Nathan Adams, banker and civic leader, was born on November 26, 1869, near Pulaski, Tennessee, the youngest of seven children of Nathan and Susan (Pankey) Adams. His father, a major in the Confederate Army and a lawyer, died when Adams was five years old, and afterward Mrs. Adams taught at Giles College to support her family. Adams attended public schools in Pulaski, but a foot injury caused him to quit Giles College after a year, and the financial needs of his family prevented his return. He began his business career as cash boy in a general store and later became a runner for the People's National Bank of Pulaski, manager of a bookstore, and bookkeeper for both the Giles National Bank and a grocery store.
When Adams adeptly prepared a statement for a family friend, who was also treasurer of the Texas and Pacific Railway, the friend invited him to come to Dallas. In December 1887 Adams borrowed seventy-five dollars to make the trip and soon thereafter began work as an agent in the auditing department of the railroad. By the next year, however, he had returned to banking as a utility and relief man at the National Exchange Bank. During a series of mergers he rose swiftly through the ranks. He became the president of the First National Bank in Dallas, the largest bank in the South, in 1929. In 1944 he became chairman of the board. He retired in 1950 at the age of eighty as honorary board chairman.
Adams was sometimes called the "dean of Texas bankers." He is credited with developing programs that averted disasters for the Texas cotton industry in 1907 and for the Texas wool industry in 1931. He also helped build the independent oil and gas industry in the state by accepting proved underground oil reserves as collateral for the financing of large-scale production. He secured the location of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas as well as the Texas Centennial Central Exposition, the board of which he chaired. Accordingly, he has been credited with the regional financial preeminence of Dallas. Adams was president of the Texas Bankers Association (1913–14), a member of the executive council of the American Bankers Association, a Hoover appointee to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, and a director of the United States Chamber of Commerce (1931–32).
During World War I he managed the sale of treasury certificates worth $75 million. During World War II he headed a Texas sales campaign that totaled over $4.5 billion worth of government securities. He was instrumental in the founding of the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children, served on its board for over twenty-five years, and collected more than $1 million in contributions. He was a Shriner and Scottish Rite Mason.
Adams married Elizabeth Kirtley Ardinger on November 4, 1891; they had one daughter. He was a member of the Episcopal Church. Although a conservative Democrat, he opposed prohibition. He lived at the Scottish Rite Hospital in failing health for the last four years of his life and died there on June 17, 1966.