Early histories of the Tennessee Historical Society (THS) place its origins in the Tennessee Antiquarian Society organized in Nashville in 1820. The purpose of the society, chaired by John Haywood, was the collection and preservation of important events in the history of Tennessee and research into prehistoric antiquities. Many of the members of this group reorganized as the Tennessee Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge in 1835. In an 1857 editorial, the Nashville Daily Union and American traced the 1849 creation of the Tennessee Historical Society from this organization. In her 1943 history of the Tennessee Historical Society, Mary Daniel Moore states that the missions, constitutions, and by-laws of the three organizations were similar and that several persons are found as members of all three. These similarities and the possession by the THS of the earlier societies’ minutes and collections support the claim of an 1820 founding.
The Tennessee Historical Society was reorganized from these earlier societies on May 1, 1849, with Professor Nathaniel Cross chosen as chairman. The members organized for the purpose of collecting and preserving facts related to the natural, aboriginal, and civil history of the state. The University of Nashville became the temporary depository of the THS holdings; one item immediately sought was the collection of papers of Governor William Carroll. Other early acquisitions brought fifty-six books, manuscripts dating to 1732, newspapers, and artifacts such as the spectacles of General Nathaniel Greene. One result of the activity was the incorporation of the Tennessee Historical Society by an act of the general assembly on February 1, 1850. THS hired librarian William Wales as its first staff member in May 1850.
Beginning in March 1857, meetings of the THS took place in the State Library in the new State Capitol building. The holdings of the THS, which now included oil portraits, were exhibited in the library and in the federal courtroom of the Capitol. On May 1, 1858, General B. F. Cheatham rode through Nashville at the head of a parade in honor of the society. The parade, which ended with a picnic in a nearby grove, included military cadets, militia guards, veterans from three wars, teachers and students from local academies, ex-governors, judges, and pioneer settlers.
The THS continued to build its archival and museum collections, and in 1860 Jeremiah G. Harris donated one of its most popular holdings, an Egyptian mummy. The Civil War disrupted THS meetings. Some of the collections from the Capitol, especially coins and minerals, were removed just before federal occupation and stored at Polk Place under the protection of Sarah Childress Polk. Many of the manuscripts and books left in the Capitol’s library were lost. The THS did not return to the Capitol building until 1874. J. G. M. Ramsey of Knoxville served as THS president from 1874 to 1884.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the THS asked historians to collect local and county biographical and historical information. Much of this material was published as county histories or used in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee in 1887. The THS guided activities for celebrating Nashville’s centenary in 1880 and as part of its efforts purchased and erected the heroic statue of Andrew Jackson by sculptor Clark Mills on the grounds of the Capitol. In 1886 the THS moved its archival and museum collections from the State Library to larger quarters at Watkins Institute. That same year, members were allowed to invite female guests to each alternate program of the society. Women were permitted to join as corresponding members in the 1880s, and Mary Noailles Murfree’s name was added to the rolls. In 1890 the society authorized full membership for women and elected Sarah Polk to honorary membership in 1891. The Tennessee Historical Society participated in the state’s centennial celebrations through a special campaign to collect papers from the settlement of the state forward through 1896 and by seeking to establish a historical exhibit at the Centennial Exposition of 1897. The celebration’s History Building was constructed to accommodate the society’s portraits of famous persons, historic arms, and manuscripts.
Although the THS had prepared other publications, beginning with a history of Davidson County in 1879, the society entered into an agreement with American Historical Magazine in 1896 to publish its transactions, a partnership that continued until 1904. In 1915 the THS began publication of its own quarterly journal, the Tennessee Historical Magazine. First edited by St. George L. Sioussat, the magazine continued until 1937.
The first quarter of the twentieth century brought several changes to the THS. In 1915 the Ladies Historical Society consolidated with the THS. Following World War I, the society became active in promoting the construction of a soldiers’ memorial building. After the War Memorial Building was completed in 1927, the THS petitioned the general assembly for space to display its collections, which had outgrown its rooms at Watkins Institute. In April the general assembly adopted a resolution accepting in trust the collections of the society and committing to the society’s use rooms in the memorial building plus aid in publishing the THS magazine. In the late 1990s the THS and the state still operated under this 1927 agreement.
In 1937 came the death of THS president John H. DeWitt, who had held that office since 1913. In 1941 Stanley F. Horn was elected as president, and in 1942 the THS resumed its quarterly journal as the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. (Under editor Carroll Van West, the quarterly entered its sixtieth volume in 2001.) In 1953 the Tennessee State Library and Archives moved to a new building constructed as a memorial to World War II veterans. All the THS manuscripts, printed materials, and books not on display in the museum were moved to the archives and made available for public use. In 1980 the society’s museum collections were moved to the new Tennessee State Museum in the Polk Building, although a few items remained on display in the military branch of the museum at the War Memorial Building. The society’s portraits of the governors hang in the State Capitol.
From the 1920s through the 1970s, the THS concentrated its efforts on publishing Tennessee history, hosting public lectures, and adding to its collections. These activities were conducted by volunteers and by the society’s editor, a position provided by the State of Tennessee until the early 1980s. In 1980 the THS hired its first full-time executive director, James A. Hoobler. During the 1980s, the society expanded programs to sites across the state, planned and produced special museum exhibits highlighting the society’s collections, and published new histories. In 1988-89 James S. Summerville served as executive director, and the THS launched new public history projects, most notably “Votes for Women,” a commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of Tennessee’s role in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1990 the THS board employed Ann Toplovich as executive director and continued its commitment to new research, public programs, and publications related to Tennessee history. In the 1990s, special projects included “Home Front Tennessee: The World War II Experience” and “‘Eden of the West’: The Development of Upper South Culture in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1750-1850.” The THS also served as advisor to the Tennessee Bicentennial celebration in 1996. The society’s major project to commemorate Tennessee’s two-hundredth anniversary was its production of the state’s first comprehensive encyclopedia. In 1999, with funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission, it began the development of the state’s first history of the arts; titled “Creating Traditions, Expanding Horizons,” it is due for publication in 2003.
In 1970 Harriet C. Owsley noted that almost all major histories of Tennessee had been written by members of the Tennessee Historical Society, from John Haywood, A. W. Putnam, and J. G. M. Ramsey through Robert E. Corlew, Robert H. White, and Stanley J. Folmsbee. The publication by the THS of The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture in 1998 was a crowning achievement in this tradition.
Harriet Chappell Owsley, “The Tennessee Historical Society: Its Origin, Progress, and Present Condition,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 29 (1970): 227-42; Ann Toplovich, “The Tennessee Historical Society at 150: Tennessee History Just and True,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 58 (1999): 194-215