There are historic markers carved in granite in every corner of America, giving us the impression that we know what happened here, there and everywhere.
But the truth is, we don’t know what happened. We make educated guesses that change with time.
We don’t know what really happened when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. We don’t know what really happened when they fought the Battle of Gettysburg.
And we don’t really know what happened when they settled Nashville.
Paul Clements has made this clear to us. A native of Nashville who doesn’t even have a degree in history, Clements just moved the understanding of Nashville’s early history forward one very large step. He did this the old-fashioned way — by staring at microfilm for more than a decade in places such as the Metro Nashville Archives and the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
“I’m in awe of what Paul has done,” said John Egerton, Southern historian and the author of Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. “The very idea that such a thing could happen at this stage is astonishing.
“The only way it could have happened is because of a guy like Paul.”
You see, in the 1840s, a man named Lyman Draper interviewed many of the people who were here when present-day Davidson and Sumner counties consisted of nothing more than a series of forts and homesteads. Draper conducted these interviews intending to write a long book about the history of the American frontier.
Draper never wrote the book, but he wrote transcripts of the interviews. In some cases, the notebooks containing these interviews had never been translated from his mid-19thcentury handwriting — until Clements did it.
Furthermore, about 75 pages of handwritten notes written by someone who interviewed Edward Swanson in the 1820s were discovered in a West Tennessee home in the 1980s. This was a remarkable discovery. Swanson, you see, was one of Middle Tennessee’s earliest settlers; he came to the “French Lick,” as Nashville was once known, before the Donelson Party got here. Swanson’s notebooks were detailed, containing accounts of events such as the Battle of the Bluffs, and descriptions of the fort that used to be in present-day downtown Nashville.
Clements read all of the Swanson notes, comparing them to what Draper had uncovered 175 years ago, then with previously known accounts of early Middle Tennessee history.
Clements didn’t stop there. He went through every single Nashville newspaper on microfilm that was published between 1800 and 1921, copying every article about frontier times and every obituary of people who had lived in Nashville between 1780 and 1800. He went through some of the earliest court records related to the era, some of which contained vivid details about life in these early Middle Tennessee forts.
A few months ago, Clements published parts of all of the above in an 800-page volume called Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements. Eleven years in the works, it is not an easy book to read from start to finish because of its magnitude, the size of its fonts and because first-person accounts can be difficult to get through.
But one thing becomes clear to those who work their way through it, or even parts of it. Tennessee’s earliest settlers were in a horrifying life-and-death struggle with Native Americans to survive from the time that they got here in 1780 until about 1795. Clements has documented more than 500 settlers who were killed or captured during that time period — an extraordinarily high number when you realize how few people lived here at the time.
Most of these killings and kidnappings were attacks on individuals or small groups that were out hunting, tending to crops, or even on their way to church. But the killings were brutal; dead bodies were often mauled, scalped or decapitated. Practically every family lost someone in the ongoing carnage.
Atrocities were committed by both sides. On page 353, one reads about the horrible attack on Zeigler’s Station, when Native Americans set fire to a cabin containing an entire family. “Reduced to the dreadful dilemma of perishing by the flames, or quitting the house and submitting themselves to the tomahawk, the people chose the latter,” recalled Capt. John Rogers. “The three wounded men escaped, and Mrs. Zeigler escaped with a child in her arms. A young man was tomahawked near the houses, and a negro [woman] was killed a few miles on their retreat.”
Then, on page 441, one reads about the brutal revenge extracted by an army of settlers in September 1794 at a Chickamaugan village called Nickajack. “We dashed through the cornfields to the upper end of the town,” recalled soldier James Collier. “The Indians had deserted their cabins and fled to the river. Several Indians were killed in the river.
“One was laying on his face in a floating canoe, reaching his hands over each side and paddling. Several shot at him — I fired two or three times — and at length Colonel Whitley came up and said, ‘Let me have a crack at him.’
“I saw the blood spurt out of the Indian’s shoulder, and he made no more efforts.”
Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements will also make us rethink the fine points of our history — the detailed story first put to print by John Haywood in the 1823 book The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee and repeated many times since.
You see, some of the people Draper interviewed in the 1840s wanted to correct some of the things they thought Haywood got wrong. But since so many of their interviews went unread (until now), Haywood’s stories have been repeated again and again as if they were gospel. Now, some of the things that have been in these books (and historic markers) for generations will have to be rethought.
Tennessee history books have always made the assumption that the journal written by John Donelson, as he led a flotilla of boats to the present-day site of Nashville in 1779-80, was authentic. It has certainly been treated as if it was, in countless history books written since the mid-19th century (including one by a historian named Theodore Roosevelt!).
“Historians pause reverently when they come to the Donelson journal,” Donald Davidson wrote in the first volume of his book The Tennessee: Old River — Frontier to Secession. “Their gift for exegesis and summary goes to pieces, and they content themselves with verbatim quotes and little comment.”
A historian named Bob Puryear raised questions about the authenticity of the Donelson journal a few years ago. The study and publication of Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements probably settles the matter once and for all.
Clements believes that most of the journal was written by Donelson’s son half a century after the events took place. He came to this conclusion after several discoveries, including the fact that the handwriting and the verb tense change half way through the journal.
“The elder Donelson kept a journal for the first part of the trip,” Clements explained. “But after the boats were attacked and the journey became a life and death struggle, he stopped making entries.”
After Haywood’s book came out in 1823, Clements believes Col. Donelson’s son John Donelson Jr. took out the old journal and finished. He did this to set the record straight and promote the memory of his father.
“And it is worth pointing out that the younger Donelson and his wife Mary were both on the journey, so it is still an excellent first-person account. It’s just that most of it has been attributed to the wrong individual.”
As far as the authenticity of the Donelson journal is concerned, Clements said the “smoking gun” is a letter written by Stockley Donelson, grandson of Col. Donelson. In the letter, Stockley says his grandfather started the journal but that his father finished it.
Historians have always assumed that most of the attacks upon early Nashville were made by the Chickamaugans, a warlike branch of the Cherokee who lived along the Tennessee River, just downstream from present-day Chattanooga. Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements contains evidence that many of the attacks could be traced to these villages — including first-person accounts of people in those villages celebrating with scalps. Because of this, the settlers destroyed two of those villages (Nickajack and Running Water) in the 1794 offensive known as the Nickajack Expedition.
But the book contains evidence that attacks also came from Delaware Indians living in the present-day site of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Creeks from present-day central Alabama.
“We proceeded near to the edge of the branch, which was margined with bushes,” recalled Edward Swanson, a veteran of the battle. “We discovered the Indians, 250 Creeks, lying in the coverts of bramble before us.”
This heavy involvement by the Creeks raises a point that may have been understated in history books to this point: that the Spanish (who controlled the Mississippi River in the South) wanted the Middle Tennessee settlements to fail, which is why they armed the Creeks and encouraged them to attack.
“The Spanish wanted the American settlers to stay as far away from New Orleans as they could,” Clements said. “They understood the threat of having settlers on rivers that flowed into the Mississippi.”
Speaking of the Battle of the Bluffs, an often-repeated story says that the battle was going badly at first. But the tide was turned when Charlotte Robertson, wife of James Robertson, turned the dogs loose on the attackers. “At a critical time in the battle, Mrs. Robertson, it is said, turned out of the fort about fifty fierce dogs and set them on the Indians,” says Gentry McGee’s venerable 1900 textbook History of Tennessee.
It is a great story. And there is no doubt that Charlotte Robertson showed courage on this and many other occasions.
But Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements contains nine first-person accounts of the Battle of the Bluffs. Only one of them mentions dogs as playing a part in the battle. “The dogs in the fort, hearing the shooting and being trained to fight Indians, made their way to the noise, and made their attack between the branch and the fort, which drew the attention of the Indians from the men,” remembered John Carr.
However, not one of the nine first-person accounts says anything about Charlotte Robertson being the one who turned the dogs loose.
