A number of expertly overseen archeological excavations, the first in 1868 and published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1876, have revealed exquisite artifacts that date to prehistoric times and to the Mississippian native peoples. The mounds directly in front of the home include the burial sites of tribal kings and queens, according to archaeological historians. The Mississippians were a highly developed tribe with organized class structure; they were known as the “mound builders.”
Among the first to seriously explore the history of Old Town was the first City Health Officer for Nashville (1867‐69) – a Georgia-born surgeon and extraordinary early scientist named Joseph Jones. In addition to his many notable accomplishments in medicine, his lifelong hobby was exploring mysterious remains of ancient civilizations. His 1876 Smithsonian Institution (link) publication was among the first to confidently assert that this ancient civilization was created by ancestors of Native Americans. The objects he collected from many Middle Tennessee sites, including Old Town, remained in his collection after his move to Louisiana and were sold by his heirs to the Heye Museum of the American Indian in New York after his death. Eventually, they became part of the collections of the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of the American Indian, where they remain today.
More than seven centuries ago, Williamson County was home to a thriving population of native people living in a series of large towns, villages, hamlets, and family farms. One of those towns was located here at Old Town – and the earthen pyramids, burial mounds, defensive earthworks, and other physical remains of that settlement indeed gave the location its traditional name early in the nineteenth century.
Located on the original part of the Old Natchez Trace, this town (similar in some respects to a modern county seat) commanded a powerful position on that ancient overland route from Middle Tennessee to the Mississippi River. Eventually home to perhaps 100 families, Old Town was probably first occupied around A.D. 1050‐1200 and abandoned by its residents by A.D. 1450 – 1475 (modern Franklin, Tennessee probably reached a similar population by about the mid‐1800s).
The center of government and religion for this part of the Big Harpeth River, the townspeople would have taken pride in their two large earthen pyramids (the Temple Mounds) – substructures for large temples and the palatial residence of the ruling family. Numerous public and religious buildings served a larger populace scattered in nearby smaller communities throughout the adjacent river valley. The archeological site at Old Town with the Temple Mounds are listed on U.S. National Register of Historical Places (NRHP reference #89000159, 41 acres, 1989).
Important town families buried their dead in the small mortuary mounds, while the general populace was buried in the town cemetery along the bluff overlooking the river. The clay plastered palisade stretching about half a mile in length and enclosing twelve acres provided security for the town.
Beginning in the 1300s and stretching into the 1400s, the Middle Tennessee region experienced a series of megadroughts ‐‐ documented through tree rings. Although the ingenuity of local peoples allowed them to survive several of these challenges, the resulting social and political turmoil that accompanied the long‐term health impacts of periodic famine eventually led to the outmigration of most of the populace to other parts of the southeast in the mid‐late 1400s.
Thomas Brown was born in Virginia in 1800 and moved to Williamson County, Tennessee, in 1822. Brown became a prominent farmer and purchased a large amount of land from William O’Neal Perkins in 1840. Brown started construction in 1846. The contractor, Pryor Lillie, used enslaved people’s labor and materials from the site to construct the Greek Revival home. All yellow poplar and long leaf pine timbers were hand-sawn and joined with pegs and square headed nails. When completed, it was a sturdy two-story frame dwelling with a two-story porch (with iconic Valleys of Virginia porch). It is a superb example of vernacular “I-House” architecture showing Greek Revival influences.
Before he died, Mr. Brown divided his property into tracts which were written on pieces of paper and drawn from a hat by his children. At his death in 1870, he owned 546 acres of valuable land along the Harpeth River. Brown had six children and his daughter, Bethenia Brown Miller, lived at the house until her death in 1913.
The architectural interior and exterior of the home today have been maintained as they were constructed. The home is on the National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP reference #88000324).
The earliest historic explorers of the region — visiting almost three centuries after the town’s inhabitants moved elsewhere — immediately recognized that this had been an occupied place long ago. A mystery to them, they referred to it as “the old town” — a name that later also became attached to the Thomas Brown home and the farm surrounding. Totally abandoned for almost three centuries, the earthworks, mounds, and the ancient graves exposed by the Big Harpeth all served to remind these earliest travelers of this once thriving, vibrant and highly developed community a half of century before.
The earliest known use of the term “old town” comes from this land warrant issued on February 15, 1803 — which reads in part “on big Harpeth adjoining John Dollison’s tract of 640 (that includes a part of the old town).” Prior to centuries of agriculture and the elements, the mounds and earthworks surrounding the “old town” were much more visible than today — and served as landmarks for surveyors and travelers.
