The More You Know, The More You Wish You Didn’t, Sometimes

I have found that trying to get a sense of the Native American history of Davidson County is not that easy.  For starters, there’s the “dark and bloody ground” myth which has developed into a story about how no Native Americans lived here–though many groups hunted here–because it was cursed, so they were happy to hand their problems over to the white folks.

Let me say up front that this is pantently and demonstrably untrue.  But I think it’s an important story to tell, with that caveat, because it gets at the heart of the matter–that somehow we can tell a story in which people were here (the people white settlers warred with for this land) and not here (thus making it “okay” that we took the land, since it was empty and evil anyway).

I had heard a rumor that Bell’s Bend is covered in Native American sites, and I set out to discover if that’s true, as much as you can discover from a couch with a dog hopped up on pain killers trying, often unsuccessfully, to turn around without falling.  I’m going to talk about this over at Pith, because it’s now my goal to bore the shit out of folks, but it appears that there are over 50 significant archaeological sites in Bell’s Bend, the location of which are closely guarded by the state to prevent grave robbing.  One of the more interesting things is that it appears that there were ‘Portuguese’ Indians living in Bell’s Bend in the early 1900s and, hell, may still be living there.

For those of you wondering what a ‘Portuguese’ Indian is, it appears that those are Melungeon people, in one of their farthese west settlements (if we’re using the term ‘Melungeon’ to mean “families descended from and identified as known Melungeons” and not “any tri-racial people living in the lower Appalachians”).  Even as late as 1950, there were an estimated forty Melungeons in Davidson County, who were identifying their race as ‘white.’

Not to get too side-tracked by Melungeon history, but god damn, that’s some fascinating stuff.  It both seems that there may be a good chunck of truth to the family stories that (some of) the Melungeons are descended from Portuguese sailors who shipwrecked and went to live with the Indians AND that they called themselves ‘Portuguese’ in some cases as a defense against being considered black, especially in matters of inheritence and marriage, since the laws about what black people could inheret and who they could marry was much more harshly regulated than was the case for non-blacks.  Of course, in other cases, where their not-quite-whiteness and their not-quite-blackness was well established, they faced discrimination from both groups and I read stories about children who, during the era of segregation, were not allowed to attend either white or black schools, because they were considered “neither.”

As for how Native American they were understood to be or understood themselves to be, that also seems to greatly depend.  They obviously weren’t rounded up and marched off on the Trail of Tears, and yet I encountered some folks who were doing geneological research who found that their Melungeon ancesters headed out to Oklahoma, later.

So, since the archaeological sites are kept secret by the state, I could find next to no information about them, which meant that I couldn’t evaluate for myself if the sites they consider to be from within recorded history date from the time period when white settlers entered the area and found Native Americans here (in which case, we could presume that the sites are like many of the sites around Davidson county–hunting camps, graveyards, ceremonial sites, trading posts, and maybe some permanent settlements) or if the sites include sites where the “Portuguese” Indians lived (in which case the sites would presumably include, again, graves, but also farmsteads).

But holy shit did I find some gruesome stuff about Native Americans in Davidson County.

I want to put this in context for you, some, but I lack the ability to.  Hopefully Bridgett will come by and give us some guidance.  I just want to tell you this story in some way that both respects that, when you settle on land that isn’t yours and you shoot at folks who have a problem with it, it’s unsurprising that they will murder you back, and acknowledges that the white settlers in Davidson County were scared shitless of the Indians and their callous treatment of important Indian sites (at least early on) has got to be understood, I think, in the context of trying, psychologically, to reaffirm for yourself that you are indeed better and more worthy than your enemies.

I’m going to assume that we can keep both of those ideas in mind.

So, yes, did you know that the rise Traveller’s Rest was built on came to be known by the people who built Traveller’s Rest as “Golgotha” because there were so many skulls there, because Traveller’s Rest was built on a cemetery?

Or, for instance, did you know that there was an enormous, elaborate ceremonial site about where Bicentennial Park is and that folks used to go to Sulpher Springs to enjoy the healing power of the springs, picnic, and grave rob?  Also that they found more bones when they put in the Jefferson Street bridge?

Or that there used to be a large village down Granny White Pike about where 440 crosses it?

Native American sites in this county have been desecrated, paved over, dismantled, built on, ignored, etc.  On and on and so forth.

And it’s been virtually impossible in many cases for Native Americans now living in Oklahoma to get the State to recognize them as the descendants of these people in order to protect these sites. Lately, they seem to be allowed to act in the “Friends of the Court” capacity but legally, all these remains at all these sites, many of which were not prehistoric sites then abandoned by people who left no known descendants, but still working sites being used as what they were by people whose descendants we can identify when white people got here, are still being treated as if they are somehow in the way of Nashville, instead of being a vital part of Nashville.

Well, so that’s what I know now. And I dreamed about houses built on piles of skulls and I wish I hadn’t.

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12 thoughts on “The More You Know, The More You Wish You Didn’t, Sometimes

  1. My grandmother’s family was Melungeon! I was on a Melungeon listserv for a while, where a huge fight broke out about whether we have African blood or not, as I assume everyone who has umpteen generations of family in the USA does. But I was amazed at how incendiary the subject was. They would cop to native American ancestry but not to African ancestry, which of course, meant that I took the other side of the argument just to be contrary. :P

    I suspect only actual DNA testing will reveal the truth of the matter.

