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Nashville's Historical Timeline

What’s in a Name? A Topical Timeline of Nashville History

Tara Mitchell Mielnik, PhD
Metropolitan Nashville Historical Commission

Carole Bucy, PhD
Davidson County Historian

Fort Nashborough (1780s-1800)

Much of the early prehistory of the Middle Tennessee region involved nomadic Native American tribes who traveled through the area, using the land for hunting, grazing, and gathering. The Woodland Period began c1000 BCE, with the establishment of more permanent settlements that existed through the Mississippian period, ending in the 14th century. The Middle Tennessee area became a common area for hunting, trapping and trading until settlement in the late 18th century.

Before 1492: Native American tribes identify the Salt Lick near the Cumberland River and began to use the area of the Central Basin as common hunting ground. The Cherokee and Chickasaw drive the Shawnee out of Middle Tennessee.

1710: Frenchman Charles Charleville establishes a trading post called French Lick, near the river.

1769: French-Canadian fur trader Jacques-Timothe Demonbreun camps near French Lick for trapping and trading. Later, Timothy Demonbreun would become one of the first merchants in the new settlement.

1779-80: James Robertson leads a party of male settlers westward from the Watauga Settlement to create a new settlement on the bluffs of the Cumberland River near the French Lick. They are joined the next year by John Donelson’s party, arriving by boat after navigating the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio, and Cumberland Rivers.

1780: The eligible citizens (256 white male land-owners) sign the Cumberland Compact, the first constitutional government in the settlement.

1783: North Carolina creates Davidson County. Residents of the area establish Davidson Academy and hire Rev. Thomas Craighead as a teacher.

1788: The North Carolina General Assembly establishes Mero District for the Cumberland Settlements. John McNairy arrives in Nashville as the judge for the Superior Court of Davidson County in the District. He appoints his friend, Andrew Jackson, as prosecuting attorney.

1796: Tennessee becomes the 16th state admitted to the United States on June 1, 1796, giving Tennesseans their own government and renewing confidence in their destiny. New treaties and new roads bring more people into Middle Tennessee.

1806: The City of Nashville is incorporated by the state’s General Assembly. Joseph Coleman is elected as the first Mayor of Nashville.

Old Hickory (1800s-1840s)

Not a nickname for Nashville, but for Nashville’s most famous resident, Old Hickory later became a name for a Davidson County town. Born in March 1767 near the border between North and South Carolina, young Andrew Jackson spent a childhood in privation and hardship following the deaths of his mother and older brothers during the Revolutionary War. By the age of twenty, Jackson had educated himself and been accepted to the Bar, coming to the Nashville area in 1788. Here he practiced law and served in the new state and federal governments, becoming one of Tennessee’s first members of the House of Representatives in 1796. Jackson would call the Nashville area home until his death in 1845, and his presence would help shape the perception of Nashville as a rising American city over the first half of the 19th century. During the Jacksonian Era, Nashville saw advancements in education, transportation, and public works, as well as political standing on the national stage.

1802: Following service in the United States government as Representative and Senator, and then serving as justice of the Superior Court of Tennessee, Jackson is named Major General of the Tennessee militia.

1812-1815: Through his military service at Natchez, at Horseshoe Bend, and in New Orleans, Jackson catapults to the national stage. Jackson earns his nickname “Old Hickory” due to his demanding leadership style.

1814: Tennessee’s first public library opens in Nashville.

1819: The General Jackson, owned by William Carroll, becomes the first steamboat to arrive in Nashville. It departs with a cargo of tobacco.

1819: Ann Rogers Grundy organizes the county’s first Sunday School in spite of accusations that she was a “Sabbath breaker.”

1821: Andrew Jackson retires from military service and returns to Tennessee to resume building his plantation outside of Nashville known as The Hermitage.

1822: The Nashville City Cemetery opens, as does the first bridge across the Cumberland River.

1825: The University of Nashville is organized under the leadership of innovative educator Philip Lindsley.

