My Own Private Nashville

The first time I saw this house, I about fell over. This, my friends, is the house I would live in, if I could. Well, after renovations. I’m sure the house has a good vibe, but I need central air, too.

The John Work House.

I love the bathrooms at the Ryman.

Ryman Auditorium.

When Zora Neale Hurston lived here with her brother, she lived somewhere in this block.

Lafayette Street.

In my dreams, I own this building.  I run an occult shop out of it.

Ooo, spooky!

And I walk up here to pay respects to Jack Macon, famous root worker.

The city cemetery.

I like this church, sitting on its narrow sliver of land.

Hurray!  Purity Milk.

Somewhere along here is Timothy Demonbreun’s cave.  I’ve never been able to find it.  And yet it’s supposedly on the national register of historic places.

11 thoughts on “My Own Private Nashville

  1. “Somewhere along here is Timothy Demonbreun’s cave.”

    If you go to Shelby Bottoms Greenway, take the path next to the river, just past the left turn to make the loop, on the right is a path to a bluff overlooking the river. Look across the river, to the left a bit – that’s Timothe’s cave.

    From the looks of it, I’d say it’s difficult to access from the other side of the river.

  2. Hush up! God I love my readers. I just ask about something and along comes someone with some knowledge.

    Another question I have, and maybe Bridgett can answer this, is how often people back then accidentally ended up bigamists. Ole Tim supposedly had two wives. Rachel Jackson accidentally had two husbands. Were people frequently misplacing spouses?

  3. Yes, this happened all the time. One of the interpretations about why divorce grew easier to get in many places during the early republic was to bring self-divorcing couples under the color of the law so that they could create new marital partnerships. It is usually surprising to Americans to find that there were any number of people who simply packed up their shit and quit — the volatile economic conditions of the post-revolutionary period and a changing idea of marriage that raised expectations of emotional satisfaction and put the stinkeye on spousal abuse made this an increasingly common occurence.

    Considering that bigamy was one of a handful of capital offenses in the new territories (right up there with horse-stealing), people who had not or could not legally end their relationships might just “take up” with someone else and hold themselves out as married. Early republic legislatures and courts saw this as a morally undesirable outcome (as well as a problem sorting out who was entitled to property when the spouses died). Some in government were willing to concede that divorce might be better for a society than a bunch of people shacking up willy-nilly.

    A much smaller number of people tried to sell their wives to other people — much to the outrage of elite politicians. Considering that wives’ earnings were an important part of the household property controlled by husbands (albeit considered an inalienable property), this attempt to sell of a troublesome property was merely following the logic of a world in which humans could be bought and sold.

    Creating a new life by moving somewhere else (curiously) was probably easier in the colonial era; as communication networks and transportation networks grew more integrated (and the population of the country grew more dense), one’s likelihood of running into someone who remembered you from Culpepper County when you used to be married to Sally So-and-So was higher.

    More than you wanted to know, maybe.

  4. Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a great story about wife-selling and people showing up later who know about the past….

  5. No, never. I refuse to believe there’s ever more than I want to know.

    Also, after giving this some thought, if my husband wanted me to live in a cave, I might “get lost” and then refound once he had moved to town.

  6. The categories of abandonment that I’ve seen in court cases in Indiana ca. 1800-1849 sort into the following categories (noting, of course, that these are the depositions of interested parties filed in divorce cases — they tell you what fell in the range of plausible, not what was the truth in any particular instance):

    1) He was a drunk, spent his money and my dowry on booze rather than food, and beat me and the kids, so when he left, I didn’t look too hard;
    2) I went back to the old country for a year-long journey and when I came back, she was eight months pregnant and the handyman was sleeping on my hearth;
    3) A war came up and he went off to fight; when he came back, he was a drunk and gave me an STD which he’d picked up somewhere in service;
    4) She/He fell in love with somebody else and ran off;
    5) He tried to sell me and the kids to another man;
    6) She went crazy (or off the deep end into religion) and there’s no living with her any more;
    7) He/she joined a cult (usually either the Shakers or the Harmonists) and brainwashed my kids, so I stole the kids and left the country;
    8) He left me and the kids with nothing and I assumed, hearing nothing from him for years, that he had died so I took up with a better man.

