster for the Confederate Army of Tennessee, which tried hopelessly to invade the city from the south and the west and was repulsed and defeated on all fronts.

Unlike other major Civil War battles, almost none of the battlefield is preserved in Nashville. Tens of thousands of homes, roads, churches, schools and businesses sit atop the former battlefield.

Country Music

An early poster for the WSM Barn Dance, which was also known as the Grand Ole Opry

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

In the early 1900s there was an insurance company in Nashville called the National Life & Accident Insurance Co. National Life had hundreds of salesmen who traveled the South, selling small life insurance policies door to door.

National Life, like all insurance companies, invested a lot of money. 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.”

The Grand Ole Opry in the 1940s.
PHOTO: TN State Library and Archives

About a year later, WSM brought in a new disc jockey named George Hay. George Hay loved a type of music which was then referred to as “hillbilly” music–the kind of music country and mountain folks played and sang on their front porches. Hay started a radio show called the “Barn Dance” featuring this type of music.At a time when there was another famous radio show called The Grand Opera, Hay called his show the Grand Ole Opry.

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 performed live. And after World War II, executives from national record companies started coming to Nashville to record songs, setting up crude recording studios in hotel rooms.

It was the beginning of the “music business.” Today the music business means big bucks for Nashville.

The sit-ins

One of the Nashville sit-ins
PHOTO: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections

Nashville’s sit-in movement was one of the early success stories of the Civil Rights Movement.

In early 1960, after months of careful planning and training, about a hundred people staged sit-in protests at several variety stores in downtown Nashville. Most of them were students at local colleges such as Fisk University and Tennessee State University, and had been trained by James Lawson, a black graduate student at Vanderbilt.

In the “sit-ins,” as they became known, black and white students walked into restaurants and sat down at sections that had been designated for “whites only.” When they weren’t served, they sat there all day refusing to leave, often times while other harassed them.

Public opinion eventually turned in favor of the students. The majority of the people in the African-American community began boycotting downtown retailers in protest. The Tennessean newspaper, originally against the students, changed its tone and began sympathizing with the students. When Vanderbilt expelled Lawson for being a leader in the movement, many members of the faculty protested.

Then, on April 19, 1960, someone threw a bomb through the window of the home of Alexander Looby, one of Nashville’s most prominent black lawyers and a man who had been representing the students. No one was killed. But later that day, an estimated 3,000 people—both black and white—marched to the courthouse.

Protestors including Diane Nash confront Mayor Ben West
PHOTO: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections


When Nashville mayor Ben West came out of the building, one of the protestors, a Fisk student named Diane Nash, asked him “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?”

The mayor said, “yes, I do.” West said he would order all lunch counters to be integrated. Within a couple of weeks, seven stores opened their lunch counters to all races.