Cumberland District

Nashville, TN

Tennessee Historical Marker at Fort Nashborough
Tennessee Historical Marker at Fort Nashborough

Nashville’s roots can be traced back to 1779 when the first permanent American settlements were established along the bluffs above the Cumberland River.   Fort Nashborough, known originally as the Bluff Station, served to protect pioneers from armed incursions by Native Americans hostile to the expansion of white settlers into the area. The largest engagement took place in April, 1781, when a force of Chickamaugan Cherokee, led by Dragging Canoe, unsuccessfully attacked the station in what was known as the “Battle of the Bluffs.”

According to Metro Historian Dr. Carole Stanford Bucy:

Charlotte Reeves Robertson was among the earliest settlers to live in Middle Tennessee. She followed her husband, James Robertson, in a journey from the Watauga settlement of East Tennessee to the wilderness of Middle Tennessee, helping to establish settlements in each of these areas. She survived Indian attacks as well as long separations from her husband, who was frequently called away on governmental business. Indians killed two of her sons and she nursed another son back to good health after he had been scalped by the Indians and left for dead at the “Battle of the Bluffs.”

Charlotte and James Robertson had moved to Watauga from North Carolina shortly after their marriage. At Watauga, Charlotte Robertson and the other women who lived there worked shoulder to shoulder with men, planting crops, tending livestock, and defending themselves from the Indians. At Watauga, Charlotte Robertson’s husband was a leader. Because of his knowledge of the Cherokee language, he devoted much of his life to negotiating with the Indians to try to provide a permanent peace. The Robertsons and other families moved further west to acquire land. When James Robertson, a surveyor, identified the spot of the Salt Lick on the Cumberland River, forty families at Watauga decided to leave for Middle Tennessee.

While James Robertson led a group of men by land through the Cumberland Gap to the site later known as Fort Nashborough, Charlotte Robertson traveled with John Donelson and a group of women and children by flatboats via backcountry rivers. Almost immediately, there were conflicts with Chickamauga Cherokee who resented the settlers’ moving into the region. Charlotte Robertson is remembered as the heroine of the “Battle of the Bluffs,” fought in April of 1781. When she realized that the Indians were about to attack, she left the safety of the fort to warn the men. Returning to the fort, she realized that the men would not be able to get inside the walls because the Indians had positioned themselves between the men and the fort. At this point, she unleashed the settlement’s dogs. They chased the Indians and created so much confusion that the men were able to return to the safety of the fort. Consequently, Charlotte Robertson is credited with saving Fort Nashborough.

The local Daughters of the American Revolution chapters funded the construction of scaled-down version of the original Fort Nashborough in 1930 as part of the organization’s national effort to identify and preserve historic places in the early twentieth century. The structures were rebuilt in 1962. The fort construction demonstrates the building techniques of the area’s early settlers.

The site is currently under construction. When completed it will be a central element of Nashville’s larger Riverfront redevelopment project.  The new interpretive facilities will be within the footprint of the current site.  Visitors will have the opportunity to experience and engage Nashville’s earliest history at the new Fort Nashborough once construction is complete.  The project is expected to take between two and three years.

The original Fort Nashborough was built on about 2 acres of land along the western bank of the Cumberland River, just north of the current, smaller site. The fort, known as the “Bluff Station,” was used by settlers such as James Robertson to defend themselves against attacks by Native Americans who saw the Cumberland settlements as a threat to the area’s use as a hunting ground.  Although Nashborough wasn’t a standard military fortification, it served the purpose of protecting the settlement in a time when ambushes were common. A small artillery piece helped them stand their ground. It was a very vicious and violent atmosphere.

The fort also was significant as the site where the Cumberland Compact was adopted as “the government of the new settlement,” according to the historical marker at the current site. The Cumberland Compact, signed on May 13, 1780, was the forerunner of the Tennessee State Constitution, which was ratified June 1, 1796.

What is Fort Nashborough?

