by TJ AndersonIt’s a funny thing: When you’re young and all kinds of lessons are foisted upon you, learning gets to feeling like a chore. As you get older, and opportunities to learn new skills
Nashville History Lesson On Pioneer John Donelson
By TJ Anderson
Way back in the winter of 1779, while he was fighting the cold waters of the Cumberland alongside a hundred or so other early Middle Tennessee settlers, one figures John Donelson never could have predicted his name would one day be so, so hip.
For the next installment of my running collection of Nashville history lessons, I’m tackling Donelson, a land surveyor and military colonel who, bravely and somewhat blindly, journeyed into what’s now Nashville, helping to settle what’s now our thriving city.
Who was John Donelson?
In the annals of history, John Donelson, alongside James Robertson (who I’ll surely dig into later), is considered one of the “founding fathers” of Nashville.
Story goes, land speculator Richard Henderson (he was the guy who sent Daniel Boone into Kentucky too) directed Robertson to travel west by land from North Carolina, with Donelson moving in that direction by water. The two would meet in what's now our thriving, bustling, music-filled home.
Donelson and his family (wife Rachel and 10 of their 11 children) piled into a boat called the Adventure, and along with about 30 canoes and dugouts, covered a thousand miles over about four months, finally reaching and settling Fort Nashborough along the Cumberland River, in April of 1780. The long journey was apparently not without its fraught moments, the travelers battling frigid weather, food shortages, a smallpox outbreak and attacks by Native American tribes.
The settlement they founded earned the name Nashville a few years later in 1784, and was officially chartered as a city in 1806.
In between, the Donelsons had their difficulties in a young Nashville. They settled near the Stones River, where Clover Bottom Mansion now stands, but flooding drove the Donelsons up north to Mansker’s Fort (today, you can visit a reproduction up in Goodlettsville). When they returned after floodwaters subsided to harvest crops, they were attacked by a group of Chickamaugas, and the family ultimately fled to safer confines, up in Kentucky.
Donelson traveled out of Kentucky regularly for business, back to Virginia and Tennessee. His family eventually returned to the Cumberland settlement in 1785, where they continued to play a well-remembered role in early American history (daughter Rachel married Andrew Jackson, who went on to become our seventh president). Donelson himself, though, never got the chance to recommit to the city he helped found — on his way back from Kentucky to Tennessee the year his family resettled, he was attacked again, and killed.
Where you see Donelson’s name
A just-east suburb of Nashville, home to where the Donelson family first planted their crops, now bears Donelson’s name. Though what we know as Donelson came well after the family patriarch died: The oldest neighborhood in Donelson, Historic Bluefields, was first developed in the late 1920s.
But you’d figure Donelson and his family might be proud of the area that bears their name — just a few years ago, Donelson was named one of “The 20 Hottest Residential Zip Codes In The US,” and it relatively recently inspired Style Blueprint to wonder, “What Makes Hip Donelson So Hip?” Gotta be the historical significance.
Hope this Nashville history lesson was entertaining, and introduced you to a few factoids you didn't already know about our home. Any other Nashville names you’d like to hear more about? Let me know.
And if you’re looking for a new home somewhere in or near Nashville, I’d be happy to help there too. Call or email TJ Anderson Homes, and tell me about your wish list.
For good measure: Homes for sale in Donelson, TN, here.
TJ Anderson is a Nashville Realtor with Benchmark Realty who's helped countless clients both buy a home and sell a home in Nashville, Tennessee. He blogs about Nashville regularly, from Nashville-area....
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