Nashville is the capital and most populous city of the U.S. state of Tennessee. The city is the county seat of Davidson County and is located on the Cumberland River. The city’s population ranks 24th in the U.S. According to 2018 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, the total consolidated city-county population stood at 692,587. The “balance” population, which excludes semi-independent municipalities within Davidson County, was 669,053 in 2018.
Located in northern Middle Tennessee, Nashville is the major city of the largest metropolitan area in Tennessee. The 2018 population of the entire 14-county Nashville metropolitan area was 1,930,961. The 2018 population of the Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Columbia combined statistical area, a larger trade area, was 2,057,416.
Named for Francis Nash, a general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, the city was founded in 1779. The city grew quickly due to its strategic location as a port on the Cumberland River and, in the 19th century, a railroad center. Nashville seceded with Tennessee during the American Civil War; in 1862 it was the first state capital in the Confederacy to fall to Union troops. After the war, the city reclaimed its position and developed a manufacturing base.
Since 1963, Nashville has had a consolidated city-county government, which includes six smaller municipalities in a two-tier system. The city is governed by a mayor, a vice-mayor, and a 40-member metropolitan council; 35 of the members are elected from single-member districts, while the other five are elected at-large. Reflecting the city’s position in state government, Nashville is home to the Tennessee Supreme Court’s courthouse for Middle Tennessee, one of the three divisions.
Nashville is a center for the music, healthcare, publishing, private prison, banking, and transportation industries. It is home to numerous colleges and universities, such as Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, Fisk University, and Lipscomb University. Entities with headquarters in the city include Asurion, Bridgestone Americas, Captain D’s, CoreCivic, Dollar General, Hospital Corporation of America, LifeWay Christian Resources, Logan’s Roadhouse, and Ryman Hospitality Properties.
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18th and 19th centuries
The town of Nashville was founded by James Robertson, John Donelson, and a party of Overmountain Men in 1779, near the original Cumberland settlement of Fort Nashborough. It was named for Francis Nash, the American Revolutionary War hero. Nashville quickly grew because of its strategic location as a port on the Cumberland River, a tributary of the Ohio River; and its later status as a major railroad center. By 1800, the city had 345 residents, including 136 enslaved African Americans and 14 free African Americans. In 1806, Nashville was incorporated as a city and became the county seat of Davidson County, Tennessee. In 1843, the city was named as the permanent capital of the state of Tennessee.
The city government of Nashville owned 24 slaves by 1831, and 60 prior to the Civil War. They were “put to work to build the first successful water system and maintain the streets.” Auction blocks and brokers’ offices were part of the slave market at the heart of the city. It was the center of plantations cultivating tobacco and hemp as commodity crops, in addition to the breeding and training of thoroughbred horses, and other livestock.
The cholera epidemic that struck Nashville in 1849–1850 took the life of former U.S. President James K. Polk and resulted in high fatalities. There were 311 deaths from cholera in 1849 and an estimated 316 to about 500 in 1850.
Before the Civil War, about 700 free blacks lived in small enclaves in northern Nashville while there were over 3,200 enslaved people of color in the city. By 1860, when the first rumblings of secession began to be heard across the South, antebellum Nashville was a prosperous city. The city’s significance as a shipping port and rail center made it a desirable prize for competing military forces that wanted to control the region’s important river and railroad transportation routes. In February 1862, Nashville became the first Confederate state capital to fall to Union troops, and the state was occupied by Union troops for the duration of the war. Then African-Americans from Middle Tennessee fled to contraband camps around military installations in Nashville’s eastern, western, and southern borders. The Battle of Nashville (December 15–16, 1864) was a significant Union victory and perhaps the most decisive tactical victory gained by either side in the war; it was also the war’s final major military action in which Tennessee regiments played a large part on both sides of the battle. Afterward, the Confederates conducted a war of attrition, making guerrilla raids and engaging in small skirmishes, with the Confederate forces in the Deep South almost constantly in retreat.
In 1868, a few years after the Civil War, the Nashville chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Confederate veteran John W. Morton. He was reported to have initiated General Nathan Bedford Forrest into the vigilante organization. Chapters of this secret insurgent group formed throughout the state and the South; they opposed voting and political organizing by freedmen, tried to control their behavior, and sometimes also attacked their white allies, including schoolteachers from the North.
Whites directed violence against freedmen and their descendants both during and since the Reconstruction era. Two freedmen were lynched in Nashville by white mobs in 1872 and 1875, respectively. The man in the latter incident was hanged from a bridge over the river, but he survived after the rope broke and he went into the water. He fled the city.
In 1873 Nashville suffered another cholera epidemic, as did towns throughout Sumner County along railroad routes and the Cumberland River.
Meanwhile, the city had reclaimed its important shipping and trading position and developed a solid manufacturing base. The post–Civil War years of the late 19th century brought new prosperity to Nashville and Davidson County. Wealthy planters and businessmen built grand, classical-style buildings. A replica of the Parthenon was constructed in Centennial Park, near downtown.
On April 30, 1892, Ephraim Grizzard, an African-American man, was lynched in a spectacle murder in front of a white mob of 10,000 in Nashville. His lynching was described by journalist Ida B. Wells as: “A naked, bloody example of the blood-thirstiness of the nineteenth century civilization of the Athens of the South.” His brother, Henry Grizzard, had been lynched and hanged on April 24, 1892, in nearby Goodlettsville as a suspect in the same assault incident. From 1877 to 1950, a total of six lynchings of blacks were conducted in Davidson County, four before the turn of the century.