FACT or FICTION? The frontier settlers who inhabited what would become known as Nashville originally called their settlement “Nashborough.”
In early records such as the Cumberland Compact, as well as in a number of early land records, there are numerous references to “Nashborough.” Richard Henderson had chosen the name in honor of Francis Nash, who had been killed in the Revolution (for information on his role, see the Tennessee Historical Magazine, 1916, Volume 2, number 3, page 173). It appears that Henderson was also the driving force in promoting the use of the name. Public figures such as Andrew Ewing, Samuel Barton, and David Shelby, all closely connected to Henderson, made numerous references to Nashborough in the official records under their control. It is those records, along with the Cumberland Compact, that have led to the notion that the name was widely used by the inhabitants of the settlement.
But beyond the records there seems to be no evidence that the name was used by the citizenry. Some early inhabitants eventually wrote about their frontier experiences, while others narrated their accounts to interviewers such as Lyman Draper. Not one of the individuals whose recollections were preserved appears to have referred to “Nashborough.” In her excellent work, Seedtime on the Cumberland (p. 307, note), premier historian Harriette Simpson Arnow noticed that Henderson’s preferred name for the settlement went unmentioned. She wrote, “My own feeling is that Nashborough was the more formal name of French Lick Station; Draper correspondents spoke of French Lick but not Nashborough.”
The name Nashborough, with its British-related “borough,” may have been unpopular with the populace because of animosity toward England during those last years of the Revolutionary War. Or it may have been that “the Bluff” and “French Lick Station,” which are mentioned again and again by former residents, were the names of choice because they were more descriptive of the place.
There is an especially telling contemporary source that should answer any lingering question about what the settlement was called. The legislative act that established Nashville does not refer to Nashborough at all. That 1784 act instructed that: “two hundred acres of land, situate on the south side of Cumberland River at a place called the Bluff, adjacent to the French Lick… be laid off in lots of one acre each…and shall be called and known by the name of Nash-ville, in memory of the patriotic and brave General Nash.”
So General Nash was ultimately honored, and France, which had played such a crucial role as an American ally in the Revolution, also received a bit of acknowledgement when the “borough” was replaced by the French-related “ville.” That time the name stuck.
—This article originally appeared in The Nashville Retrospect. Republished here by permission.