The American Revolution broke out one month after Richard Henderson's purchase agreement with the Cherokee for the lands of the proposed Transylvania settlement was signed.
Most Cherokee towns wished to stay neutral in the growing contest between the colonists and Britain, but Chief Dragging Canoe considered the war an opportunity to resist the continual encroachment by frontiersmen on traditional Cherokee territories. American retaliatory raids against his Cherokee towns in eastern Tennessee eventually forced Dragging Canoe to move his people farther to the south and west –down the Tennessee River. In 1779 they settled along Chickamauga Creek (near present-day Chattanooga, Tennessee), becoming known as the Chickamauga Cherokees. Later they were forced to move even further west and southwest, where they established the "Five Lower Towns", and were often thereafter referred to as the "Lower Cherokee". Dragging Canoe had promised to make any white settlers pay a "heavy price" if they moved into the Cumberland River valley, and he was to make good his word.
No attempt had previously been made to permanently settle the area then known only as French Lick along the banks of the Cumberland River. In 1779, John Buchanan Sr. migrated with his family from Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, to North Carolina. He first went to the "over-mountain" area of Virginia (modern day eastern Kentucky) in order to leave the party's women and small children in a secure area. The settlers then headed down the Cumberland River and, in early 1779, built a fortified station at French Lick (later to be called Fort Nashborough).
In February 1779, Overmountain leader James Robertson set out with a nine-man exploration party to the same area. Robertson had been a member of the Regulator Movement, as well as a founding leader of the Watauga settlement. A 3,000 acre (12 km²) land grant was negotiated with Richard Henderson, and arrangements were made for the movement of the group's families to the area. The colonists agreed to pay Henderson 26 pounds of silver per hundred acres, which was then considered an expensive price (equal to approximately $6.20/acre). Robertson charged three of his men to stay behind and plant corn in preparation for the arrival of the much larger group, which had remained behind in the Washington District.
Robertson then journeyed to the Illinois Country (an area claimed by Virginia at the time) to meet with General George Rogers Clark (a land agent of Virginia), who was dispensing "cabin rights" on very favorable terms. Robertson, whose 1772 Watauga settlement had originally been opposed to the control of the area by the Province of North Carolina, thought it possible that the yet-to-be established extended border between the Virginia and North Carolina frontiers might throw control of any new Cumberland River settlement to Virginia. Therefore, he wished to get secure and clear land titles to eliminate any future complications over ownership. After making provisional arrangements with General Clark, Robertson prepared for the colonization of the Cumberland country.
On 1 November 1779, Robertson led some 200 settlers from Fort Patrick Henry (now Long Island, Kingsport, Tennessee) toward Fort Nashborough to prepare for the later arrival of the party's women and children, who were to be led (by John Donelson) out of the east over waterways. Robertson's brothers, Mark and John, were in the party, as well as his oldest son, 11-year-old Jonathan, who drove the sheep. The men were joined en route by John Rains and a number of his friends and allied families. This group decided to settle at French Lick, rather than continue upriver into that area which later became the State of Kentucky. Their journey ended on Christmas Day, due to delays caused by the winter (described as the coldest one any of them had ever known).
Starting out in early 1780, Donelson's group was halted after traveling only three miles on their river voyage. Ice, snow and cold had set in and the frozen river made progress impossible. There was no further movement until mid-February, and when the boats were eventually cut loose, they were hampered again by the swell of the river due to incessant heavy rains. Donelson's group also suffered greatly from Dragging Canoe's promise of vengeance. On their way to French Lick they had to pass the Chickamauga towns on the westward flow of the Tennessee River. When the Donelson party had succeeded in that, however, and made the turn to the north (in what is today Hardin County, Tennessee), the natives attacked them as they went past the Tennessee River's "Big Bend" (at Cerro Gordo). The war party captured one boat with 28 people on board. On March 20, 1780, they arrived at the mouth of the Tennessee River and set up camp on a lowland which is now the site of Paducah, Kentucky. Weary, hungry and low on provisions, they were confronted by new difficulties. Their boats, having been constructed to float downstream, were scarcely able to ascend the rapid current of the Ohio, which due to heavy spring rains was particularly high and fast. They were also ignorant of the distance yet to be traveled, and the length of time which would be required to reach their final destination. Some of the company decided to abandon the journey to French Lick. A part of them floated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Natchez, the rest settling at points in Illinois along the Ohio.
