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Middle Tennessee's Native American History

The Early Historic Period


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From 1450 to the late 1600's there are no solid historical records concerning any Native American presence in the Nashville area. Small bands from local tribes probably settled here temporarily, at least, during this time.

This was a period of great turmoil for Indian people in the southeast. As mentioned on the Mississippian Period page, around 1450 some event or combination of events caused a change in population patterns in Middle Tennessee. The European explorations of the North American mainland that began in the 1500's caused severe disruptions in Indian societies. Hernando DeSoto's pillaging journey in 1540 had a major impact on many southeastern tribes. Indian participation in the European fur trade affected both the supply of game animals and the relationships between Indian nations.

By 1689 the Shawnee had established many villages along the Cumberland River, and the French built a trading post at Nashville, then called French Lick, to trade with the tribe. The Shawnee left the area in 1745. There was a small Cherokee village here during the 1750's, which was abandoned when white hunters started making frequent trips to the area in 1760.

Many versions of Nashville's history say there were no Indians in the Middle Cumberland area when the first white hunters showed up, but this is a misconception. There were no permanent Indian villages at the French Lick/Nashville location at this time. However, there were probably small Native American settlements within a twenty-mile radius up until several years after the arrival of the Robertson-Donelson party in 1779-1780. A Cherokee chief named Black Fox had a permanent hunting camp near Murfreesboro which was well known to the white settlers. Throughout the 1700's, hunting parties from many tribes camped for long periods in Middle Tennessee, as their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. Deer and other game animals in the area were an important food source for the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek people. The Shawnee and many other northern tribes hunted in Middle Tennessee also.

The many salt springs in the Nashville area attracted large numbers of game animals. As the increasing white population in the North and the East depleted the game there, the Kentucky-Tennessee region became even more important as a Native American hunting ground. This was a major reason behind the fierce Indian resistance to the occupation of the area by the whites, which began in 1775.

The Robertson-Donelson party, the first group of white settlers, arrived at the French Lick during the Revolutionary War. Most Southern Indian tribes, or factions of certain tribes, sided with the British because of increasing American demands for Indian land. The Chickasaws, the Chickamauga band of Cherokees, and the Creeks carried out many raids against the early Cumberland stations. After the Revolution the Chickasaws made peace with the young United States and became important allies of the frontier city of Nashville. The Chickamaugan and Creek attacks on the Cumberland stations continued until 1794, when they signed a treaty that ended hostilities. Two years later, in 1796 the American occupation of the area was secured, as Tennessee became the 16th state.

In 1838 the Cherokee Nation was "removed" to lands west of the Mississippi River. This followed a long legal battle to keep their remaining tribal territory in the east. One of the main routes for this forced immigration passed through Nashville.