1828: Jackson is elected President of the United States; his wife Rachel dies in December 1828, just before Jackson leaves Tennessee for the White House. He would serve two terms, 1829-1837.

1833: Nashville’s million dollar waterworks begins service.

1837: Nashville women concerned about the plight of indigent women organize the Protestant House of Industry. Eight years later, Nashville women organize the Protestant Orphans’ Asylum.

1838: A group of Cherokee pass through Nashville on their Trail of Tears journey from southeast Tennessee to the Oklahoma Territory as a result of Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.

1845: Jackson dies at The Hermitage.

Rock City (1840s-1860s)

By the middle of the 19th century, Nashville had evolved from a frontier settlement to a growing American city of commerce, hub of transportation, and seat of emerging political power. Steamboats on the Cumberland and later railroads marked the city as a center for trade. Although there were some profitable plantations farming livestock, grain, cotton, and tobacco, Nashville’s topography was not suited for large-scale plantation farming for most settlers, who gave the city the nickname “the Rock City” for its limestone base. Instead, Nashville became a market center for smaller farms and rural towns in the Middle Tennessee area. Iron came in from counties to the west, and Nashville became a manufacturing center for plows, stoves, machinery, and later, weapons and war materiel.

1843: The Tennessee General Assembly selects Nashville to be the state’s permanent state capital. Architect William Strickland is hired to design the building and oversee the construction of the Capitol. The cornerstone is laid in 1845.

1844: One hundred fifty women march on the Nashville Courthouse in support of Henry Clay for President.

1844: Tennessean James K. Polk, known as “Young Hickory,” is elected President of the United States. He serves one term, from 1845-1849.

1850: Designed by architect Adolphus Heiman, the Adelphi Theatre opens, with the second-largest stage in the country. That same year, the first steam locomotive arrives in Nashville.

1851: Gas lights provided by the Nashville Gas Company light up the city at night for the first time.

1852: Nashville city aldermen authorize the establishment of a public school system; the first public high school, Hume School, opens in 1855.

1854: Nashville’s first Jewish congregation is officially incorporated as “Kahl Kodesh Mogen David” (Holy Community of the Shield of David), partly in honor of Davidson County.

1855: Nashville hosts the first State Fair.

1856: Nashvillian William Walker becomes President of Nicaragua and tries to unite Central American countries; he is executed by firing squad following an attempt to capture Honduras in 1860.

1859: The city and county celebrate the completion of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which provides the area with a north-south rail line.

1860: Nashvillian John Bell is national presidential candidate for the Constitutional Union Party, and he carries Nashville, Davidson County, and Tennessee in the presidential election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln is elected President.

The Occupied City (1860s)

Nashville’s position as a center for transportation, trade, and manufacturing made it vitally important to the Confederacy, but the city remained undefended by the Confederate army. Nashville became the first Confederate state capital to fall to the Union in 1862, and the city became an important base for Union operations in the western theater. The Battle of Nashville, in December 1864, was the final major battle in the west.

1861: Tennessee becomes the 11th state to secede from the Union as the Civil War begins. Thousands of young Nashville men enlist in the Confederate army and the city prepares for war.

1862: Federal troops occupy Nashville after the fall of Fort Donelson to the northwest. The Union Army makes the city its headquarters, supply depot, and hospital center. Union soldiers bring baseball to Nashville.

1862: Former governor Andrew Johnson returns to Nashville after he is appointed military governor of Tennessee; Johnson is later picked to run as Lincoln’s vice-president during his second campaign.

1862: African-American laborers, both free blacks and former slaves, assist with the construction of Fort Negley. Union forces occupy Nashville until 1867, making Nashville the longest-occupied city in the country.

1864: Union troops commanded by Gen. George Thomas defeat the Confederate Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16), ending Confederate hopes to retake the city.

1865: Former military governor Andrew Johnson becomes President of the United States after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April.

1865: Nashville’s African-American population nearly triples during the war years, growing from 4000 in 1860 to over 11,000 by 1865.

