The Oldest Town in Tennessee? Jonesborough

Home where Andrew Jackson lived while here practicing law. It was moved to this central site from just out of town.

Jonesborough is billed as the oldest town in Tennessee. And it is – now. But it was born as part of North Carolina. And, for four years was part of the State of Franklin, a territory vying to become the 14th state.

The current courthouse still occupies the designated block in this carefully laid out town.

In any case, today it is a well-restored small town in Washington County, Tennessee, jam-packed with history. Along with two other couples, we decided to check it out for a day.

From the 1700s the area attracted many, as it became an important stop on the Great Stage Road and a town that grew as many provisioned for the trip west or came from eastern states to seek a new life farther west and decided to stay.

Daniel Boone surveyed the area, Andrew Jackson practiced law and fought a duel, and the first periodical devoted to the abolishment of slavery – The Emancipator, was published here. Davy Crockett, who became a folk hero known as “The King of the Wild Frontier” was born in the same County and was a soldier, politician, and vocal opponent of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

Another famous resident and rival of Jackson, John Sevier, fought in the Revolutionary War as a Colonel in the Battle of Kings Mountain (where his brother Robert was mortally wounded). He served as a member of the House of Representatives representing North Carolina’s District of Washington (which included most of what is now Tennessee) and became the only governor of the short-lived State of Franklin.

As support for Franklin collapsed, the NC governor issued a warrant for Sevier’s arrest. He was captured in Jonesborough after attacking a store owner for refusing to sell him liquor, and transferred to Morganton, NC to be tried for treason. The sheriff, a fellow veteran of the Kings Mountain battle, let him go. He was eventually pardoned and went on to become the first governor of Tennessee.

You can tell the pandemic had a bit of effect on the town, but shops and restaurants are open and thriving, and the Tennessee Hills Distillery, housed in the old salt factory is one of the area’s growing businesses. Restoration work is ongoing at one of the town’s historic bed & breakfast inns, and work is underway to re-open a fine dining restaurant housed in a historic church. Every October, Jonesborough hosts the only National Storytelling Festival. The small town’s population swells by tens of thousands as visitors arrive to hear storytellers from all over the world.

Restoration has been meticulous, with brick sidewalks re-created and utilities buried. An excellent library of archival photos has driven specific guidelines and historic accuracy, earning the Historic District a place on the National Registry of History Places.

Our guide Bob taught us more than some college history classes and helped us work up an appetite. We had lunch at the cute Main Street Cafe, where I was so hungry, I forgot to take any pics.

The Chester Inn opened in 1797 and now houses the Jonesborough Heritage Alliance. History buffs can check in there to view exhibits and follow a town tour guide or schedule a private tour like we did, hosted by a costumed volunteer. Tours are generally 1-1.5 hours and cost $5pp.

I promise you will be surprised by just how much American history you didn’t know.

5 Comments on “The Oldest Town in Tennessee? Jonesborough

  1. That is a lot of history and sounds like a good day trip. The 1 hour guided tour at only $5 a person seems like a bargain. Great pictures! The story telling festival seems interesting. I wonder how that got its start?

    • It started in 1973, when folks gathered to hear some local stories. The setting was outside not far from the courthouse and I think a wagon may have been used as a stage. And the rest is history…

  2. Jonesborough was a great town if you loved antiques etc. I use to go there off and on with my mother. Was always a great day trip!

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