The town of Nashville was founded by James Robertson, John Donelson, and a party of Overmountain Men in 1779, near the original Cumberland settlement of Fort Nashborough. It was named for Francis Nash, the American Revolutionary War hero. Nashville quickly grew because of its strategic location, accessibility as a port on the Cumberland River, a tributary of the Ohio River; and its later status as a major railroad center. By 1800, the city had 345 residents, including 136 African American slaves and 14 free blacks. In 1806, Nashville was incorporated as a city and became the county seat of Davidson County, Tennessee. In 1843, the city was named the permanent capital of the state of Tennessee.
The city government of Nashville owned 24 slaves by 1831, and 60 prior to the war. They were "put to work to build the first successful water system and maintain the streets."
By 1860, when the first rumblings of secession began to be heard across the South, antebellum Nashville was a prosperous city. The city's significance as a shipping port made it a desirable prize as a means of controlling important river and railroad transportation routes. In February 1862, Nashville became the first state capital to fall to Union troops. The state was occupied by Union troops for the duration of the war. The Battle of Nashville (December 15–16, 1864) was a significant Union victory and perhaps the most decisive tactical victory gained by either side in the war; it was also the war's final major military action. Afterward, the Confederates conducted a war of attrition, making guerrilla raids and engaging in small skirmishes, with the Confederate forces in the Deep South almost constantly in retreat.
Within a few years after the Civil War, the Nashville chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was founded by Confederate veteran John W. Morton.
Meanwhile, the city had reclaimed its important shipping and trading position and developed a solid manufacturing base. The post–Civil War years of the late 19th century brought new prosperity to Nashville and Davidson County. These healthy economic times left the city with a legacy of grand classical-style buildings, including the Parthenon in Centennial Park, near downtown.
On April 30, 1892, Ephraim Grizzard, an African-American man, was lynched in front of a white mob of 10,000 in Nashville. It was described by journalist Ida B. Wells as "A naked, bloody example of the blood-thirstiness of the nineteenth century civilization of the Athens of the South." From 1877 to 1950, a total of six lynchings of blacks were conducted in Davidson County, most in Nashville near the turn of the century.
Depiction of Nashville skyline c. 1940s
Circa 1950 the state legislature approved a new city charter that provided for the election of city council members from single-member districts, rather than at-large voting. This change was supported because at-large voting diluted the minority population's political power in the city. They could seldom gain a majority of the population to support a candidate of their choice.
Apportionment under the single-member districts meant that some districts had black majorities. In 1951, after passage of the new charter, African-American attorneys Z. Alexander Looby and
Robert E. Lillard were elected to the city council.
Rapid suburbanization occurred during the years immediately after World War II, as new housing was being built outside city limits. This resulted in a demand for many new schools and other support facilities, which the county found difficult to provide. At the same time, suburbanization led to a declining tax base in the city, although many suburban residents used unique city amenities and services supported only by city taxpayers. After years of discussion, a referendum was held in 1958 on the issue of consolidating city and county government. It failed to gain approval although it was supported by elected leaders of both jurisdictions: County Judge Beverly Briley of Davidson and Mayor Ben West of Nashville.
Following the referendum's failure, Nashville annexed some 42 square miles of suburban jurisdictions to expand its tax base. This increased uncertainty among residents, and created resentment among many suburban communities. Under the second charter for metropolitan government, which was approved in 1962, two levels of service provision were proposed: the General Services District and the Urban Services District, to provide for a differential in tax levels. Residents of the Urban Services District had a full range of city services. The areas that made up the General Services District, however, had a lower tax rate until full services were provided. This helped reconcile aspects of services and taxation among the differing jurisdictions within the large metro region.
On April 19, 1960, the house of Z. Alexander Looby, an African-American attorney and council member, was bombed by segregationists. Protesters marched to the city hall the next day. Mayor Ben West said he supported the desegregation of lunch counters, which civil rights activists had called for.
In 1963, Nashville consolidated its government with Davidson County, forming a metropolitan government. The membership on the Metro Council, the legislative body, was increased from 21 to 40 seats. Of these, five members are elected at-large and 35 are elected from single-member districts, each to serve a term of four years.
On April 8, 1967, a riot broke out on the college campuses of Fisk University and Tennessee State University after Stokely Carmichael spoke at Vanderbilt University. Although it was viewed as a "race riot", it had classist characteristics.
In 1979, the Ku Klux Klan burnt crosses outside two African-American sites in Nashville, including the city headquarters of the NAACP.
Since the 1970s, the city and county have undergone tremendous growth, particularly during the economic boom of the 1990s under the leadership of then-Mayor and later-Tennessee Governor, Phil Bredesen. Making urban renewal a priority, Bredesen fostered the construction or renovation of several city landmarks, including the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the downtown Nashville Public Library, the Bridgestone Arena, and Nissan Stadium.
Nissan Stadium (formerly Adelphia Coliseum and LP Field) was built after the 's (NFL) Houston Oilers agreed to move to the city in 1995. The NFL team debuted in Nashville in 1998 at Vanderbilt Stadium, and Nissan Stadium opened in the summer of 1999. The Oilers changed their name to the Tennessee Titans and finished the season with the Music City Miracle and a close Super Bowl game. The St. Louis Rams won in the last play of the game.
In 1997, Nashville was awarded a National Hockey League expansion team; this was named the Nashville Predators. Since the 2003–04 season, the Predators have made the playoffs in all but three seasons. In 2017, they made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history, but ultimately fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4 games to 2, in the best-of-seven series.
The city bounced back after the Great Recession. In March 2012, a Gallup poll ranked Nashville in the top five regions for job growth. In 2013, Nashville was described as "Nowville" and "It City" by GQ, Forbes, and The New York Times.
Nashville elected its first female mayor, Megan Barry, on September 25, 2015. As a council member, Barry had officiated at the city's first same-sex wedding on June 26, 2015. In 2017, Nashville's economy was deemed the third fastest-growing in the nation, and the city was named the "hottest housing market in the US" by Freddie Mac realtors.
On March 6, 2018, Mayor Barry resigned before the end of her term, triggering the need for a special election. Following a ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Davidson County Election Commission set the special election for May 24, 2018, to meet the requirement of 75 to 80 days from the date of resignation.