1866: Tennessee becomes the first state to be readmitted to the Union after the General Assembly ratifies the 14th amendment.

Athens of the South (1870s-1900)

Nashville’s reputation as a growing commercial and cultural center slowed dramatically during the years of Civil War, but following the war through the last decades of the 19th century, Nashville again experienced tremendous growth in population, business, and industry. Cultural, religious, and educational improvements, a major focus of Nashville’s citizenry since the beginning, saw exponential growth during the last decades of the 19th into the early 20th century. Nashville’s African-Americans take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by freedom and education.

1866: Fisk Free School is established in former Union army barracks to provide education for former slaves. It is incorporated as Fisk University in 1867 to train teachers for the rising need for education among the African-American population in Tennessee and surrounding states.

1870: Randall Brown is elected to be a Davidson County Commissioner; he is the first African-American to hold elected office in the state.

1871: Nine members of the choral group at Fisk embark upon a national and international tour to raise money for the expansion of the Fisk University campus. The Fisk Jubilee Singers raise over $50,000 before returning to Nashville in 1874.

1872: Sampson Keeble of Nashville was the first of 13 African-American legislators elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in the late 19th century.

1872-73: The Methodist Episcopal Church receives a charter for Central University. Transportation magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt gives $500,000 to the new Nashville school, and the school is renamed Vanderbilt University.

1876: Meharry Medical College is established to train African-American doctors, nurses, and dentists.

1880: Nashville celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding. The city’s population is 43,350.

1880: Industrialist Samuel Watkins dies, leaving in trust $100,000 to endow a school for adult education. Watkins Institute opens with night classes in 1889.

1881: Iroquois, a horse bred at Nashville’s Belle Meade Plantation, becomes the first American horse to win the English Derby.

1889: Nashville is among the first southern cities with electric streetcars, contributing to the growth of suburban development.

1891: Minister and educator David Lipscomb founds the Nashville Bible School with James A Harding. Lipscomb gives his farm “Avalon” for use as the campus; the school is renamed David Lipscomb College following his death in 1917.

1891: The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention locates its headquarters in Nashville, in part because of the city’s growing reputation as a center for printing and publishing.

1892: Steamboat captain Thomas Ryman builds the Union Gospel Tabernacle following a tent revival preached by Rev. Sam Jones. The building becomes known as the Ryman Auditorium and hosts ministers, lecturers, singers, stage performances, and later becomes the home of the Grand Ole Opry.

1894: Nashvillian Caroline Meriwether Goodlett organizes the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Nashville.

1896: African-American Nashvillian Richard Henry Boyd establishes the National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville.

1897: The Tennessee Centennial Celebration is held in Nashville, on the fairgrounds at West Side Park (now Centennial Park). Over one and a half million people visited the fair in the summer months of 1897, including the reunion of the United Confederate Veterans, and the state’s first woman’s equal suffrage convention.

1901: Trevecca Nazarene College (now University) founded as the Literary and Bible Training School for Christian Workers.

1904: Nine members of Nashville’s chapter of the National Negro Business League found the One Cent Savings Bank with $1600 in capital.

1912: Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial Normal School for Negroes (now Tennessee State University) opens.

Powder City (1900-1930s)

The first decades of the twentieth century in Nashville were clouded by tragedy: natural disasters, fires, epidemics, war, and the onset of the Great Depression. Yet Nashville met every adversity with resolve. Nashville’s population reached 154,000 by 1930, an indication of the rapid growth the city continued to see in the first decades of the 20th century.

1905: African Americans organize boycotts of the city’s street cars after the state passes segregation (“separate but equal”) laws for all public accommodations. Black businessmen form their own transit company.

1908: Orator, senator, prohibitionist, and newspaperman Edward Ward Carmack is killed in a gun battle on a downtown street by Robin Cooper, son of Carmack’s political enemy Duncan B. Cooper.

