Fort Nashborough

Fort Nashborough

Fort Nashborough was the stockade for the settlement that became the city of Nashville, Tennessee. A reconstruction today stands on the banks of the Cumberland River near the site of the original fort.


No attempt had been made to permanently settle the area known as French Lick on the banks of the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee until 1779. In February of that year, Wataugan leader James Robertson set out with a nine-man exploration party to the site. Soon after their arrival, fellow pioneer Kasper Mansker joined the group. A 3,000 acre (12 km²) land grant was negotiated with Richard Henderson and arrangements were made for the movement of these families who were prepared to risk all to start a new life in a far-distant rugged wilderness. Robertson charged three of his men with staying behind and planting some corn to prepare for the arrival of a much larger group, whilst he returned to Watauga to prepare them to make the journey westward.

James Robertson did not immdiately return to Watauga, but detoured to Illinois to see General George Rogers Clark, who, as the agent of Virginia was dispensing "cabin rights" on very favorable terms. Robertson, whose Watauga Association was in opposition to the control of the government of North Carolina (which held claim to the land) thought it possible that the yet-to-be established border between the Virginia and North Carolina frontiers would throw the new Cumberland River settlement in Virginia. Thus he wished to get secure titles and eliminate any future complications over ownership. After making provisional arrangements with General Clark, Robertson returned to his family to prepare for the pending relocation to the Cumberland country.

Robertson by land

On November 1 1779, Robertson led some 200 "movers", some on horseback and some on foot, from Fort Patrick Henry at Watauga toward the western frontier to prepare for the later arrival of the party's women and children, to be led over waterways by John Donelson. Robertson's brothers, Mark and John, were in the party, as well as his oldest son, 11-year-old Jonathan, who drove the sheep. The men were joined en route by John Rains and a number of his friends, who then decided to settle at French Lick, rather than in Kentucky. The end of the journey was not reached until Christmas Day, due to delays caused by the winter described as the coldest one any of them had ever known. []

The settlement occurred at a time of great unrest on the western frontier of the thirteen colonies. The American Revolution broke out one month after the Henderson's Purchase treaty was signed. Most Cherokee towns tried to stay neutral, but Cherokee chief Dragging Canoe considered the war an opportunity to resist the white encroachment on Cherokee territory. American raids against his towns in East Tennessee forced Dragging Canoe to move them farther to the southwest. In 1779 they settled on Chickamauga Creek near Chattanooga, and became known as the Chickamauga band of Cherokees. Dragging Canoe had promised to make the settlers pay a "heavy price" if they moved there, and he made good his word. []

Donelson by river

After only three miles the river voyage was halted; ice and snow and cold had set in and the frozen river made progress impossible. There was no movement until mid-February, and when the boats were eventually cut loose, they were hampered again by the swell of the river due to incessant heavy rain. Donelson's group suffered greatly from Dragging Canoe's promiseof vengeance. On their way to French Lick they had to pass the Chickamauga towns on the Tennessee River. Headed north on the Tennessee river past the "Big Bend" in what is today Hardin County, Tennessee, the natives attacked the Donelson party and managed to capture one boat with 28 people on board. They had come that way because Donelson and Robertson had mistakenly assumed the Cumberland to be a tributary of the Tennessee River. The Cumberland is, in fact, like the Tennessee, a tributary of the Ohio River, and the journey by river was much more difficult — and took three months longer — than they had expected. On March 20, they arrived at the mouth of the Tennessee River and went into camp on the lowland which is now the site of Paducah, Kentucky. Wear, hungry and low on provisions, they were confronted by new difficulties. Having been constructed to float downstream, their boats scarcely able to ascend the rapid current of the Ohio, which due to heavy spring rains was particularly high and fast. They were also ignorant of the distance yet to be traveled, and the length of time required to reach their destination. Some of the company here decided to abandon the journey to French Lick; a part of them floating down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez, the rest going to points in Illinois. Among the latter were John Caffrey and his wife, who was Donelson's daughter.

