Things I Think I Know Now from My Trip to the TSLA

One is that I, and many others, may be suffering from “Jesus’ followers were lowly fisherman” syndrome when it comes to Timothy Demonbreun. You know where we all are like “Jesus’ disciples were lowly fishermen” when, really, they were obviously at least middle-class if not better off? (Think of it this way. Do the disciples seem to lack for money? Does Jesus sit around telling stories about what poor people need to do or does he tell stories about what his listeners need to do? And who were is listeners? After Jesus died, the disciples had jobs to return to. After Jesus was resurrected, he goes out and knows right where to find them so that he can cook them breakfast. None of them have had to go in search of other fishing crews to get in with. Because they owned the boats. It was more cost-effective for them to be on the boats working, but the boats could and did go out without them and they still got paid. Whew, that was a diversion. Back to Tim.)

So, Tim. Yes, there’s a way in which so much of the Nashville rhetoric around him is of the lowly fur trader who was holed up in a cave when white people got here. But the truth is that, if you look beyond Nashville sources, Demonbreun was a semi-retired politician, who was still kind of acting as a diplomat when it suited him. Even some of the accounts of his fur trading, you see he wasn’t the lone long-hunter we’ve imagined, though he does often seem to come to the Nashville area alone. Other times he has almost twenty men with him or three or four other men.

For me, yesterday, what occurred to me is that, at the trading with the Indians level, Demonbreun is not like the guy who sets up an awning and tries to sell you socks out of the trunk of his car. He’s like Walmart, coming into your area, seeming like a stop you have to make, even if you don’t like it, just because they have so much shit. And the folks here don’t maybe mind one Walmart–though some see it rightly as a threat to other stores–but maybe they don’t want twenty.

So, if you imagine that Bill Clinton ran the Nashville area Walmarts, I think you get a better idea of the Demonbreun dynamic in pre- and early-Nashville. We’ve reduced him down to the eccentric guy who was selling socks out of his trunk, but he was really plugged into a lot of stuff. So, my god, of course this is why they’re showing him off to the guy who would become king of France and Lafayette. It’s not just “Oh, look, we’ve got a guy who can speak French.” If, in our analogy, Putin showed up in Nashville tomorrow, we’d haul out Bill Clinton to meet with him, just to show off that we’re important enough that Bill Clinton lives here and is banging all our wives.

Second, but tied into that last point, this also explains a.) why Provine found evidence that Deraque was staying with Demonbreun. I mean, yes, Demonbreun owned a tavern (though technically… see point three), but so did other people. But if Fagot was his area’s Walmart and Demonbreun was or had been this area’s Walmart and it was along those connections political decisions were made, of course Fagot is going to send his man Deraque to stay with Demonbreun.

Third, Elizabeth owned Demonbreun’s tavern! For two years. That’s Lot 45. I’m going to bet you she ran that thing the whole time he was off playing “I’m kind of a diplomat.” (Oh, damn it, now I wish I’d paid closer attention to whether there was a date on the ad he ran looking to buy or rent a black woman to run the kitchen. I’d be curious to know if he was filling Elizabeth’s shoes after she married Joseph.)

Oh, fourth, I did learn where Granny Rat’s tavern was and it was not where I was speculating–on Eaton’s Creek Road–but was, indeed, right where I’d decided it wasn’t. It was on the Clarksville Road, right at the place where the road to Springfield branches off. In other words, it was right the fuck here, where the Anderson and Garrett Funeral home is up in Joelton. The old stories about being able to see the foundation of the tavern in the grass of the funeral home are around and I just should have Occomed that crap.

It was, they said, just an enormous old stone building with good barns for horses out back. I’m imagining something like Rock Castle is old and stone, right? The thing that struck me about both descriptions of it is that they both said that it was enormous, like surprisingly enormous.

But I think she sold the place after Deraque died (around 1808 or a little later). Maybe it was too much for one person to handle. But man, that just is so right. Where’s the one cemetery I found with both Demonbreuns and Durards? At that Methodist church cemetery where Old Clarksville Pike and Clarksville pike split off again, just a few miles from where the tavern was. The the Durards go down into the valley south of Joelton and the Demonbreuns go down into the valley along Little Marrowbone Road. I just whooped up this map, which will hopefully show you.

Fourth, oh hold on! But Deraque wasn’t technically staying with Demobreun at all, was he? First, Demonbreun didn’t own the tavern then. Elizabeth did. Second, even if he was staying there with her while she owned it, Deraque testifies that he’d only been in Nashville six months before he went gallivanting around for Spain. And we know Demonbreun was in Kaskaskia for part of that time. Deraque was, literally, staying with Elizabeth. So, that makes sense of how he seemed an okay guy for her to marry off to. Heh, also might make sense for why the last Demonbreun kid and the first Deraque kid came so close together.

