Davidson County is the oldest county in Middle Tennessee. It dates to 1783, when the North Carolina legislature created the county and named it in honor of William L. Davidson, a North Carolina officer who died in the Revolutionary War on January 1, 1782. The county seat, Nashville, is also the oldest permanent white settlement in Middle Tennessee, founded by James Robertson and John Donelson during the winter of 1779-80. The initial white settlers established the Cumberland Compact in order to establish a basic rule of law and to protect their land titles. Through much of the early 1780s the settlers also faced a hostile response from Native American tribes. As the county’s many known archaeological sites attest, the resources of Davidson County had attracted Native Americans for centuries. In fact, the first whites to encounter the area were fur traders, then long hunters, who came to a large salt lick, known as French Lick, in present-day Nashville to trade with Native Americans and to hunt the abundant game.
Nashville has always been the region’s center of commerce, industry, transportation, and culture, but it did not become the capital of Tennessee until 1827 and did not gain permanent capital status until 1843. Its story is best told through its individual entry and the hundreds of other entries in this volume that cover significant people, events, and institutions associated with Nashville as the capital city of Tennessee.
But Davidson County is more than the history of Nashville. It is a large, sprawling landscape that has contained several other significant and distinctive towns and villages in its history, although that diversity has been often forgotten since the formation of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County in 1963. Railroads and turnpikes crossed the county in the mid-nineteenth century and these new transportation routes led to the establishment of several villages including White’s Creek, Joelton, Nolensville, Madison, Antioch, Goodlettsville, and Bellevue. The majestic Union Station in downtown Nashville still conveys the economic power of the railroads in turn-of-the-century Nashville.
Historic sites in the more rural areas of the county convey a sense of what past life was like outside the glare of the big city lights. The Hermitage of Andrew and Rachel Jackson represents the large planter landscape once common in the antebellum era. The Ellington Agricultural Center in south Davidson County developed from the Brentwood Hall estate of Rogers Caldwell and contains an excellent museum of rural and agricultural history. Newsom’s Mill near Bellevue is another reminder of the agrarian economy once dominant in the county. Radnor Lake State Natural Area and the Warner Parks conserve forests and rolling hills in the west side of the county. The Natchez Trace Parkway ends in Davidson County.
War has shaped Davidson County in direct and indirect ways. Federal troops occupied the city early in the Civil War. Fort Negley, a significant post in the history of African Americans and the Civil War, was one of many marks left behind by the occupation army. Throughout the county are many markers and monuments that document the activities of both armies during the battle of Nashville in December 1864. World War I brought the massive industrial development of the DuPont ammunition factory and company town at Old Hickory, creating a bustling city where nothing had been before.
The New Deal era also brought lasting change to the county, due to the combined political power of Congressman Joe Byrns and Nashville mayor Hillary Howse. A series of modern schools were constructed in the country and the city. The county even gained a modernistic office landmark in the Davidson County Public Building and Courthouse (1936-38). Architects Emmons H. Woolwine of Nashville and Frederic C. Hirons of New York designed this preeminent example of the Public Works Administration-influenced Modern style in Middle Tennessee; the courthouse combined the offices of city and county government, thus the unusual name. The Works Progress Administration built Marrowbone Lake and improved local parks and recreational facilities.
World War II brought additional industrial expansion, such as the Vultee aircraft factory, now the Aerostructures Corporation, along the Briley Parkway. The modern industries of Du Pont, along with Old Hickory, and Vultee transformed areas of the county that were once rural and thinly populated into much larger suburban additions to the city. After World War II that process of change continued with the construction of such facilities as the Ford Glass Plant, Genesco, Dell Corporation, and the Metro Airport. The county’s 2000 population was 569,891.
All three Tennessee presidents lived in Davidson County; both Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk died and were buried there. But they are just three of many distinguished Tennesseans who called Davidson County home at some time in their lives and careers. Others come from music (DeFord Bailey), architecture (Adolphus Heiman), literature (John Crowe Ransom), politics (Anne Dallas Dudley), civil rights (Avon Williams), and sports (Tracy Caulkins). Davidson County also is home to many of the state’s most famous educational and cultural institutions including Belmont, Fisk, Lipscomb, Tennessee State, Trevecca, and Vanderbilt Universities; the Grand Ole Opry; the Tennessee State Museum; the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.