The founding of Nashville

The connections between Ulster and Nashville have existed ever since the latter was founded in 1780. In the spring of 1779 Captain James Robertson led a small scouting party into the Cumberland Valley to investigate the region’s potential for settlement. Robertson was impressed by what he saw and at French Lick he and his group built a number of cabins and planted a field of corn. Leaving a few men in charge of the corn, he returned east, secured the necessary title to the land, and made preparations to bring out settlers to populate the area. Robertson led the advance party overland, bringing with them cattle, sheep and horses.

This group arrived at the site of what became Nashville on Christmas Day 1779. Another much larger party, led by John Donelson, travelled by river on 30 or so flatboats. This group arrived on 24 April 1780 after a particularly hazardous journey. A week later on 1 May the settlers signed the Cumberland Compact which set out the articles of self-government and provided for the election of public officials. The settlement was originally called Nashborough after Francis Nash, a Revolutionary War general. In 1784 Nashborough was renamed Nashville.

First families

Both Robertson and Donelson are reputed to have sprung from families originating in east County Antrim. According to one source, Donelson was from the Carnmoney area. Robertson’s Antrim associations are less certain. However, it is clear from what we know of the earliest inhabitants of Nashville that there was a very strong Scotch- Irish connection. Just looking down the list of those who signed the Cumberland Compact we find the following names:

  • Anderson
  • Armstrong
  • Boyd
  • Bradley
  • Buchanan
  • Cameron
  • Campbell
  • Cowan
  • Edmonston
  • Gibson
  • Guthrie
  • Hamilton
  • Henderson
  • Lindsay
  • Maxwell
  • McAdam
  • McAdoo
  • McCartney
  • McCutcheon
  • McMurray
  • McWhirter
  • Mitchell
  • Montgomery
  • Patrick
  • Simpson
  • Thomson
  • Willson

Nashville grows

Following the establishment of Nashville, settlers poured into the area. One visitor to Nashville in the late 1790s reckoned that it contained 60-80 families living in houses that were ‘chiefly of logs and frame’. These homes were somewhat scattered making the town appear larger than it was. The inhabitants were described as ‘chiefly concerned in some way of business’ – storekeepers was the term frequently applied to them. In many respects Nashville was the typical Scotch-Irish frontier town. By this time the surrounding countryside had been fairly well settled.

One young man of Ulster origins who arrived in the Nashville area in the mid 1780s was David McGavock. His father James had moved from the family home near Glenarm in County Antrim to America, eventually setting in Rockbridge County, Virginia, by 1757. David McGavock came to Nashville as a surveyor and is credited with producing the first map of the embryonic city. He also purchased land, building up a holding in excess of 2,000 acres of good-quality farmland. In 1795 he settled permanently in Nashville and in 1806 became the Register of the Land Office, a position he held until his death in 1838.

Of course, not every Irishman who settled in Nashville was either Protestant or of Scotch-Irish descent. Among those accompanying Donelson to Nashville in the early months of 1780 was Hugh Rogan, a native of Donegal and a Catholic. Though his association with Nashville was to be brief, Rogan was to play a prominent role in the development of Middle Tennessee.

Andrew Jackson

Another young man of Scotch-Irish background to come to Nashville in the early days of its settlement was Andrew Jackson. His parents left Boneybefore, near Carrickfergus, in 1765, emigrating to America. Jackson’s father died shortly before he was born and he was raised in modest circumstances by his mother in the Waxhaws, on the border between North and South Carolina. Though his mother had hopes that he would become a Presbyterian minister, he decided in his late teens to pursue a legal career and in 1787 he was admitted to the bar. The following year he moved to Nashville as public prosecutor. Here he lodged with the widow of John Donelson; he was later to marry her daughter Rachel.

Like many of the Scotch-Irish on the frontier Jackson engaged in a range of activities. Not only did he practice law, he also pursued commercial business interests and speculated in land. He also became interested in politics and when Tennessee became the sixteenth state of the Union in 1796 Jackson was its first congressman. Jackson went on to have a successful political and military career, culminating in his election as the seventh president of the United States in 1828. Today his home,
The Hermitage, is one of Nashville’s most popular tourist attractions (www.thehermitage.com).

Alexander Porter, judge and senator

One who found his way from Ulster to Nashville by a route that was far from conventional was Alexander Porter. He was born in 1786, the son of James Porter, later a minister in the Presbyterian Church. A number of places have been suggested for his place of birth including County Donegal, where his family originated or in Drogheda where his father spent a brief period as a schoolmaster. His headstone in Nashville City Cemetery states that he was born ‘near Armagh County Tyrone Ireland’ – Armagh should possibly read Omagh, the largest town in County Tyrone.

In 1798, Rev. James Porter was executed for his alleged involvement in the United Irishmen and rebellion of that year. Afterwards Alexander made his way to Nashville where his uncle Alexander, about whom more will be said presently, had settled some years before. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1807. Two years later he moved to Louisiana and began a legal practice in the Attakapas region of the Territory of Orleans. Here he was drawn into the world of politics.

He was a member of the Louisiana State Legislature 1816-18, a judge on the state’s Supreme Court 1821-33, and a senator in the United States Senate 1833-37. He was again elected to the Senate in 1843, but died at his plantation, Oak Lawn, less than a year after taking his seat on 13 January 1844. A newspaper obituary described him as an ‘eloquent and distinguished Irishman, upright judge, talented senator, and able statesman’.

Under the terms of his will he left an annuity to the poor of the parish of Greyabbey to be distributed by his brother-in-law, the Rev. James Templeton of Ballywalter, and the minister of Greyabbey. Just six years into their marriage Judge Porter’s wife died while on a visit to their friends in Nashville. She was buried in Nashville City
Cemetery. When Porter died his body was taken to Nashville for burial beside his wife’s remains.