The town was originally a part of North Carolina. In 1784, Jonesborough was one of the towns that attempted to create a new state called the State of Franklin, named after American founding father Benjamin Franklin. The State of Franklin, however, was never recognized by Congress, and was re-claimed by North Carolina by 1788.
Jonesborough is often considered to be the center of the abolitionist movement within the states that would join the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Elihu Embree printed his publication, The Emancipator, from the town of Jonesborough. Circulation began in 1820, making The Emancipator the first American periodical to be dedicated exclusively to the issue of the abolition of slavery. While Tennessee would later join the Confederacy, most East Tennesseans had Union leanings, which is perhaps not surprising given the fact that East Tennessee was not suited to large-scale agricultural production, such as cotton, and very few people in the region other than the very wealthy owned slaves.
Today, Jonesborough draws a good deal of tourism because of its historical status as Tennessee's oldest town and its significant preservation efforts. The town's museum describes local heritage of tobacco farming. The historic Chester Inn downtown was built in 1797.
Jonesborough is also the home to the International Storytelling Center, which holds the annual National Storytelling Festival on the first full weekend in October. The Festival builds on the Appalachian cultural tradition of storytelling and has been drawing people from around the world for more than 35 years to both tell and listen. Large tents are pitched in parks around town and storytellers sit on stages or at the head of the tent to perform. Occasionally performances are interrupted for a moment by a passing Norfolk Southern Railway train. Past storytellers include Carmen Agra Deedy, Syd Lieberman, and Kathryn Tucker Windham. The festival influenced the development of a successful storytelling graduate degree program at the nearby East Tennessee State University.
In 1788, future U.S. president Andrew Jackson spent several months in Jonesborough awaiting a caravan. Jackson lodged at the cabin belonging to Major Christopher Taylor, located about a mile outside of town. In 1974, this cabin was removed from its original spot and reconstructed in the town's park. According to local legend, Jackson's ghost occasionally appears in the cabin's vicinity. The ghost supposedly walks up to the front door and disappears into the building. The ghost has also been seen walking down the street, in the direction of the old courthouse.
Jonesborough is located at (36.294305, -82.472466). The town is situated in an area where the watershed of the Watauga River meets the watershed of the Nolichucky River. The Watauga passes approximately to the northeast of Jonesborough, and the Nolichucky passes roughly to the southwest. The town's principle stream, Little Limestone Creek, is part of the Nolichucky watershed.
Jonesborough is surrounded by low hills and elongated ridges that are characteristic of the Appalachian Ridge-and-Valley Province. The main crest of the Appalachian Mountains rises just a few miles southeast of Jonesborough.
Jonesborough is centered around the junction of Andrew Johnson Highway (which is part of both U.S. Route 321 and U.S. Route 11), whicn connects the town to Greeneville to the southwest and Johnson City to the northeast, and Tennessee State Route 81, which connects Jonesborough to Interstate 81 to the northwest and Interstate 26 at Erwin to the southeast.
As of the census of 2000, there were 4,168 people, 1,660 households, and 1,107 families residing in the town. The population density was 963.2 people per square mile (371.7/km²). There were 1,771 housing units at an average density of 409.3/sq mi (157.9/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 93.43% White, 5.54% African American, 0.10% Native American, 0.17% Asian, 0.19% from other races, and 0.58% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.82% of the population.
There were 1,660 households out of which 27.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 52.3% were married couples living together, 11.3% had a female householder with no husband present, and 33.3% were non-families. 30.1% of all households were made up of individuals and 13.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.26 and the average family size was 2.80.
In the town the population was spread out with 19.5% under the age of 18, 8.7% from 18 to 24, 29.9% from 25 to 44, 25.6% from 45 to 64, and 16.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39 years. For every 100 females there were 101.5 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 98.6 males.
The median income for a household in the town was $32,132, and the median income for a family was $44,167. Males had a median income of $28,906 versus $26,192 for females. The per capita income for the town was $18,768. About 11.0% of families and 16.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 25.7% of those under age 18 and 22.5% of those age 65 or over.