Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Rough and Rowdy

Elizabeth Elkins sorts fact from fiction about Nashville’s Timothy Demonbreun

Somewhere under Davidson County and its surrounding areas, Timothy Demonbreun is buried. Elizabeth Elkins, author of We Should Soon Become Respectable: Nashville’s Own Timothy Demonbreun, notes that his final resting place is either “lost, moved, or paved over.” None of his nearest descendants — which equaled some 10 children with 3 different women — left any clues, only more tall tales about the elusive French Canadian frontiersman known as the “first resident of Nashville.”

Elizabeth Elkins

Leading up to Nashville’s 250th anniversary in 2029, Vanderbilt University Press is rolling out Truth, Lies, and Histories of Nashville — a series of 25 small volumes dedicated to correcting and preserving the city’s history. The first volume, Mastodons to Mississippians: Adventures in Nashville’s Deep Past, explores prehistoric Nashville, documenting thousands of years of history before Europeans laid eyes on the Cumberland River. 

Demonbreun’s story is a worthy second act. History is full of gaps when it comes to this international man of mystery, but Elkins goes about setting the record straight. Born in 1747 as Jacques Timothé Boucher Sieur de Montbreun in Boucherville, Canada, Demonbreun, as he came to be known, was reared in a noble family with deep roots in Quebec. As a relative of explorers and American militiamen, it wasn’t long before young Timothé and his bride Thérèse hit the open rivers, answering the call of the wild and heading on down to the Illinois Territory to see what America was all about. 

Elkins is quick to debunk the common misconception that Demonbreun was the first white man to come to Nashville. Fur trappers from Quebec who arrived in the late 1600s were most likely the first Euro-descended men to spend some time in Middle Tennessee. These early Québécois met indigenous tribes like the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Shawnee, who hunted and thrived on the Cumberland River, which they knew as the Wasioto. Both groups were drawn to the area’s abundance of game. Demonbreun first came to the region in the 1760s for the same reason, but instead of heading to New Orleans like many of his relatives, he eventually chose to settle in what would become Davidson County.

Elkins is an acute observer of the way a number of Demonbreun’s many descendants have turned him into a legend. “They’ve fed the fable of the great adventurer until it’s bursting at the seams with heroism and manifest destiny,” she writes. The Forgotten Frenchman, a “wildly speculative” biography written by one of his descendants, proliferated the myth that Demonbreun lived in a cave with his mistress, Elizabeth. (The cave is on the National Register of Historic Places and is visible from Shelby Bottoms Park.) Could you blame the family for wanting this to be true? A fur-trapping, cave-dwelling great-great-great-great-great grandpa who discovered Tennessee is an irresistible backstory.

Elkins is more interested in facts, which makes We Should Soon Become Respectable a much-needed foil to tall tales and exaggerated histories. Interviewing Tennessee historians and considering archival materials from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Elkins offers what could be considered the definitive story of Demonbreun’s life and gets to the bottom of the cave legend and his “duplicitous” affairs.

The book offers an impressive investigation into the man’s highly complicated personal life. He had two families with two women — his wife, Thérèse, and another woman named Elizabeth. He also had children with a third woman named Martha Gray. It is debated whether Demonbreun, who was a slave owner, fathered a child with an enslaved woman. Elkins asks the question: “What about African Americans with the last name Demonbreun or variations thereof? Their stories are barely told.”

While known for his rough and rowdy ways, Demonbreun was a major player in the city’s colonial history, a man of influence and intelligence who deftly navigated the Native tribes, the French, and the English, all the while pledging his patriotism to the American army as a lieutenant and occasional spy. “He received thousands of acres of land grants across Tennessee and Kentucky,” Elkins notes, “all rewards for his loyalty. In a time when land was the name of the game, Timothy won.” He grew old and rich in Nashville, parceling and selling land to his children, involving himself in local politics, opening a tavern on what is now Public Square Park, organizing the first Catholic Church service in Nashville, and entertaining esteemed guests.

When I was a student living in Nashville, “Demonbreun” was the name of a street I avoided for its bad traffic during the day and wild party scene at night. We Should Soon Become Respectable left me with deeper associations and the realization that I didn’t know much about the history of a city I called home for four years. I reckon it will do the same for others who pick up this small, entertaining book. 

Rough and Rowdy

Jacqueline Zeisloft is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Nashville Scene and the Women’s Review of Books. She holds a B.A. in English literature from Belmont University. She lives in New York City.