1912: A sudden 175-foot breach in a wall of the Nashville Reservoir pours more than 25 million gallons of water onto South Nashville, causing a flood and extensive property damage.

1912: Hume School and Fogg School, Nashville’s two oldest high schools, merge to form Hume-Fogg High School. A new building is constructed on Broadway in downtown Nashville for the school.

1916: A fire in East Nashville destroys more than 500 homes leaving 2500 people homeless.

1917: After the United States declares war on Germany and enters World War I, the Selective Service Administration drafts over 3500 Nashville and Davidson County men for Army service. More than 15,000 Davidson County men and women serve in World War I.

1917: The E. I DuPont Nemours Co. builds the Old Hickory Munitions Plant on 5000 acres in Hadley’s Bend in eastern Davidson County, and leads to the Nashville area becoming known as “Powder City”. The plant will employ more than 50,000 workers. The company town built to house the workers becomes known as Old Hickory.

1918: Two NC&StL trains collide at Dutchman’s Bend in West Nashville, killing 121 people. This wreck continues to be regarded as the worst train accident in American history.

1918: The Spanish influenza epidemic strikes Nashville, making one in every four persons ill, and killing over 1300 people in Davidson County (most of them in Old Hickory).

1920: Tennessee becomes “the perfect 36,” by casting the deciding vote for ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing American women the right to vote. The vote by the General Assembly followed a lengthy political debate in Nashville, with both support and opposition taking up residence at the Hermitage Hotel.

1922: The architectural firm McKissack and McKissack is founded by African-American brothers and builders Moses and Calvin McKissack, both of whom had been designing, building, and teaching throughout the South for several years. McKissack and McKissack is considered the first African-American architectural firm in the United States.

1922: Sixteen poets and critics, many from Vanderbilt University, begin publishing a poetry magazine, The Fugitive. Among those, Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren later go on to write essays for the Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, published in 1930.

1925: Designed by local architect Edward Dougherty in association with the architectural firm of McKim, Meade, and White, the War Memorial Building is constructed as a memorial to Tennessee’s soldiers who died in World War I.

1930: Caldwell and Company, a Nashville investment bank specializing in the sale of bonds for Southern states, collapses, causing the closure of 120 banks across Tennessee and contributing to the loss of $7 million of State funds.

1933: A devastating tornado wreaks havoc in downtown Nashville, damaging the State Capitol and heading eastward, demolishing buildings in East Nashville, Donelson, and on to Lebanon. Eleven people died and over 1400 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The 1998 tornado would follow a similar path.

The Wall Street of the South, and its Collapse and Recovery (1930s-1940s)

The collapse of Caldwell and Company and the coming of the Great Depression once again required resolve and recovery for Nashville. The New Deal and the onset of World War II ushered in a period of large-scale construction projects, changing the Nashville landscape with new government buildings, large manufacturing plants, and suburban residential neighborhoods. As the city rebounded from the economic Depression, Nashville’s population continued to grow, growing by 100,000 between 1930 and 1940, as many rural people moved to the urban Nashville area for jobs offered through New Deal programs and the growing construction and manufacturing industries. Nashville population reached 257,000 in 1940, and then grew another 25%, to over 327,000 by the 1950 census.

1933-34: Designed by Marr and Holman, the Nashville Post Office is completed on Broadway.

1935-36: The Works Progress Administration develops Nashville’s first modern airport, Berry Field, in the Donelson area east of Nashville. The airport officially opened in 1937, and reportedly served 189,000 passengers in its first year. The site is now home to Nashville International Airport.

1936-1940: The Public Works Administration constructs several government buildings in downtown Nashville, including the Tennessee State Supreme Court Building, the John Sevier State Office Building, and the Davidson County Courthouse, as well as embarking on a large-scale school improvement project, with construction of several new schools throughout Davidson County.

1936-37: Designed by the African-American architectural firm McKissack and McKissack, Pearl High School opens for Nashville’s African-American high school students.

