Jonesborough, Tennessee
A Little History

Main Street

Main Street Jonesborough:
May Building, old telephone exchange, Naff-Henley House, Sweet Shop. Line drawing by the late George Dukes.



Pre-history — Tennessee’s earliest residents were the prehistoric Mound Builders. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Shawnee inhabited the region when DeSoto first explored it in 1540.

1673 — James Needham and Gabriel Arthur of England explore the Tennessee River Valley.

1769 — William Bean, the first permanent white settler, builds a cabin on the Watauga River in northeast Tennessee. New settlers begin to come into the area from Virginia and North Carolina.

1772 — A group of settlers form their own government called the Watauga Association. They draw up one of the first written constitutions in North America.

The Watauga Association at Sycamore Shoals, near Elizabethton, was the first group of European settlers to draft a constitution on American soil. The association’s formation marked the first attempt by Americans at complete self-government.

1775 — The Transylvania Company buys a large piece of land from the Cherokees. Daniel Boone, working for the company, blazes a trail from Virginia across the mountain at Cumberland Gap to open the land to settlement. His trail is called the Wilderness Road and becomes the main route to the new settlements.

The settlers on both the Watauga and Nolichucky Rivers purchased great acreages of land from the Cherokee Indians, comprising almost all the six upper counties of the present Tennessee (then within North Carolina). Desiring their own government, these settlers petitioned the Provincial Council of North Carolina to be annexed as an official entity.

1777 — Washington County was created by Act of North Carolina as one of six counties on the western frontier in what later became the State of Tennessee. It was the first county west of the mountains.

1779 — Jonesborough is the oldest town in Tennessee, established seventeen years before Tennessee was granted statehood. It was established by the General Assembly of North Carolina as the county seat of Washington County. It was named after North Carolina legislator Willie Jones, who supported North Carolina's westward expansion over the Appalachian Mountains.
The first meeting to decide the location of the new courthouse was at the home of Charles Robertson, and it was decided that John Carter, Andrew Greer, William Cobb, Jacob Womack, George Russell, John Sevier and James Stuart would lay out the plans and location of the new courthouse. One hundred acres was purchased from David Hughes and laid out into lots for the Town of Jonesborough. The lots were offered in lottery.

1780 — The British were overrunning the Carolinas. Washington County volunteers had long been involved in protecting the south. The "Over-Mountain men" gathered at Sycamore Shoals on the Watauga River on September 25th to march over the Great Smoky Mountains. Led by John Sevier, they helped to defeat the British at the Battle of King's Mountain on October 7th. The victory proves to be a major turning point in the war. Robert Sevier, brother of Col. John Sevier, was mortally wounded in the battle and never had a chance to claim his property in the town of Jonesborough. Scots-Irish Covenanters settle in the Tennessee Valley, naming their town Greeneville for Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Greene.

1784 — Prior to Tennessee statehood, the east Tennessee region almost became the State of Franklin. After Jonesborough was founded, a group of citizens from this and the surrounding area (then a part of the Western District of North Carolina) felt they were not represented fairly nor protected by their state leaders. On December 14, 1784, delegates from these areas convened in Jonesborough to approve the formation of a new state, the State of Franklin, named after one of the great leaders of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin. This new state ensured citizens could create their own laws and elect their own leaders. Jonesborough served as the capital of Franklin until a new capital was established in nearby Greeneville. John Sevier, one of the most influential leaders in the development of Franklin, was elected its first governor in March, 1785. Franklin functioned as the nation’s fourteenth state until 1788, but was never recognized by Congress. After many negotiations and skirmishes which climaxed in the Battle of the State of Franklin, North Carolina once again reclaimed the lands. Today, the State of Franklin is often remembered as the “Lost State of Franklin”.