Old Town is an active, working farm today overseen by owner Tracy Frist, who founded Virginia-based Sinking Creek Land and Cattle and Sinking Creek Grassfed Beef. Tracy has bred and shown cutting horses throughout her life in Oregon, Texas, and Virginia and now continues to raise cutting and ranch horses at Old Town. The farm, also home to numerous chickens, goats, donkeys, and four Australian Shepherds, is a sister farm to the Farm at Sinking Creek, near New Castle, Virginia. Both farms focus on biodiversity and conservation of land, water and environment.
The Old Town Bridge was constructed in 1801 by U.S. soldiers to carry (the Harpeth River branch of) the original Natchez Trace over Brown’s Creek, just at the junction with the Big Harpeth River. The bridge is one of the oldest remaining man-made bridges in Tennessee. This is considered to be the only site on the Natchez Trace in Williamson County, Tennessee, that retains historic integrity. It is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places (NRHP reference #88000325, 1.4 acres, 1988).
The original structure consisted of massive, dry stacked stone masonry abutments with a short pole (trees or logs) bridge suspended between them.
The bridge abutments can be seen today from the current day bridge along the Old Natchez Trace, approximately 3200 yards from the main home. The northern abutment was historically accurately restored to its original condition using traditional dry stacked stone techniques and original stone in 2010.
Old Town has three entries in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places:
• The archaeological site including the Temple Mounds (41 acres)
• The Thomas Brown House (1846)
• The Old Town Bridge (1801)
Tracy and Bill Frist started the Old Town Heritage Project with archaeologists at Middle Tennessee State University to learn more about and extensively preserve the property’s ancient and more recent history. In addition, the Frist’s have historically preserved the 1846 main home and have refurbished the barns, smokehouse and outbuildings including the old milk parlor. They are also actively engaged with the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County to protect the original Natchez Trace, one of the most historic thoroughfares in America, from extensive development. They are partnering with the Harpeth River Association to improve riparian buffers along the Harpeth River to promote water quality for the future.
By AD 1200 or so, Nashville’s Mississippian peoples created a unique form of grave to house their honored dead – the stone-box grave. Since the first historic settlement of Nashville in 1799, literally tens of thousands of stone-box graves have been uncovered by plowing, construction, and “digging” (both amateur and professional). Within a few generations, the stone-box grave became the dominant burial form along the Cumberland River – and had spread to become a minority burial form throughout much of the interior Southeast and lower Midwest.
A “typical” Cumberland stone-box grave was created by excavating a shallow rectangular coffin-shaped pit – form-fitting to the size of the individual to be interred. Thin limestone slabs were harvested almost tailor-made from nearby streambeds (Figure 1). These were used to line the sides and ends of the grave to form a tight-fitting box (Figure 2). Frequently the bottom was also lined with limestone slabs or large shards of broken pottery (Figure 3). The individual (or individuals) was then placed into the crypt, and the top covered with large limestone slabs. In the most carefully constructed of these graves, little or no dirt filtered into these coffins even eight centuries later. Generally, it appears that the graves were covered by only a few inches of soil and provided on the surface with some kind of perishable grave marker. Sometimes, the graves were reopened at a later date and used for one or more additional interments, perhaps relatives.
After AD 1300, stone-box graves were the ubiquitous mode of interment for everyone – rich and poor, children and adults, males and females. They were used by residents at all kinds of settlements – farmsteads, hamlets, larger villages and towns, and mound centers. At smaller settlements there might be only one or a handful of graves, while the larger town cemeteries ranged from 200 to over 3000 graves. At mound centers, the cemeteries occasionally grew to become “cemetery mounds” – for reasons as yet unknown, sometimes a small cemetery was built up in height a couple of feet to accommodate a second or even third tier of interments.
While the efficacy of these shallow stone-lined coffins in protecting the dead from scavengers is clear enough, it also seems clear that more was at work in the minds of their creators – some powerful religious belief about these stone boxes that remains elusive to us almost a millennia later.
For those interested in reading further about Nashville’s stone-box burials:
Brown, Ian W. 1981. A Study of Stone Box Graves in Eastern North America. Tennessee Anthropologist 6(1):1-26.
Dowd, John T. 2008. The Cumberland Stone-Box Burials of Middle Tennessee. Tennessee Archaeology 3(2):163-180. https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/environment/archaeology/documents/tennesseearchaeologyjournal/arch-journal_volume-3-issue-2.pdf#page=65
Smith, Kevin E. 2013. Tennessee’s Ancient Pygmy Graveyards: The “Wonder of the Western Country.” Tennessee Archaeology 7(1):42-75.
Smith, Kevin E. 2019. Re-envisioning the Noel Stone-Grave Cemetery (40DV3), Davidson County, Tennessee. 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, published 09/02/2019. https://tennesseearchaeologycouncil.wordpress.com/2019/09/02/re-envisioning-the-noel-stone-grave-cemetery-40dv3-davidson-county-tennessee/
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