There has always been an assumption that the people who lived here referred to their home as “Fort Nashborough,” which is why the replica of the fort downtown goes by that name.
However, not a single one of the people who lived there seems to have referred to it by that name. “The name never seems to have caught on,” Clements said. “They referred to it as ‘French Lick Station,’ or simply as ‘The Bluff.’ ”
Existence of a replica of a fort in downtown Nashville has clouded the fact that there used to be forts all over present-day Davidson County. These forts are long gone, and in most cases even the names of the forts are lost in the past. In a meticulous 31-page appendix complete with aerial photos, Clements shows where these landmarks used to be located.
This appendix informs us that long before it was known as Belle Meade, the only structure in that area was Dunham’s Station. The area just north of Mount Olivet Cemetery was where one found Menifee’s Station. Nolen’s Station was near the corner of Granny White Pike and Duncanwood Drive. Shute’s Station was in the area now referred to as Sylvan Park.
The appendix even shows where some of Nashville’s early Indian attacks took place. In 1788, Joseph Dunham and Hardy Askew were killed along the present Richland Creek Greenway. Based on a 1937 interview Clements found, the 1792 murder of Samuel McMurray happened in Donelson along present-day Spring Valley Road.
Finally, the volume of first-person accounts adds a personal face to the matter of slavery and reminds us that right from the beginning, slaves fought side by side with the settlers and suffered right alongside the settlers.
We already knew, in advance of this volume, that there were slaves on the Donelson Party journey, and that one of them (a man) froze to death near the present-day site of Knoxville. However, Clements’ work has brought to light some new things. First of all, thanks to Swanson’s interviews (and Clements’ meticulous reading of them), we now know the name of the first person of African descent to be killed in Nashville. A slave of James Robertson, his name was Cornelius.
Ann Toplovich, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Society, said Clements’ new book is valuable on two levels. “For someone to amass all these first-person accounts and put them in one place is a great service to people who do genealogical research,” she said.
“But on a broader level, the book is valuable because it reminds us vividly of the voices of the people who shaped Nashville and who shaped Tennessee. Paul has brought these voices out of the file folder and made them vibrant.”
So what compelled Clements, a longtime coach of children’s athletics in Nashville, to spend a decade of his life staring at a computer screen to advance the cause of local history? He says it started when he was a boy, growing up near Woodmont Boulevard.
“I found an arrowhead in my driveway,” he said. “For some reason I found this really compelling. I mean, there, among the rocks of my driveway, was a weapon that had been used so long ago. I got to thinking about who did make it and how long ago.
“As the years went by I read the history books. But they seemed hard to get through and so removed from the people who were in them. So I kept digging.”
Clements hopes his book will help raise our awareness of the story of the people who settled this area. Nashville’s failure to celebrate its early history is “absurd,” he said.
“For people to live in Nashville and have no knowledge of its early history is like someone from Gettysburg, Pa., to not know that there was a battle there. I mean, this place is as significant to the course of American history as any other place in America. If the people who settled here had given up — and they nearly did give up — then the rest of American history would have turned out differently,” Clements added.
“For us to not teach our kids this story, and for us not to make this a key part of our tourist package is mind-boggling.”
The incredible saga of Mary Neely
Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements brings to light hundreds of first-person accounts of life in Middle Tennessee between 1780 and 1800. None are more dramatic than that of Mary Neely, who saw her father murdered and was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians, but lived a long enough life to become closely acquainted with Abraham Lincoln.
Here are excerpts from her story, as told to her son and recounted in the book. It starts in 1780, shortly after she and her family migrated to Nashville as part of the Donelson Party.
I, the fourth of ten children born to William and Margaret Neely, concluded to go with some of the men to the spring. Having the chills at the time, I thought the water would be beneficial, and I took some corn with me to grate for a hoe cake for my father’s supper.
No signs of Indians had been noticed for quite a while, and about two hours before sunset my father told the men to go to the fort, and he and I would stay there alone.
