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.