  2. Hush up!!! That is so awesome. It looks like someone has started to do some DNA stuff, but I have to tell you you would probably also laugh at the racism there. Because even though it proves that the Melungeons do indeed have some African ancestry, the fight now appears to be either about whether your ancestors were American Africans or Moors in Portugal or whether, if your ancestors were American, they were slave women or free men of color. Someone could get into some interesting fights about the gender bullshit going on with that argument!

  3. Oh. My. Word.

    Moors in Portugal? OK, I could go on a long time about what “moro” meant in Portugal (or Castile, or Aragón, or elsewhere in the peninsula) in the late 15th century, or the 16th century, or the 17th century. But I’d rather go on about who the hell these idiots think the sailors were on Portuguese vessels at any of those times. Have they even bothered checking with any Luso-Hispanists? Because, ya know, there’s evidence about this stuff. And mostly they were peasants from northern Portugal or Galicia, or even Basques from farther over east. Which is why there are so many Basque- and Gallego-surnamed Hispanics and Brazilians and all in the Americas these days. Way out of proportion to the population in Spain and Portugal. Nobody talks to anybody else anymore, huh?

  4. Fascinating reading. Thanks for all this info. I started watching the recent series on Native Americans on PBS and couldn’t get past the first episode due to a general pissiness that came over me. The State should do more to recognize the Native American history in this area.

  5. So were they pissed that they might be the descendants of slaves, cause lots of American Indians were made into slaves too.

    Bridgett? Care to expound on that topic in way too much detail?

  6. 1. There are rumors about some of my dad’s side of the family being Melungeon. Mom is currently genealogizing about it.

    2. I think “house built on a pile of skulls” is pretty much the central metaphor for European settlement of the Americas.

  7. The first human occupation of the area you live in happened around 7500 BCE. Indigenous people were early ag innovators in the region and were growing squash, sunflower, and chenopodium by the mid 3000s BCE. They were growing corn in the Tennessee and Cumberland valleys in 350 BC and evolving more permanent sites. Chert came from this region (stone for arrowheads), so it was an important trade area; also the number of food storage pits indicate that they were stockpiling and trading grain. There are camp/village and funereal remains in all periods. After de Soto’s terror march, the human population along all trade routes dramatically declined and the deer population grew for a hundred years until the deerskin trade took off, so the idea that it became a big deer park is true. Also,the early colonial period (1500-1670s) was a time of social and cultural reordering, so the whole of the Southeast was both relatively less populated than before and territorial boundaries somewhat more contested. That part’s true too. Where people mess up is jumping to the conclusion that less population and more hunting/fighting meant it suddenly turned into a no man’s land.

    The “dark and bloody ground” myth is self-serving imperial bullshit. Both indigenous groups and Europeans opportunistically used this kind of talk to suggest that they exerted sovereignty over places they didn’t actually control or to spook off people who might have felt inclined to encroach when the big talkers didn’t have the warriors to keep the newcomers out. There was a lot of “well, they just use that and we sometimes let them when we’re feeling generous and oh, by the way, that’s some haunted place that is very bad luck to go so I wouldn’t mess around in there if I were you” going around. That line of talking a big game made it easier for the English and Americans to continue with the pretending, as though no one had any cultural or physical roots worth talking about that went with particular places. It’s hard to walk around in a place like Pinson Mounds (which are awesome, by the way, though the people that built those were long dead by the time of European arrival) and not catch the magnitude of the lie that this wasn’t something special to the people who lived there.

  8. I’m sure you know this, B, but there’s actually a perfectly decent permanent exhibit about all this at the TN State Museum. I bet the curators there have lots of info in addition to what’s on display.

  9. Since I stuck out my neck on the other post I figured I’d follow up on some of the archaeology-related things in this one, too. For starters, it seems like you’re coming down a little hard on the folks at the state for “keeping secrets.”

    There’s a large and active group of folks throughout TN who have made a business of systematically looting archaeological sites. They call themselves “collectors,” but don’t be fooled – if they’re digging, they’re looking for burials, which often contained large or special artifacts. Everything about the site that is not a burial goes away in the bulldozer or backhoe – and once the artifacts have been snatched from a grave, the human remains are usually thrown away to hide the evidence. They destroy sites regardless of who owns them, and think little of sneaking or forcing their way onto private property. Of the 17,000 or so recorded prehistoric archaeological sites in Tennessee, the vast majority are on privately owned land. If your own yard contained a mineral resource that a particularly repugnant group of people would do just about anything to acquire, would you want the state distributing that info to anyone who asked?

    Finally, I think you’re maybe conflating the destruction of prehistoric sites with the terrible events of the early historic period a bit too much. The prehistoric inhabitants of Middle TN are indeed the ancestors of modern Native American tribal groups, but for the most part there’s little cultural continuity between prehistoric groups and the much later identifiable tribal entities here in Middle TN. That’s not the case everywhere, but here in the Middle portion of the state it’s the case. This is why the Eastern Band of the Cherokee – the tribe best historically situated to claim some sort of cultural patrimony for the region – generally does not become involved with work on prehistoric sites in Middle TN. Your statement that there are “working sites being used as what they were by people whose descendants we can identify when white people got here” is almost entirely (with the exception of the Native American stockade where Demonbreun built his fort) false.

    Keep in mind we’re usually talking about thousands of years between the original use of these sites and the arrival of Europeans. So maybe the continued destruction of archaeological sites is more of a tragedy of historic preservation and our cultural inability to appreciate the past rather than an example of continued oppression of the Native American community?

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