1786 — Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier,” was not “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee” as the famous song says. In actuality, he was born on the banks of Limestone Creek near Greeneville in 1786. A replica of Crockett's log cabin stands at the site today.

pic1788 — President Andrew Jackson was no stranger to Jonesborough. A self-taught lawyer and young man of 20 years, Jackson had been working in Salisbury, North Carolina, when the opportunity arose for him to travel to the western lands and help open court on the Cumberland (now Nashville). Jackson came to Jonesborough in 1788 to await a caravan to travel westward since traveling alone through Native American territory was dangerous. Jackson stayed in Jonesborough for nearly five months waiting for enough travelers to fill a caravan before traveling to the Cumberland to work as a public prosecutor. While in Jonesborough, he took the oath of office to practice law in the western district of North Carolina and served as an attorney in Jonesborough. He lodged at a two-story log home owned by Christopher Taylor. Taylor had been sent to Jonesborough by the state of North Carolina to help protect the residents from Indian attacks. Though small by today’s standards, Taylor thought his two-room home had enough space to accommodate boarders, his wife, and their 13 children. The 1788 Christopher Taylor Home, Jonesborough’s oldest building, has since been restored and moved to Main Street’s Historic District.

1789 — When North Carolina ratified the new US Constitution in 1789, it ceded its western counties to the federal government and Jonesborough was placed under a territorial government, The Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio. William Blount was its first and only governor.

1796 — Tennessee adopts a constitution on February 6th in preparation for statehood - Andrew Jackson helps to draw it up. Tennessee becomes a state on June 1st, the 16th state. John Sevier is elected the first governor. The total population of Tennessee is 77,000. Tennessee’s first constitution provided for universal male suffrage, including free blacks, prompting Thomas Jefferson to call it “the least imperfect and most republican” of any state. The first local post office was established in 1796 with John Waddell as postmaster.

pic1797 — The Chester Inn is the oldest building original to Jonesborough’s commercial district. William Chester, a medical doctor, constructed the building in 1797 to capitalize on those traveling through Jonesborough on the Great Stage Road. Now fully restored, the wooden frame building is owned by the State of Tennessee. Many famous guests stayed at the Chester Inn during its successful days of operation as an inn including Presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James K. Polk. It is reported that during Andrew Jackson’s stay, he helped fight a nearby fire while wearing only his nightshirt.

1800 — Around 1800 a post route was started and mail was carried by horseback twice a week. Increasing demands of passenger travel and mail delivery resulted in more stage lines which increased from once a week in 1825 to three times a week in 1834.

1820 — Jonesborough is often considered to be the center of the abolitionist movement within the states that would join the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The Emancipator, published and funded by Quaker Elihu Embree, began circulation on April 30, 1820 from the town of Jonesborough and was printed in Jacob Howard’s print shop. The Emancipator was the first periodical dedicated exclusively to the issue of the abolition of slavery. While Tennessee would later join the Confederacy, most East Tennesseans had Union leanings, which is perhaps not surprising given the fact that East Tennessee was not suited to large-scale agricultural production, such as cotton, and very few people in the region other than the very wealthy owned slaves. Jacob Howard’s print shop, now destroyed, stood on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue in Jonesborough’s Historic District.

1834 — According to the 1834 Tennessee Gazetteer, in 1833 Jonesborough "contained a population of about 500 inhabitants; eleven lawyers, four physicians, two clergymen, two churches, two academies, four schools, one printing office, four carpenters, three cabinet makers, two bricklayers, one blacksmith, four taverns, two hatters, four tailors, four shoemakers, one silversmith, two wagon makers and one mill." The town experienced a boom during the early 1840s when many of the existing Federal style brick structures were built.

1849 — Dr. Samuel Cunningham, another resident of Jonesborough, was an internationally known physician and surgeon of the 18th century. He was self-taught, practicing medicine long before being licensed. Dr. Cunningham built his house on Main Street where it still stands today. Though a well-published writer and skilled surgeon, he was interested in bringing the new and efficient railroad transportation system to Jonesborough. Dr. Cunningham put his medical practice on hold for 10 years to bring the railroad to Jonesborough, serving as president of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad from 1849 to 1859. Cunningham and 29 other men, called “The Immortal Thirty”, put their own personal properties up for collateral in order to bring the railroad to town. After retiring from the railroad, Dr. Cunningham returned to practicing medicine

Jonesborough has gone through many changes since 1779, but thanks to the restoration and preservation movement of the 1970’s, many of the older buildings are still standing today and are just as beautiful as ever. Jonesborough was the first town in Tennessee to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.