  7. Demonbreun’s wife (and can I just laugh for a second at the last name “Demonbreun”? His name was something like “de mont brun” in French and supposedly out of loyalty to America during the Revolution, he Americanized it to “Demonbreun” which is not much less “foreign” sounding.) was supposedly captured by Indians. He assumed she’d been killed and so married again. When she returned, he kept one wife in the city and one wife in the country. It’s unclear from my brief internet perusing, which wife was kept where, though I will gather it was probably the first wife who was kept out of town.

  8. Montbreun’s an interesting dude. I have a lot of research on Kaskaskia (all the marriage records, all the public records); I’ll look and see what I can find about him. I’m speculating, but it would be typical of his profession and the time/place he was living to have a “mariage a la facon du pays” (marriage in the custom of the country) with a metis woman. As a new arrival in the 1760s, he would have married strategically, trying to connect himself with a major fur trading family like the La Framboise or Cardinal family. His wife’s kinship connections would have given him insider/favored trading status. Once the Americans came in in the late 1770s and the fur trade petered out in the middle Mississippi, being married to a metis woman was increasingly detrimental to men pursuing an elite social status. By the 1790s and early 1800s, no American official got too bothered if these sorts of marriages were set aside on one pretense or another so that traders could remarry someone more suitable (ahem, white) in keeping with their elevated business standing. Among traders, it’s not that uncommon for them to have a “country wife” (usually Indian) and a “town wife” (white). I wonder if that’s the story behind Tim’s strange arrangement.

    There’s a whole buried story about “what is marriage? who can be married?” that shapes the way that miscegenation laws look in the trans-Appalachian west. I’ve been working on that chapter this month…sounds like I should give Montbrun and his wives another look!

  9. I finally looked him up on Wikipedia and it seems that there they’re claiming that he had one wife in Kaskaskia and a mistress here in Nashville.

    I also found it curious that they described him as a “dark-skinned man.” When you’re doing your research and you come across a description like that, how do you interpret it?

    Do you chalk it up to him being tanned from being outside so much or as just something to say about a dude or a clue as to his family background or all or none of those?

    As Ruth Hill (do you know her work? It’s on Bourbon Spanish America, which is, I know, before your time, but her stuff on race is just brilliant, I think) points out, we do a lot of assuming that the way we think about race now is how everyone always thought about race when, really, before the middle of the 19th century (with the rise of genetics), race was more fluid and nebulous.

    So, I’m sometimes not sure, when the sources are from before then, how to interpret comments about skin color. I know what we’re trying to get across when we say shit like that, but it’s harder for me to always understand what older sources are getting at.

  10. Racial ideologies change and harden awfully fast during Montbrun’s life. I always stop and proceed with due caution when I run across stuff like that. 18th century ideas about race were very fluid and bound up in cultural expression — one could become (on the sliding scale of whiteness) more Indian by marrying Indian women, eating wild foods, living in the woods, refusing to plow, etc. The whole biological argument that roots racial identity and phenotype in the body at birth is still evolving. That’s the idea at the base of the post-revolutionary federal “civilization policy” aimed at American Indians — people operating from a cultural definition of race could believe that “Indian people are culturally deficient because their men don’t plow and their women are too uppitty, but they can change and become just like us!” When groups like the Cherokee become economically and politically successful on their own terms and adapt enthusiastically to many aspects of Euro-American material culture (and create a legislature and adopt a Constitution that is more democratic than the US Constitution and speak English as well as Cherokee, etc), they find by the mid-1820s that white ideas about race as permanent and inheritable mean that whites will interpret them as perpetually inferior as a pretense to seize their plantations, slaves, and stuff.

    The western French are considered by Americans as liminal barely white people. Lower Mississippi French are Francophonic, but many of mixed Afro-Caribbean/indigenous/Spanish/French ethnic make-up. Upper Mississippi French are largely Francophonic metis rather than Frenchies from France (with some Afro-Canadian and Spanish thrown in for good measure). Sieur Tim is from France, but it’s not surprising he’s represented as swarthy or not as “white” as Euro-Americans. I’m guessing he’s been stained, in their eyes, by hanging around on the other side of the evolving color line.

    Yes, I like Ruth Hill’s work a lot.

  11. This is something I’ve heard, but not really considered–that the Cherokee who were living here who were marched out of here on the Trail of Tears were not so easily “Indian” as represented by many a piece of cheesy art where all the folks in their native garb and their blankets are slowly walked westward while stern Army men stand guard on horseback, like refugees from a world with no room for them (cue sad music).


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