    • In the 1920s members of the Daughters of the American Revolution began planning to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the City of Nashville.  They sought to mark the area where Nashville’s original settlement was, and to provide a way to educate Nashvillians and tourists about the lives, hardships, and legacies of those who founded the city.  
    • The City of Nashville provided the land and funding was provided by the DAR, city, county, and state.  
    • Local architect Joseph Hart provided a drawing based on the research of Lizzie Elliott a noted Nashville historian and author of The Early History of Nashville, even though a picture or description of the Fort was not available.  It was created based on old histories and on methods of log construction in KY.  
    • Fort Nashborough was intended to be a representation of the original fort; just as the Parthenon was rebuilt during the same time period as a representation.  
    • Fort Nashborough was dedicated November 20, 1930, and the program platform included Judge Lytton Hickman, Mayor Hilary Howse, Governor Henry Horton, Judge John H. De Witt, and Mrs. Joseph Hayes Acklen.  The Hume-Fogg band played at the opening and closing.  
    • In 1962 $115,000 was appropriated by the City Council for large-scale restoration of Fort Nashborough.  The logs used were peeled stripped locust logs because the stripping treatment prevented termites and to prevent bark peeling.  
    • Newspaper accounts in 1962 report that visitation during those summer months is in excess of 25,000 visitors.  
    • Announcing the rebuilding of Fort Nashborough in April 1962, Mayor Ben West stated:  “This pioneer stockade is a valuable part of our city’s heritage.  The old logs have rotted away but we intend to save this bit of history for future generations through a complete rebuilding.”  
    • The Castleman map of the Fort was discovered in 1962 and caused concern among historians and planners that the location of the Fort was not on the original site of the original Fort.  However the city went ahead with the restoration work at the current site, and historians, journalists, and visitors lauded the city for its commitment to preservation of historic sites.
    • In the 1970s, Wesley Paine served as director of Fort Nashborough.  A large-scale living history program was offered with costumed docents providing historical interpretation.  200 – 300 visitors per day visited the Fort and it was a popular field trip destination.  
  • Budget constraints ended the living history program in the late 1970s.  

Why is Fort Nashborough important to Nashville?

    • Honors our founders
    • Living outdoor museum
    • It is what Nashville was and celebrates what Nashville is
    • It provides a drastic contrast of Nashville’s humble beginnings in difficult circumstances, to its rise as a major metropolitan US city.
    • Why this location and not another location?
    • TN Historical Commission determined it eligible for National Registry designation
    • Already a well-known location
    • Is one of the watershed events in Nashville’s and TN’s preservation movements
    • Architecturally and historically significant with the cultural history of Nashville
    • Significant to the history and preservation movement of the 20th century  
    • Recognized as one of the most important “Frontier Revival” reconstructions
    • Reconstruction in 1930 is representative of the larger national movement to mark historic sites
  • Exact original location unknown, existing structures are located where it is thought to be.

Future Plans

    • Interpretive signage
    • Docents
    • Friends/Fans of the Fort/501c3
    • Events and programs sponsored by historical groups
    • Welcome Center/Information Center for downtown
    • Location on the opposite bank of the Play Park will draw children to both sides
  • The focal point for activities bringing tourists and Nashvillian’s together

Final Thoughts

We embrace the riverfront development plan; bringing people downtown is of vital interest to all of us.  We believe in celebrating the riverfront and Nashville’s founding and adding to what was begun in the 1920s and 1930s, is of great importance to many citizens in Nashville and Tennessee.  The DAR is thrilled to be part of a movement that again embraces the importance of the waterfront, bringing people downtown and in celebrating history. How fortunate is Nashville that our forefathers and mothers saw the importance of creating and saving this bit of history for future generations. Enhancing and building on the strengths of the legacy of Fort Nashborough allows it to be the lynchpin for information about Nashville’s history.

By David Currey, Encore Interpretative Design, 2013 – Used by permission

More Information

For information about Fort Nashborough, contact