1937: Nashville sculptor William Edmondson becomes the first African American to have a one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

1941: Following construction of the course by the Works Progress Administration, Nashville’s annual international Iroquois Steeplechase is run for the first time.

1941: The United States enters World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7; Nashville begins to prepare for war.

1942: The Vultee Aircraft Plant in Nashville, the first airplane manufacturing plant in the Southeast, introduces the mechanized assembly line to the aircraft industry, and pioneers employment of women industrial workers. New Donelson-area suburbs develop to house families of Vultee workers.

1943: Nashville native Cornelia Fort, flight instructor and a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, is killed in a mid-air collision over Texas, at age 24. Fort is the first member of the WAFS killed in action.

1945: Nashvillians celebrate the end of World War II on V-J Day with parades and street celebrations.

1946: Ushering in the “space age,” Nashvillian John H. DeWitt Jr. receives worldwide attention when he bounces radar signals off the moon.

1946: Tennessee A&I (later TSU) wins the first of its eleven National Black Football championships.

Music City USA

Nashville’s most enduring nickname, “Music City USA” harkens images of Lower Broad and the Ryman Auditorium; sounds of bluegrass, country, and the Grand Ole Opry; and memories of Opryland USA. Nashville’s musical history is much deeper, however, as the city has been a center for music of all types, and for nearly two hundred years. Nashville’s long reputation as a center for publishing and its musical legacy has shaped the modern city.

1824: “The Western Harmony” first hymnbook published in Nashville, beginnings of musical and religious publishing in Nashville

1851: Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” plays two sold-out shows in Nashville at the Adelphi Theater. (“There is, in fact, more female loveliness in Nashville than you will find in any other city in the Union.” –Charles G. Rosenberg, biographer of Jenny Lind, who accompanied her on her American tour in 1851)

1899: Charles H. Hunter, a blind piano tuner working for the French Piano Company, publishes the first of several of his popular ragtime compositions.

1922: Thomas Talley, Fisk professor, publishes his collection of Negro Folk Rhymes, the first collection of African-American folklore and song in America.

1925: “WSM Barn Dance” radio program goes on the air, live from Nashville.

1927: Deford Bailey becomes first African-American to perform on the radio program “Barn Dance,” show is introduced for the first time as the Grand Ole Opry.

1950: Capitol Records becomes first major record label to locate its director of country music in Nashville

1954: Bradley Studios opens in a Quonset hut on Sixteenth Avenue South, marking the beginning of Music Row, and the development of the “Nashville Sound”.

1957: RCA Studio B opens on Music Row with Chet Atkins as producer, recording artists as diverse as Eddy Arnold, Elvis Presley, Everly Brothers, and others.

1958: Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) opens Nashville office, hires Frances Williams Preston as first woman executive in country music.

1961: Country Music Hall of Fame established on Music Row (relocated to downtown Nashville in 2001).

1969-1991: Hee Haw television show is filmed in Nashville, and popularizes many rising country musicians and comedians across the nation.

1972: Koinonia Christian Bookstore opens on Music Row near Belmont, launching the Contemporary Christian Music industry with concerts in the 1970s by emerging Christian music stars including Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.

1972: Opryland USA, a theme park devoted to country music, opens outside of Nashville in the Donelson area. Opryland closed in 1997.

1974: The Grand Ole Opry moves from the Ryman Auditorium to its new home, the Opry House, near Opryland USA.

The Nashville Way (1950s-1963)

Nashville in the mid-20th century was not without internal struggles, especially in the emerging modern Civil Rights Movement. Through the strong leadership of many African-American Nashvillians, the city led the south forward in the integration of schools and public services. At the same time, the city displaced many African-American families and businesses with “slum clearance” and “redevelopment,” and many white families left the center city and older neighborhoods for new suburban development in Davidson County. By 1960, the county population exceeded the city population, straining the ability of Davidson County to meet needs of its citizens.

1949: Nashville files one of the first successful applications for the use of federal funds for urban renewal, leading to the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project.

