EARLY EXPLORERS & SETTLEMENTS | 1541-1787
The rich natural resources and abundant wildlife of Middle Tennessee area long ago attracted people to hunt, farm, trade and build communities here. Generations of Native Americans created the first villages, at places like Castalian Springs in Sumner County or the spectacular landscape at Mound Bottom State Park in Cheatham County.
By the 1760s word of this promise land had reached the European settlers to the east. French-Canadian hunters ventured here first. Timothy Demonbreun, former officer of the American revolutionary army, built his cabin at what is now present-day Nashville and began to trade with the Shawnees and Cherokees who traveled to the big salt lick—called French Lick--near the Bicentennial Mall State Park.
Demonbreun is considered the “first citizen” of Nashville, and Demonbreun Street in Downtown Nashville is named for him. Long hunters—so called for the distances they had traveled to reach Middle Tennessee—came next and they expanded trade and settlement from French Lick all along the Cumberland River. Legend has it that Thomas Spencer even made his home in huge tree that stood at Castalian Springs.
On December 25, 1779, a small party of settlers led by James Robertson and John Donelson arrived at a bluff just beyond the “French Lick” to establish Fort Nashborough. This small, simple fort was a forerunner to the settlement that would become the city of Nashville. The Cumberland Compact, of the precursors to the Tennessee State Constitution, was signed and officially adopted at Fort Nashborough in 1780.
THE WESTWARD ROADS | 1787-1801
A 300-mile long road through the wilderness from Clinch Mountain in East Tennessee to current-day Nashville, Avery’s Trace was commissioned in 1787 for settlers heading westward. Because the trace passed through Cherokee lands, tensions led to attacks that soon required settlers to travel in large groups, accompanied by soldiers whenever possible.
Another road built around 1797 still strayed within these Native controlled areas so a third road was required. Developed between 1799 and 1801 by William Walton, this new road would become known as “The Walton Road.”
Built as a competitor to Avery’s Trace, the Walton Road bypassed the areas of tension between traveling settlers and Native Americans that had made the previous roads unsuitable for safe passage, and linked the Tennessee River transport system with that of the Cumberland River, opening up new commerce between East and Middle Tennessee.
NEW TOWNS, NEW PROSPERITY | 1801-1861
As new trade routes opened and more settlers made permanent homes in the area, industry began to boom. The charming towns of the Promised Land Trail are set along riverfronts and at the intersection of rail lines. Most more than two centuries old now, these towns sprang up where settlers first arrived and began to produce and trade goods.
With the advent of the steamboat era, goods and passengers could be moved easily down the rivers that connected the new, growing towns of Middle Tennessee. Then came turnpikes radiating from Nashville that connected the capitol city to towns across the region. Building railroads in the 1850s made transporting goods faster and cheaper, and fueled town growth wherever the tracks went. With names like Liberty, Lebanon, Carthage, and Sparta, these towns were true centers of culture and commerce.
The oldest town in DeKalb County, Liberty is a turnpike town, originally settled by Adam Dale who came from Maryland and cut a road into the area from Nashville. Dale’s relatives and friends soon followed in his footsteps. Liberty is a National Register historic district, full of historic homes, churches, and a school, located along old turnpike.
The town of Lebanon grew from a turnpike crossroads into a prosperous railroad town in the decades after the Civil War. Named for a nearby dense grove of red cedar trees and founded in 1802, Lebanon is home to Cumberland University, which counts a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Pulitzer-prize authors, Civil War generals, and the founder of Highlander Folk School among its many distinguished graduates.
Once called “River City,” the town of Carthage was founded by William Walton as a Cumberland River port intersecting with his Walton Road. A historic town square surrounds the marvelous Victorian-styled Smith County Courthouse. Carthage is the family home of former Vice President Al Gore, Jr., who, like his father Al Gore, Sr., served Tennessee as a U.S. Senator.
Established in 1809 along the Calfkiller River, Sparta was named after the ancient Greek city-state. As a turnpike crossroads between Middle Tennessee and the Cumberland Plateau, Sparta also expanded after the Civil War as a railroad center to nearby coal mines. Beautiful National Register historic districts of Victorian homes and storefronts reflect Sparta’s role as a natural center of commerce and trade.
A PRESIDENT FROM TENNESSEE | 1829-1837
After his victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, where he led American forces to a decisive victory over the British, Andrew Jackson became a national hero and soon politicians across Tennessee promoted Jackson for national office.
The Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson for President in 1822, and also elected him U.S. Senator. Though Jackson received the most popular votes, he lost the 1824 Presidential election to John Quincy Adams.
The Tennessee legislature nominated Jackson for President once again for the 1828 election, and this time he soundly defeated Adams. During this election campaign Jackson’s opponents called him “the jackass,” and the name and symbol of a donkey soon became permanently associated with the Democratic Party.
Jackson’s 1,000-acre plantation The Hermitage was constructed from 1819 to 1821 and expanded and remodeled several times over the following decades. Up to 150 slaves were held in servitude at the plantation; in his lifetime, Jackson may have owned as many as 300 slaves. The home became a museum in 1889 and approximately 16 million people from around the world have visited it.
As President, Andrew Jackson frequently traveled between Nashville and Washington, D.C., and would often stay at small simple inns like the Rock House east of Sparta. Built between 1835 and 1839, this famous stagecoach stop was frequented by many Tennessee Governors as well as the President.
SETTLER EXPANSION & THE TRAIL OF TEARS | 1825-1840
The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek and Seminole were separate nations of Native Americans located in the southeastern United States. Previously, under President Thomas Jefferson, American policy had been to accept Native American rights to their homelands.
Later, as expansion continued, President Andrew Jackson sought to open these lands to American settlers and began to push for removal of all Native Americans in 1829. This resulted in Congress passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Indian Removal Act received wide support in the southern United States, where there was a strong public desire for access to lands inhabited by the tribes.“The Trail of Tears” was the name given to the U.S. Army’s forced relocation of Native Americans, which began in 1838. Many forced marches began from Charleston and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and moved westward through the Cumberland Plateau and Middle Tennessee to Nashville where they took turnpikes in Robertson and Montgomery counties into Kentucky and onto Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
On the way west Native Americans suffered from starvation, exposure, disease, harassment, and indifference from local settlers. Scholars estimate that 4,000 died during the ordeal of removal As much Today, 2,200 miles of trails mark the removal of the Cherokee people.Called the "Trail of Tears National Historic Trail," this historic path crosses nine states.
CIVIL WAR IN THE CUMBERLAND | 1861-1865
The Cumberland Valley was a land of death and destruction during the American Civil War. After the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, Nashville became the first Confederate capital to fall to Union forces by the end of that month.
Federal occupation of Middle Tennessee meant three years of fighting, with significant battles at Lebanon and Hartsville, plus never-ending guerilla warfare. Famous Confederate partisan leader Champ Ferguson led many raids; he is buried at France Cemetery north of Sparta.
The Union army built forts at key points like Carthage and all around Nashville. One of the Nashville forts, Fort Negley, became part of the staging area for the massive and decisive Union attack led by Gen. George Thomas on Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee at Nashville in December 1864. Thomas gained one of the war’s most decisive victories by smashing Hood's army in two days. The Battle of Nashville was the final major Civil War engagement in Tennessee.
CUMBERLAND CULTURE | 1925-Today
Today, many Tennessee communities along the Promised Land Trail are now important historic locations that help memorialize and preserve the past for future generations to enjoy.
Fiddler’s Grove Historic Village in Lebanon contains the types of buildings found one hundred years ago in Cumberland country towns. Its Fiddler’s Grove Festival focuses on traditional American music and the annual Wilson County Fair jams the grove with visitors from all over the nation. Nearby Smithville is home to the Fiddler’s Jamboree and Crafts Festival, which annually attracts tens of thousands for its nationally recognized competitions.
A “subsistence community” founded under FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, homesteaders at the Cumberland Homesteads would receive approximately 20-25 acres and a house, and used their farming income to pay for their property. Today the community is the state’s largest historic district with a museum and the Cumberland Mountain State Park that allows visitors to see the homesteads’ beautiful buildings made of Crab Orchard stone.
Quilting has a long tradition in the Cumberland country. Quilt shops are found throughout the area and the city of Algood hosts a quilting festival each spring. Quilt patterns also are prominently displayed on old barns along the Upper Cumberland Quilt Trail. Quilts and many other contemporary crafts are available at the Joe L. Evins Appalachian Center for Crafts outside of Smithville.
Antiques and quilts, southern food and deep history, songs as old as the hills and the very best of Cumberland culture can all be found on the Promised Land Trail. The world treasures, classic homes, Civil War sites and charming towns along this trail will take you backwards in time to experience the real history of Middle Tennessee.