Fifth, I didn’t really learn, but I admit I wondered. Was Deraque lying when he said that Demonbreun was a spy for the Spanish? I’m starting to wonder if maybe not.

Here’s what I wonder. Did Demonbreun know that an attack on Nashville was likely? Is that why he sold his business to Bennett? So that, if it was destroyed, he wouldn’t have lost anything? Was there something happening in 1791 that would have caused Demonbreun to limit his financial exposure in case of an attack? True, he didn’t get rid of his other landholdings, but didn’t he have reason to presume that Spain would honor those deeds?

So, we have a bunch of people who are either technically Spanish subjects (Deraque and Fagot), people who have made overtures to being Spanish subjects–Robertson, etc., people who couldn’t quite be trusted to not see themselves as Spanish subjects (Demonbreun), and people who regularly work with the Spanish (Finnelson).

And now here’s where I wish we had the actual words that were said at Willstown, the thing that caused the Spanish agents to seem to decide that their loyalties lie not with the Spaniards and Indians, but with the Nashvillians. Because it doesn’t make sense that ANY of these people would stand against either a Spanish attack or an Indians-armed-by-Spain attack on Nashville. Well, except the people that lived there–Robertson and them. Obviously, they don’t want to die.

And that’s what got me thinking–not wanting to die is a huge motivating factor. But so is not wanting your loved ones to die.

What if what Bloody Fellow was saying was something more like “There are a shit-ton of USians and, if we piss them off, they will come down on us with a vengeance you’ve never seen? And can we really trust the Spanish at our backs? If they have this many weapons for us, how many more do they have for themselves?”

I mean, yes, on the surface, it seems like the Spanish would be totally cool with Nashville being annihilated, after Fagot went and told them that Nashville was looking to fight Spain. But isn’t there another way to read this same set of facts?

What if everyone had the feeling that some kind of massive Indian attack was inevitable? I mean, obviously they did, or else why would Robertson have been sending out feelers to see if Nashville could become Spanish? Remember, we KNOW Spain sells that land back to France who then sells it to Jefferson, but at the moment, Spain expected to stay there. Which means, at the least, they had to figure out if they were going to conquer the United States or live with them peacefully on the continent.

Would Spain really want to have to travel through a bunch of different, small, possibly warring countries just to negotiate with the U.S.? Or does Spain see what Tecumseh sees? That the Indians will have to come together in one nation in order to be strong enough to repel the U.S. from coming over the mountains? And maybe Spain doesn’t think that looks incredibly likely. At least not yet.

What if what the governor at New Madrid is asking Fagot in the middle of 1792 is not whether the Nashvillians are a threat to them, but whether the Nashvillians will expect Spanish protection or retaliation if they are attacked? Fagot is saying all “Oh, no, no, they hate you guys so much they’ll probably be looking to attack you next.” But Finnelson is saying “Hey, they’re trying to get along with your allies, the Indians, so yeah, they might still be open to negotiations?”

It seems like there are two ways to read every fact–like maybe New Spain would actually be afraid of an attack from the U.S.–though that just seems so ludicrous considering how few USians there actually are in the area and how hard it would be to muster an army from the East coast, get them through hostile Indian territory, and to New Spain. I mean, I guess they could attack Florida?

I know I’m circling around this, but I’m starting to wonder if this is the moment when at least some Indians–starting with Bloody Fellow–realize that Spain is playing them. In other words, I wonder where there were Spanish troops in Middle Tennessee in September of 1792. I wonder, in fact, if the delay in the attack wasn’t because they were waiting for Finnelson and Deraque to report back, but because they were trying to see where the Spanish troops were.

Because you know what I see? I see a landscape in which Spain might think that this is the moment to prove to the United States that they have a common enemy, on that Spain is more successful dealing with out West. Remember, Spain doesn’t have the same history and kinship ties with the people in that area that the French do/did. I see a landscape in which the Spanish know the US settlers are outmatched because they know what weapons the Indians have, but they know they are not outmatched because they know what weapons the Indians have.

I wonder if what Finnelson and Deraque figured out was that, if the Indians succeeded in wiping Nashville off the face of the earth, which would mean the deaths of some “Spanish” folks like Timothy Demonbreun and people who wanted to be Spanish, like Robertson, not only would they lose the people in Nashville that they liked, but that it would give Spain an excuse to come in and go to war with the Indians, thus proving their good-neighborliness to the U.S. but also establishing New Spain’s eastern boundary more in line with New France’s eastern boundary.

