I first met John Guider in 2008 while working on an exhibit the [Tennessee State Museum] hosted called The River Inside, which chronicled one of Guider’s first river adventures. In it he canoed the creek behind his house to the Harpeth River, then to the Cumberland River, which flowed to the Ohio River, on to the Mississippi River, and finally to New Orleans. Guider canoed the entire watershed of the Cumberland River system! Along the way he used his skills as a professional photographer to capture the changing environment and unique river culture of the people who live and work on and around the river. John Guider is a modern-day adventurer who happens to capture his adventures through the lens of his camera.
Guider has been on many river adventures throughout his illustrious photography career but none as significant to Tennessee history as his 2016 adventure where he retraced the river journey of the Donelson party. Through the lens of his camera and on the same route as the Donelson party, Guider’s experiences give us an opportunity to reinterpret this old familiar story. Often the story of Nashville’s settlement is told from the perspective of the main character himself, John Donelson. Focusing solely on the central characters does not provide twenty-first-century Tennesseans with the full picture of our state’s settlement. So many questions come to mind when we truly think about Donelson’s journey: What about women? What about the children? What about the people of color that played just as important a role in this journey? What about the Native Americans that watched as their lands were taken from them? What about the changes to the landscape of the area as humans pushed forward to settle it? Common sense tells us that the story is immensely more complex than a paragraph in a textbook; however, the question is how to rethink the familiar story to resonate with modern Tennesseans.
Guider’s photographs taken along the Donelson party’s route provide us with a fresh perspective on this early settlement story. This book shifts focus from Donelson and the white settlers to others who were just as important to the settlement of Nashville but had always been relegated to a supporting role in the traditional narrative. This book will give a voice to the enslaved settlers who had no choice in making the perilous journey. It will give a voice to the American Indians who saw the expedition not as settlement but as an invasion — a threat to their very existence. Finally, this book will give a voice to the river itself.
How has the river system that John captured in his photographs changed from the rivers traversed by the Donelson party? This diverse perspective offers a more comprehensive story. One that reveals a multidimensional narrative that extends a way for us to better understand the complicated settlement story. ~ Jeff Sellers, from the foreword to Voyage of the Adventure
Copyright © 2020 by John Guider. Reprinted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press. All rights reserved. Voyage of the Adventure will be published in September 2020. John Guider is an Emmy Award–winning photographer and author. The Nashville Public Television documentary Voyage of Adventure was honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2020. Jeff Sellers is director of education and community engagement at the Tennessee State Museum.