The other day on Facebook, one of my friends linked to this entry on Demonbreun’s Cave at Atlas Obscura. The entry is notable for being almost completely wrong. But the parts I wanted to focus on, because I think they’re helpful in understanding Nashville’s history are the parts that say he “took up the life of a simple fur trader in Tennessee” and that he was “the first resident of European descent in what is now Nashville.”
There’s not really such a thing as a “simple fur trader,” and because there’s not really such a thing as a simple fur trader, we can’t call Timothy Demonbreun the first person of European descent in the area.
So, let’s talk about the fur trade. Before the “Virginians” — local Native Americans called anyone not from here who wasn’t Spanish or French or British from Great Britain “Virginians” whether they were actually from Virginia or not — got here, fur trading was the big business of the region. When I say “big,” I mean that it was international. Furs harvested in what would become Nashville ended up on the heads and backs of people all over Europe. But it also might be helpful to think of the fur trade like the drug trade. Anyone could do it, but to do it and to do it successfully, you had to be hooked into the right networks. You had to know a guy who knew a guy who could move your product.
Similar to the drug trade, there were always ongoing skirmishes over territory and occasionally, there were huge battles. The main groups that we know about who participated in the fur trade here in the 1700s were the Cherokee, who lived at that time in a bunch of villages kind of loosely located near Chattanooga and northward and a little southwestward, the Creek, who were settled along the Tennessee River directly south of us, the Chickasaw, whose nation started roughly at the Tennessee to the west of us, and, well, here’s where it gets interesting.
The truth is that the Creek and the Cherokee fought regular and bitter wars throughout the 1700s. They hated each other. The times they worked together, sometimes with the Chickasaw, were to drive the Shawnee out of the Nashville area. We know that Timothy Demonbreun’s predecessor, De Charleville, was living with the Shawnee in what is now Nashville. We also know that the Creek, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, in various configurations over the 1700s, had to fight the Shawnee multiple times to get them removed completely from Nashville. Even then, Shawnee warriors fought at the Battle of Buchanan’s Station. If they didn’t live here, they sure loved to frequently vacation here.
Also, the Yuchi Indians have a tradition that they had settlements along the Cumberland River basically from East Nashville to Gallatin, which they abandoned after they got tired of being caught in the crossfire of the great battles between the Shawnee and everybody else. So, they went and moved down to live with the Creeks not that long before the “Virginians” got here.
Long story short: (continue reading at Nashville Scene)