History from Home – The Donelson Family & Founding of Nashville

Did you know that Rachel Donelson Jackson was from one of the founding families that settled in what we now know as Nashville today?

Let’s look at the remarkable story of Colonel John Donelson and the journey from Fort Patrick Henry, Virginia on the Holston River to the French Salt-Springs on Cumberland River, now known as Nashville, Tennessee.

On December 22, 1779, a flotilla of 30 flatboats loaded with 200 people left the banks of Fort Patrick Henry. The biggest boat was led by Virginia surveyor John Donelson and his family. It held about 30 people, including 12-year-old Rachel Donelson, and had been christened The Adventure.

The Donelson Party comprised one of two groups that migrated that year. Another group of men, led by James Robertson, went by land, through the Cumberland Gap, through Kentucky and into Nashville. Robertson’s journey was relatively uneventful, while the Donelson party ran into one misadventure after another.

Their four-month journey started with much excitement. Imagine the sense of frustration they must have had three days later, when their boats ran aground, and they found themselves stuck in the ice. Unable to turn back, they had to spend the winter stuck until February 27th, when the boats were able to move again.

Making their way through present-day Knoxville, the group began to face many misfortunes. The first death of an African American man happened on March 4th from the result of frostbite. Then an outbreak of smallpox plagued the party.

The settlers faced their most daunting challenge of being ambushed by Indians. The yells of the Indians, the crack of guns, the screams of the women were borne along the gorge to the ears of the voyagers. Twenty-eight were doomed on one of the boats. With the help of the increasingly rapid waters, the rest of the party was able to escape further harm.

Next came the terrifying journey through the Muscle Shoals, the steepest and most treacherous part of the Tennessee River. To everyone’s relief, they made it with no accidents.

In a week, the boats had floated 250 miles downstream to the junction of the Tennessee and the Ohio rivers. It was here that the journey became physically more difficult because the boats now had to turn upstream on the Ohio and subsequently on the Cumberland. Every able-bodied person had to paddle.

Finally, the boats arrived at Ft. Nashborough (the new name for French Lick) on April 24, 1780, having come a thousand miles. At least 33 of them had died or been captured on the way. The Donelson party reunited with the Robertson party.

The community that they started is today known as Nashville named for Francis Nash, a Brigadier General in the American Revolutionary War.

John Donelson was mysteriously killed on the trail between Kentucky and Nashville in 1785. His tenth child (out of eleven) was Rachel Donelson Jackson, the future wife of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States.