I set out to learn why the West Nashville neighborhood nicknamed "The Nations" is called "The Nations." I'm going to tell you right up front that I didn't learn the reason. I learned a lot of reasons that don't quite ring true, but none that fit completely satisfactorily.
Most of the incorrect theories out there now seem to trace back to this entry on Wikimapia, though, obviously, Wikimapia was just repeating older information. The nice thing about the Wikimapia entry is that it provides a map and it succinctly repeats the competing theories.
This area of West Nashville is known as The Nations. It is named after the Chickasaw Nations of Native Americans that lived here in the eighteenth century and traded with early settlers. The Chickasaw leader Piomingo and his tribe allied with white settlers in 1780. In 1783, James Robertson and tribal leaders met at the Treaty Oak (which once stood at the corner of 61st and Louisiana avenues) to sign a pact guaranteeing the rights of the Chickasaw Nations in exchange for their help in protecting the Nashville settlement.
Then in the comments:
Afraid not guys. It refers to the street names. My dad grew up there. Guess the old theories are just urban legends.
I am 77 yrs old and have lived in West Nashville all of my life. The area north of Charlotte Pike from Alabama Ave to Tennessee Ave was just called West Nashville. From Louisiana Ave to Centennial Blv. was called the Nations. It was very rough. I heard it was called that as people moved there to be near there loved ones in the prison. When West Nashville was first being developed it was called New Town and that is a great name for the new development in West Nashville
In order of least plausible to most plausible:
1. Called "The Nations" because the streets have state names. Problem: The streets have state names not nations' names. And, as the 77 year old commenter noted, the boundaries of The Nations have expanded over time. The streets with state names run from the river up by the prison through Sylvan Park and yet, the whole states street names area was never called The Nations. It was a small, specific part of the area covered by state streets.
2. Called 'The Nations' because the families of prisoners moved there and they were from all different kinds of ethnicities. Problem: This kind of works if the people who claim that this area was "always" called "The Nations" are wrong. But historically, though poor, this area has been very white. If "The Nations" is a newer nickname than the general consensus posits, then this could work, as the neighborhood now has Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans in it, though how long any of these working class populations will last in the face of massive gentrification remands to be seen.
The hard part about researching this has been that "The Nations" was an unofficial nickname for the area for much of the term's existence. The area has been officially called "West Nashville" or "West Town" or "Clifton" (cool side note: before it was a neighborhood, Clifton was some kind of river port community that Clifton Avenue ran to). I think you might discover that it became the "real" name for the neighborhood thanks to Google Maps, but it didn't start being officially used by real estate folks until their efforts to re-rebrand the area as "Historic West Town" failed so miserably, because no one knew where that was and everyone knew what you meant when you said "The Nations." Trying to research an unofficial nickname with very little paper trail before the last ten years is not that easy.
But census data is census data. If the term refers to the multi-ethnic make-up of the neighborhood, then the term is, at most, thirty years old. If the term is only thirty years old, A LOT of people in town remember it wrong.
3. Called "The Nations" after the Chickasaw nations who lived here. This is both the least plausible explanation and the most plausible explanation.
The least plausible reasons are many: The Chickasaw were one nation, not many. We know where their settlements were and they were not here. Let me repeat, the Chickasaw nation (singular) had no permanent settlements anywhere even remotely near The Nations. Piomingo, the Chickasaw leader who worked with James Robertson to make sure that Nashville knew and respected the boundaries of the Chickasaw nation, had a habit of showing up to discussions between white settlers and Native Americans just to reaffirm the boundaries of the Chickasaw nation, even when the Chickasaw were not involved in the talks in any other way. If you're reading early Tennessee history, it's as if Piomingo is the early version of the Fonz. He strolls in to unrelated situations, unfurls his catch-phrase — in this case, the boundaries of the Chickasaw nation — gives a cocky grin, and strolls on out. But, thanks to that habit of his, we damn well know for sure where the Chickasaw nation was. It was not here.
Another important reason it's implausible that that area of town would have been nicknamed in honor of Native Americans is what happened to the white people who initially moved into that area. After all of the first and second generations Robertsons were dead, maybe you would have called where they used to live "Indian territory," but it's really hard for me to believe that Nashville would have been such a bag of dicks to one of our founding families as to name the place they were murdered after their murderers.
That kind of terribleness happens only after those murders have passed from general memory. And considering that Charlotte Robertson lived until 1843 and many of her children — who lost a brother on that very land — lived into the 1860s, I think we can safely say the name isn't that old.
But now we get into the plausible reasons. James and Charlotte Robertson did, indeed, have Native Americans come to their house to discuss diplomatic concerns. I couldn't verify that those talks happened at the Treaty Oak, which used to stand at the corner of 61st and Louisiana, but I see no reason to doubt that when Native American delegations showed up to meet with Robertson, the shade of the big oak tree might have been a good spot. And he did meet with multiple nations (which, considering the deaths between them, is really extraordinary).
You could see how someone might point to that tree and say, "In the shade of that treaty oak, James Robertson met with the Indian nations..." and the Nations got attached to the area. But the earliest that probably happened was the early 1900s, because, before that, there wasn't a neighborhood there to be called "The Nations."
So, like I said, I don't have a good answer. But, for goodness sake, at least, let's fix our Chickasaw story so as to not perpetuate a misunderstanding of where the Chickasaw nation was.