1951: Belmont College (later Belmont University) founded in 1951 on the site of Ward-Belmont College for Women.

1955: Z. Alexander Looby, a prominent local civil rights attorney, files Robert w. Kelly et al v. Board of Education of Nashville in U.S. District Court to challenge the city’s segregated schools. Twenty-one African-American schoolchildren were named as plaintiffs.

1957: Hattie Cotton School in East Nashville is bombed after the city implements “The Nashville Plan” to allow for the voluntary integration of Nashville’s public schools by desegregating one grade each year for twelve years.

1958: Voters of Davidson County reject a plan to consolidate the government of the City of Nashville with the government of Davidson County into one metropolitan government. The plan passed in the City but failed in the County.

1959: Rev. James Lawson begins training students from Fisk and TSU in non-violent protest; these students later become leaders in the Nashville Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides.

1960: Nashville becomes the first major southern city with desegregated lunch counters after two months of sit-ins and demonstrations led by African-American college students. Following the bombing of Z. Alexander Looby’s home in April, students led a silent march on the Nashville Courthouse, where they were met by Mayor Ben West, who admitted to student leader Diane Nash that segregation was wrong.

1960: Tennessee State University student Wilma Rudolph, who as a child wore leg braces as a result of polio, won three gold medals in track at the Olympic Games in Rome, under TSU’s internationally-renowned coach of the Tigerbelles, Ed Temple.

1962: The voters of Nashville and Davidson County vote to consolidate governments into a single metropolitan entity.

We Are Nashville: Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County (1963-2013)

One of the first city/county Metropolitan governments in the United States, Metro Nashville closed out the 20th century as an internationally-known city, primarily in the arts, entertainment, and cultural attractions, but also in business, including publishing and medicine, and with new top-level professional sports teams. Nashville entered the 21st century on a positive note, with continued growth and development, and a growing sense of pride and community following the devastating flood of 2010, which brought out the best in Nashville’s citizenry. “We Are Nashville” became the city’s unofficial motto.

1963: The new government of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County goes into effect with the swearing in of Beverly Briley as mayor, George Cate as vice-mayor, and 40 citizens representing all parts of the county as members of the Metropolitan Council.

1963: President John F. Kennedy speaks at Vanderbilt University. In this speech, the President challenged Nashvillians and Southerners to voluntarily desegregate.

1966: Dr. Dorothy Brown becomes the first African-American woman elected to the Tennessee General Assembly.

1966: The Metro School Board votes to eliminate the “grade a year” desegregation plan in favor of fully integrating Nashville’s public schools.

1968: After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Mayor Briley issues a city-wide curfew in an attempt to prevent rioting.

1971: Vanderbilt research biologist Earl W. Sutherland receives a Nobel Prize for his discoveries concerning hormones.

1984: Nashville swimmer Tracy Caulkins wins three gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics.

1994: The National Football League’s Houston Oilers announce that the team will relocate to Nashville. The following year, voters approve a proposal to fund the construction of a new stadium for the team that is renamed the Tennessee Titans.

1996: Tennessee celebrates the 200th anniversary of statehood with the opening of the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville.

1997: Nashville is granted an expansion franchise team by the National Hockey League. The Nashville Predators play their first game in the new downtown arena the next year.

1998: Three tornadoes sweep across Centennial Park, downtown, East Nashville, and into Donelson and Hermitage, along a 42-mile path, causing one fatality and over $100 million in property damage.

2001: The Frist Center for the Visual Arts opens in the restored downtown Post Office.

2006: The Schermerhorn Symphony Hall opens in downtown Nashville and is immediately hailed as one of the finest concert halls in the country.

2006: Nashville celebrates 200 years of incorporation with a rededication of the restored courthouse and Public Square.

2010: A devastating flood hits middle Tennessee, killing 11 people in Nashville and Davidson County and causing an estimated $2 billion in property damage. The floodwaters inundate the football stadium, arena, and symphony hall, all of which reopened.

2013: Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County celebrates its fiftieth anniversary.