No sooner were the men out of sight, than three Indians saw that his gun was some little distance from him, and sprang upon him and cleft his head open with their tomahawks. I fainted, and when consciousness returned two Indians were dragging me to their canoe, which was concealed in the cane. The Indians made haste to get away.
We traveled due north for three days before we came to the balance of their band. When we reached their companions, the Indians held a council. I expected they would murder and scalp me, but they gave me the choice of becoming the wife of the brute who had murdered my father, or a servant to the chief. I chose the servant’s place.
They kept my hands crossed and bound in front of me in the evening. All that long, weary march, when unperceived by the Indians, I would make marks on the trees to guide those who might pursue, or would guide me if I should make my escape. For three weeks I could not shed a tear.
One day, brooding over my desolation, tears began to fill my eyes, and I could weep. One of the savages said, “What makes you cry so?” I replied, “You killed my father.” As if to pacify me, he said, “If I had known it was your father, I would not have killed him.” In the evening, a favorite pastime with the Indians was to get out the scalps they had taken and lay them in front of the fire.
After we reached the vicinity of the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, they became less watchful and allowed me to sleep unbound. I was a valuable servant. When I was captured I had a few needles, and did what sewing they required.
Winter came and the whole band was stricken with smallpox, except an old squaw. I was broken out all over, my body swelled to such an extent that I had to stand on my hands and knees, which were the only spots not covered with sores. I was blind for four days and without clothing except a cotton garment and a blanket. While I was afflicted, their scant supply of meat gave out, and we were forced to drink bear oil, but my stomach rebelled. The Indians recovered and they soon procured enough meat to satisfy our wants.
Spring had come and they set off north, hunting and skulking in the brush for white men. Sometimes the Indians would be entirely out of anything to eat, and on one occasion we were without food for ten days and all I had to eat was white oak bark. On the tenth day they killed a bear. I cut about a pound of fat along the loins and devoured it raw, which came near costing my life. The old squaw made some tea compounded of herbs, and I was soon relieved.
In the character of the Indians there is the trait that they will divide whatever they have to eat, even with their prisoners. At a subsequent time, they killed a quail and divided it into fourteen parts. On another occasion we feasted upon a large black snake.
Theirs was a small band, only fourteen including me, and three or four were squaws. They were in constant dread of the whites. The old chief gave strict orders that no noise was to be made at the camp.
We continued our march to the north, keeping close to the Wabash River. Winter found us in northern Indiana, and we suffered much from the cold.
When we were near Detroit, and camped just outside the British stockade, a Frenchman undertook to get me away from the savages. He brought them a gallon of whiskey, of which they partook very freely, except the old chief, who remained sober to watch.
Near sunset the Frenchman informed the old chief that his wife would want the whiskey cup [back]. The chief turned to me and bade me take the cup home. I took the cup and hastened to my destination. The lady to whom I was sent told me to go with her brother, who was waiting to accompany me. The brother took off his coat and hat and bade me put them on. When we arrived at the gate of the stockade, it was nearly dark. We were admitted and I was taken to the house of her friend’s mother, who concealed me in the cellar.
The next day the whole town was aroused, and a vigilant search made for me. The searchers were told that the girl went off as if she was mad. The guards at the gate said two men had passed through the gate the night before, but no woman. After a few days they ceased their search. I was kept in the cellar, then moved upstairs and remained there for about three weeks. One day a tailor saw me and told the Indians. They came and demanded to search for me, which could not be denied them, as the post was in British hands.
The old Frenchman put me in his money vault, built into the wall of the house. The Indians finally gave up the search, and after some weeks my friends sent me out to an island about nine miles from shore. There I found about 90 persons who, like myself, had been prisoners.
Reunited with her brother
Although most of my family had given me up as dead, I had a brother who had not ceased in his inquiry for me. My brother rode through Kentucky and into Virginia, looking and inquiring of emigrants. He fell in company with a man who saw me hold the cow on the ferry boat, and further stated that I was left handed. This gave my brother hope, and he kept on his journey.
