The Oldest Town in Tennessee? Jonesborough
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.
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.
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.