Tecumseh was right. A unified Indian “nation” between the U.S. and New Spain would have been the only way for Native Americans to keep USians from pouring into their lands, since, obviously, the U.S. wasn’t going to abide by its treaties. But how do you get a bunch of people who’ve never seen themselves as one group to do so? I mean, just imagine the logistics of declaring that Clarksville, Nashville, and Lebanon were all the same city and we’re not dealing with different languages and histories and cultures.

But in order for the Native Americans to focus on keeping the USians out of the land between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi river, they had to have some assurances that New Spain wasn’t going to attack them from the West.

What I wonder is if folks who had been in direct communication with Spain had come to doubt that Spain was solely on the side of the Indians. Just as a testament, look at the overtures Spain had been making toward the U.S., to bring more people into New Spain. Deraque would have direct knowledge of that, working for Fagot in St. Louis; he would have seen it with his own eyes. Finnelson would have seen, with his own eyes, U.S. settlers at New Madrid, even if it didn’t work out.

They had to see that New Spain wasn’t interested in keeping U.S.ians out of their territory. I don’t know. Maybe the Spanish army wasn’t big enough to be that much of a threat to the Indians. But U.S.ians being invited into Spanish territory had to be. And this is something Finnelson and Deraque would have seen (and, hell, Demonbreun for that matter). This seems to me to be really crucial.

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6 thoughts on “Things I Think I Know Now from My Trip to the TSLA

  1. This is a tangent to your main point, but: the most likely reason for the sale and resale of Lot 45 is that Demonbreun needed cash for some business (or political, I suppose) venture. He sells the land, he gets the money, he does the business, he makes a profit. With some of the profit, he buys the land back. He and the others involved may even have seen the whole thing as using the property as surety for a loan. What did he get for selling it, and what did he pay to get it back?

    Land records aren’t going to tell you much of anything about his business ventures, but you could look to see whether he started buying up a lot of real estate right after making the sale (which would mean that he needed the cash to buy more land right then — maybe something good had just come up for sale or something), or at the same time that he bought back Lot 45 (which would be a way of investing the rest of the profits of the business, if it wasn’t buying land).

  2. I forget what the exact number he got for selling it was, but it was the same amount he bought it back for.

    It’d be hard to know what land deals he might have going, unless I were going to devote a whole lot more time to it, because I’d have to see what he had going on in New Spain as well.

    But I wonder if the easy answer wasn’t that he knew things were over with Elizabeth–maybe this is when his wife had finally decided to move to Nashville?–and he was trying to leave her set up in a way that would take care of the kids. He knocks her up one last time for old-time’s sake, sells her the tavern, and then goes up to Kaskaskia to fetch his wife.

    I think we can guess, based on the fact that she and Joe named one of their sons Timothy and that they bought land from him later, they remained fond of him. I like to make fun of him for being a floozy and a dog, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered the Durats.

    I think, once they decided to open the tavern in Joelton, they sold the tavern in Nashville back to Demonbreun.

    But I’d have to dig more closely into those records to see.

  3. Yes, there is that. I think he was probably typical of French nobility — male marital fidelity was not their long suit at the best of times and his business positively argued for “country marriages” to invest himself in each new trade location. Unlike a bourgeois Catholic man, he would not have been too troubled by his indiscretions as long as he left his progeny well-cared for and his lovers satisfied. A gentilhomme was judged on the manner of his leave-taking and he would have thought it unusual if he *didn’t* have a trail of illegitimate kids. Noble wives were not crazy about this practice — see Agnes, who was not as well-born as T. — because they wanted to be sure that their children were the best-positioned among the heirs and lots of bastards was a waste of family assets, not to mention whatever emotional betrayal they might have felt. And TD *did* still represent himself as a nobleman — even if he acknowledges that this status didn’t mean much without the estates and cash to go with it — in the Kaskasian papers. So, he would be crestfallen to know that he’s represented as a wandering rustic bumpkin in the Nashville origin story.

    However, he was also cosmopolitan in the sense of “well-traveled and sophisticated.” an impressive trans-Atlantic businessman, culturally and linguistically comfortable whereever he landed. The 18th century French merchant class in North America were some of the most politically astute people I’ve ever studied.

  4. I hope he can take some comfort in the fact that he’s remembered as a sexy wandering rustic bumpkin. That statue of him downtown makes it very easy to imagine why women would giggle and blush and fall straight into bed with him.

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