Franklin is well-known as one of Tennessee’s most historic towns, but what you may not know is that its history goes back much farther than the Civil War. Believe it or not, we have evidence that humans inhabited our area as far back as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Williamson County has archaeological sites that cover four distinct historical periods: the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian Periods.
Michael Culbreth is Williamson County’s Nature & Trails Coordinator and has taken an interest in the history of Native Americans in Williamson County. He sat down with me recently and shared what he’s learned, and I’m guessing it’s information that will surprise even longtime Franklin residents.
The oldest Native American site in Williamson County is the Coats-Hines site. It’s believed to date back to around 10,000 BCE, making it part of the Paleoindian Period, and it’s located on Moores Lane where the Nashville Golf and Athletic Club now sits. The Coats-Hinds site is special because, in addition to evidence of early Native Americans, the remains of bison, mastodons, mammoths, and giant sloths were also discovered there while the golf course was still being constructed. Archaeologists were brought in to salvage what they could. “What was interesting was that they noticed that there were cut marks from spears and stone tools on the mammoth bones, where the Native Americans had hunted and then butchered the animals,” Michael Culbreth says. It’s hard to imagine that mastodons and mammoths once roamed Williamson County, isn’t it?
Today, Fieldstone Farms is known as one of Franklin’s most popular and family-friendly neighborhoods, but between 4800 BCE and 3800 BCE, archaeological digs confirm that Native Americans once inhabited the land where the Fieldstone Farms baseball fields are now located. An ancient refuse pile containing thousands of shells as well as other refuse gave archaeologists important information about the area’s early inhabitants. “These people were really big on freshwater shellfish like mussels – for food, but also for other things like tools,” Culbreth says. “And when they were done using them, they left a mountain of shells behind.” In addition to the shell pile, mysterious ceremonial artifacts known as bannerstones, 73 human burials, and even a dog burial were also uncovered. Forty percent of these burials included offerings like spear points, conch shells, banner stones, pestles, beads, and painted bones.
Glass Mounds Site
1,000 BCE to 1,000 CE marked the Woodland Period, when Native Americans began building structures, making clay vessels to hold their food, and creating burial mounds. Two of those mounds still exist in the Franklin community of Westhaven. Part of what’s now known as the Glass Mounds site, they’re located right off Highway 96 next to the Westhaven Golf Course, and you can see one of the mounds from the road. Unfortunately, two of the mounds were destroyed by phosphate mining in the early 1900s. The other two are in pretty bad shape today due to early excavations by the Smithsonian and Peabody Museum. However, a historical marker now marks the spot where the mounds stand. A number of graves were found at Glass Mounds, but all were destroyed many decades ago.
The Mississippian Period (1050 CE-1450 CE) is represented in Williamson County by the Fewkes Site, which is located off Moore’s Lane near where it intersects with Wilson Pike, now the location of Primm Park. Five mounds remain there, containing stone box graves. Fire pits and evidence of 12 structures been found at this site, as well as stone tools, stone projectile points, and garbage pits. The burials at the Fewkes Site show two distinct time periods when Native Americans inhabited the land.
Later in the Mississippian Period, Native Americans built a fortified town with steep earthworks and a palisade off of the current Old Natchez Trace Road, some time between 1200 CE and 1450 CE. Known as Old Town, it is now private property and the owners have done what they could to preserve the land’s rich history. Two of the mounds from the town still stand today. ‘The old Natchez Trace ran through Leiper’s Fork and straight up through the Native American town towards what’s now Nashville,” says Culbreth. “So Old Town would have been an important stop on trade routes.”
The Modern Period
Once European settlers began arriving in Middle Tennessee, permanent Native American settlements disappeared. Most collapsed because of disease and difficult conditions. This led to skirmishes between Native Americans and white settlers and eventually, President Andrew Jackson’s plan to remove some 60,000 Native Americans from their homes and relocate them to the unsettled west, a plan that resulted in many deaths and became known as the Trail of Tears. Franklin played an important role in this part of American history as well – The Masonic Lodge, Franklin’s oldest building, was the location for an 1830 treaty between President Jackson and a delegation of Chickasaw leaders, a meeting that set his Trail of Tears scheme in motion.
Today, all that remains to mark the presence of Native Americans in Williamson County is a few burial mounds and historic markers – but given all that we know, it seems very likely that there are many more secrets to their existence buried beneath the ground that thousands of Franklin residents now walk and drive on every day.
If you want to learn more about Williamson County’s Native American history, Michael Culbreth gives a presentation on it a couple of times a year. To find out when one is happening, check out Williamson County Parks & Recreation’s events page.