Finally he stopped on the sabbath to feed his horse. My brother inquired of a farmer if he knew of anyone who had been a prisoner with Indians. He said there was a girl at old man Spears who had come last winter.
When he arrived at Mr. Spears’ home, I had gone to church. When I came in, I passed by him and threw my bonnet and shawl on the bed. He raised his head, and I sprang into his arms crying, ‘My brother! My brother!’
Editor’s note: Mary Neely later married a man named George Spears. They eventually moved to Salem, Ill. After George Spears died she became known for her knowledge of natural cures and remedies, which she had learned from the Shawnee. Many people would come and listen to “Granny Spears” tell stories about life on the frontier and in captivity. Among them was postmaster named Abraham Lincoln, who became fond of Granny Spears during his time there.
Mary Neely Spears died on Jan. 26, 1852. A few years ago, a woman named P.M. Terrell wrote a book about her ordeal called Songbirds are Free.
Neely’s Bend is named for Mary Neely’s father.
Fort Nashborough won’t exactly be a fort anymore
Nashville once had a vibrant representation of its original fort at French Lick. Originally built in the 1930s, Fort Nashborough, a log replica on the riverfront downtown, had living history events, a full-time employee whose job it was to put them on, and a cadre of volunteers who greeted visitors at its gate.
However, the position at Fort Nashborough was eliminated during the late 1980s and never restored under Mayors Bredesen and Purcell. The condition of the fort deteriorated, visits from school groups sharply declined, and it became a place where people loitered.
In July 2011, the Metro Historical Commission organized a living history event at the fort, which was believed to have been the first of its kind in a generation. A few months later the fort was closed for good.
Now, two years later, details of the city’s plan for the site are emerging.
The city has hired consultant David Currey to come up with a plan, which he hopes will be finalized in September. Under it, the aging reproduction of the fort will be torn down and replaced with a series of structures representing late-18th century life in the area.
However, it will no longer be a fort — that is, if something has to have four walls to be a fort.
“There will be stockade walls, but they will not go all the around,” said Currey, who consulted with the city on the Fort Negley site a few years ago. “We want it to be open from the First Avenue side.
“People are more likely to be drawn in if they see something other than a wall.”
Currey said his plan calls for several structures representing different types of building styles, because the original settlers built different types of structures and different times. “The first ones who got here probably built something crude, such as a lean-to. Then, as time went on, they were able to do things that lasted longer.”
Currey also said the facility will contain at least one classroom — located inside what appears to be a cabin, or two cabins, from the outside. Tying it all together will be informational displays that contain a lot of interactive technology.
Currey’s plan should be released to the public in September, after which the funding will be resolved by the mayor and Metro Council. In a previous budget, the city allocated $1 million to the project. So far, Currey doesn’t know if his plan will exceed that amount.
As he has formulated his plan, Currey has been in consultation with a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Fort Nashborough chapter.
Tommy Lynch, head of Metro Parks and Recreation, hopes the rebuilt site will bring about an increase in student activity. But he said there are no plans to assign a full-time employee to run it. “That’s not in the cards right now,” he said. “For the time being, this will be a self-taught history lesson for the people who go there.”
That news disappoints Andrew Ward, founding member of the living history group known as the Cumberland Brigade. Ward, whose organization staged the event at Fort Nashborough two years ago, is ambivalent about the architectural plans for the site. And he is disappointed to hear the fort will not have a full-time employee.
“The fort was neglected terribly in the last 25 years,” Ward said. “The condition it was in by 2011 made that very clear.”
Regardless of what the site ends up as, Ward said he wishes the city would turn it over to a nonprofit organization that would raise money and stage events such as the ones his group and others put on in places like Manskers Station in Goodlettsville, Fort Watauga in East Tennessee and Martin’s Station in Virginia.
“There is an opportunity here for Nashville to have a vibrant historical thing down there, which people will love,” Ward said. “My biggest fear about what may happen here is that this will become a walk-through monument rather than a historic site and that there won’t be any more activity than there was before.”
— Bill Carey