Nashville’s First Christmas
FACT or FICTION? A large party of emigrants made a journey of several hundred miles together by land, crossed the frozen Cumberland River on Christmas Day, 1779, and settled at what would become Nashville.
This story, mentioned in a variety of histories, started to become part of early Nashville lore 150 years ago. The Christmas Day crossing on the ice was hinted at by historian A.W. Putnam in his 1858 History of Middle Tennessee (p. 66). He wrote that “they reached the river in December, 1779, and between the middle of that month and the 1st (of) January crossed the river to where Nashville is now situated.” Putnam also related that “it is believed that the first day they (the settlers) passed at the Lick was Christmas day, 1779.”
Putnam does not guess at the initial size of the Robertson party, but explains that they were joined by other groups along the way. Referring to the total number of settlers, Putnam wrote that “when they were all assembled upon the Cumberland, there were more than two hundred.” So Putnam didn’t say that some 200 settlers made the long journey through the wilderness together, and he didn’t say they came across the ice-covered Cumberland on Christmas, or on Christmas Eve. As to where they had crossed, he wrote that it was to “where Nashville is now situated,” but did he mean where downtown Nashville was located in 1858, or was he designating a more general area? Maybe we don’t know as much as we thought we knew about the Robertson party, and its arrival in what became Nashville. Can we get any more clarity than Putnam managed to achieve when he tackled the subject—less than 80 years after the event he was trying to describe took place?
What would James Robertson have had to say? Although he did not write about the journey he had led, or about the first days of settlement, Robertson, along with his wife, Charlotte, conveyed much of what they knew to their son, Dr. Felix Robertson. Felix became the family historian, and recorded an impressive amount of what he had learned from his parents, and from others, about the early frontier. In one account (Draper Papers, 6XX-50) Felix Robertson disclosed that there were only “some twelve or fifteen in the party” that had been led by his father. That modest group had grown somewhat larger—others had joined them on their way to their destination—but neither he nor any other early source held that there were ever as many as 200 individuals in the Robertson party.
Dr. Robertson also provides information about when the ice was crossed. In the same account (6XX-50) he wrote that “they arrived at where Nashville now stands in December and found the Cumberland River frozen over.” In that account he made no mention of when a crossing took place, but in a separate account (Draper Papers, 31S-35) he gave details about both when and where the river was crossed. He wrote that his father “drove his horses and cattle on the ice over Cumberland River at the mouth of the Lick Branch, towards the last of February, when a thaw had just commenced… .” That doesn’t establish that the party itself didn’t come across the ice earlier, but if the party had come across on Christmas, it seems that would have been mentioned. What he wrote does establish that they crossed the ice considerably downstream from the bluff, and from the fort which is so often reputed to be the main site of the initial settlement. Why would Robertson and his party have crossed all the way down at Lick Branch? His son disclosed the answer in one of his accounts (6XX-50) when he wrote that “they commenced building at the place where David McGavock lived and which was afterwards called Freling’s (Freeland’s) Station”—later the site of Werthan Bag on Eighth Avenue North. For the first year of settlement James Robertson lived at Freeland’s Station, not at the Bluff.
As was the case with A.W. Putnam, the question of whether there was a Christmas, or a Christmas Eve, crossing wasn’t definitively answered by Felix Robertson. Could the answer come from another source? Judge John Haywood, who got much of his information from frontiersman John Rains, who was one of those who actually came across the ice, wrote nothing of a Christmas crossing in his 1823 work, The Civil and Political History of Tennessee, and early settlers such as Edward Swanson didn’t mention it either. That lack of mention might cast some doubt on a Christmas crossing, but is there something more to suggest what did, or did not, take place?
In the end the question seems to be resolved by Daniel Smith, who was camped beside the Cumberland River early in 1780. Smith kept a detailed journal as he was establishing the boundary that would separate Virginia and North Carolina—now the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Smith, who would become a highly noted leader on the frontier, recorded that upstream (near what is today Somerset, Ky.), the river did not freeze over until Jan. 6, 1780, and it remained frozen there until Feb. 13 (Daniel Smith Frontier Statesman, by Walter Durham, p. 287-8). It seems extremely unlikely that at the future site of Nashville, the Cumberland could have been frozen solidly enough for crossing some two weeks before it froze to the north where Daniel Smith had camped. For that reason it appears that there could’ve been no Christmas crossing of theCumberland River.
But there is a Christmas connection with the first settlers. A sizeable party led by Amos Heaton had arrived on White’s Creek, on the north side of the river, and spent Christmas there in the large encampment they had made, not too far from the Cumberland.
—This article originally appeared in The Nashville Retrospect. Republished here by permission.