The others, however, were determined to pursue their course up the Ohio from Paducah to the mouth of the Cumberland River, a distance which turned out to be only fifteen miles (24 km). Upon seeing it, they were unsure it was the Cumberland, because it seemed very much smaller in volume than they had expected to find. However, they had heard of no stream flowing into the Ohio between the Tennessee and Cumberland, and, therefore, decided to make the ascent. They were soon assured by the widening channel that they were correct in their conjectures. In order to make progress upstream, Donelson rigged his boat, the Adventure, with a small sail made out of a sheet. To prevent ill effects from any sudden gust of wind, a man was stationed at each lower corner of this sail with instructions to loosen it when the breeze became too strong.
Upon reaching their destination, Donelson reunited with Robertson, and the group cleared the land, building a settlement which they named in honor of General Francis Nash, who had won acclaim fighting in the American Revolution. Together these frontiersmen built other fortified "stations" in the vicinity which were named for members of the party; among these were Eaton's Station (on the east side of the Cumberland); Clover Bottom Mansion (the Donelson family plantation on the Stones River); Freeland's Station; Mansker's Station; Thompson's Station; and Buchanan's Station—many still remembered as neighborhoods or towns in the modern Nashville area.
Robertson drew up a constitution, called the Cumberland Compact, and the area began a new phase of autonomy from the government of North Carolina.
Buffalo, black bear, wild turkeys, white tail deer, beaver, raccoon, fox, elk, wolf, cougar, mink, and otter were abundant in the untamed forests. The pioneer family's most treasured possessions were their guns for hunting, axes for wood-cutting, seeds, and hoes for cultivating. Frontier life was a constant struggle, and without these necessities, survival was at risk. Corn was the most important crop for their daily diet, and corn whiskey was the remedy for all health problems. Henderson, ever the profiteer, arranged to have corn shipped from Kentucky at a cost of $200 a bushel for that first winter in Nashville. Linen, made from flax, or cotton was used for clothes. Animal skins and hides supplemented their wardrobes. The first white child born in the new settlement was James Robertson's son, Felix, on January 11, 1781. He eventually became one of the most influential physicians of the era.
The Land Grab Act of 1783 offered lots in 100-acre (0.40 km2) tracts for the price of about five dollars. Much property was awarded for honorable military service. Native American lands reserved by treaties and previous claims were not legally available, but in the haste, confusion and greed, there were many squatters and boundary disputes. The flood of colonists wanting land of their own was unstoppable.
The largest and most numerous tribes in the region were the Cherokee, who were originally peaceful to the eastern British colonials. But from the beginning, the Cumberland settlement had very little peace, and was continually attacked. The tribes resented past concessions, broken treaties and further encroachment on their hunting grounds.
Because of political pressures, the Chickasaw decided to make peace with the Cumberland settlers. Piomingo, an influential leader, considered the pioneers to be less of a threat than the Spanish government.
Dragging Canoe's Cherokee, and their Muscogee allies, continued attacks on the frontier settlements for the next fourteen years. The settlers had to be on guard against Indian attacks at all times. On April 2, 1781, a force of Chickamauga Cherokee led by Dragging Canoe attacked the fort at the bluffs. In the attack, known as the "Battle of the Bluffs," the Indians succeeded in luring most of the men out of the fort, then cutting them off from the entrance. But the settlers managed to escape back to the fort while the Cherokee captured their horses. They also had help from the fort's dogs, turned loose by the women. The attacks decreased the following year.
A small replica of the fort, located in Downtown Nashville along First Avenue North, several hundred meters from the original site of the fort, was built in the 1930s (out of retired telephone poles) as one of the public works relief projects growing from the Roosevelt Administration's efforts to deal with the massive increase in unemployment caused by the Great Depression, and was subsequently repaired and renovated several times. In recent decades, the facility was not usually manned but allowed self-guided tours in daylight hours. After suffering considerable damage in the 2010 Tennessee flood the facility was closed, and has been slated for demolition and replacement by a memorial plaza.