This loss of companionship made a continuation of the voyage doubly trying on those who were left behind. However, nothing daunted, they determined to pursue their course up the Ohio from Paducah to the mouth of the Cumberland, a distance of fifteen miles. Upon seeing it, they were unsure it was even the Cumberland, because it was very much smaller in volume than they had expected to find. Probably their three days of incessant toil against the swift current of the Ohio had much to do with the appearance the river whose banks would become their home. However, they had heard of no stream flowing into the Ohio between the Tennessee and Cumberland, and, therefore, decided to make the ascent. They were soon assured by the widening channel that they were correct in their conjectures. In order to make progress up stream Donelson rigged his boat, the "Adventure", with a small sail made out of a sheet. To prevent the ill effects of any sudden gusts of wind a man was stationed at each lower corner of this sail with instructions to loosen it when the breeze became too strong.

Construction and fort life

The colonists agreed to pay Henderson 26 pounds of silver per hundred acres, which was an expensive price of approximately $6.20 an acre. The log stockade was square in shape and covered two acres. It contained 20 log cabins and was protection for the settlers against wild animals and Indians. Buffalo, black bear, wild turkeys, white tail deer, beaver, raccoon, fox. elk, wolf, cougar, mink, and otter were abundant in the untamed forests.

A family's most treasured possessions were their guns for hunting, axes for wood-cutting, seeds, and hoes for cultivating. Frontier life was a constant struggle, and without these necessities, survival was at risk. Corn was the most important crop for their daily diet, and corn whiskey was the remedy for all health problems. Henderson, ever the profiteer, arranged to have corn shipped from Kentucky at a cost of $200 a bushel for that first winter in Nashville. Linen made from flax or cotton was used for clothes. Animal skins and hides supplemented their wardrobes. The first white child born in the new settlement was James Robertson's son, Felix, on January 11, 1781. He eventually became one of the most influential physicians of the era.

The Land Grab Act of 1783 offered Tennessee lots in one hundred acre tracts for the price of about five dollars. Much property was awarded for honorable military service. Native American lands reserved by treaties and previous claims were not legally available, but in the haste, confusion and greed, there were many squatters and boundary disputes. The flood of colonists wanting land of their own was unstoppable.

Political significance

Upon reaching their destination, Donelson reunited with Robertson. They cleared the land and built a log stockade they called Fort Nashborough in honor of General Francis Nash, who won acclaim in the American Revolution. Together they built other fortified "stations" in the area, named for members of the party: Eaton's Station on the east side of the Cumberland; Clover Bottom, the Donelson plantation on the Stones River; Freeland's Station, Mansker's Station, Thompson's Station and others which are still remembered as neighborhood or town names in the modern Nashville area although the original settlements have long since been destroyed.

Robertson drew up a constitution, called the Cumberland Compact, and began a new phase of autonomy from the government of North Carolina. Robertson had been a leader of the Watauga Association as well as a member of the Regulator Movement.

Native American attacks

The largest and most numerous tribes were the Cherokee, who were civilized and originally peaceful to the eastern colonists. But from the beginning, the Cumberland settlement had very little peace, and was continually attacked. The tribes resented past concessions, broken treaties and further encroachment on their hunting grounds.

On April 2, 1781, a force of Chickamaugans led by Dragging Canoe attacked the fort at the bluffs. The Indians succeeded in luring most of the men out of the fort and then cutting them off from the entrance. But the whites managed to escape back to the fort while the Chickamaugans captured their horses. They also had help from the fort's dogs, turned loose by the women. The Chickasaw attacks decreased the following year. Because of their political situation, they decided to make peace with the settlers. Piomingo, an influential Chickasaw leader, considered the Cumberland settlers to be less of a threat than the Spanish government.

The Chickamaugans and their Creek allies continued attacks on the settlements for the next fourteen years. The "settlers" had to be on guard against Indian attacks at all times.

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