This photo book contains more than 120 striking images from the course of the journey, allowing the reader to see how much has changed and how much has remained untouched in the two and a half centuries since Donelson first took to the water. Equally significant, the essays include long-ignored contemporary histories of both the Cherokee whom Donelson encountered and the slaves he brought with him, some of whom did not survive the journey.
Guider, a professional photographer, has created images of every point in the thousand-mile trip from a platform just a few feet above the waterline of three of Tennessee’s most notable rivers.
Jeff Sellers, director of education and engagement at the Tennessee State Museum
Black Faces along the Cumberland River Basin
Learotha Williams Jr., professor of African American, Civil War and Reconstruction, and public history at Tennessee State University and coordinator of the North Nashville Heritage Project
A Cherokee Perspective on the Founding of Nashville and the Late Eighteenth Century
Albert Bender, Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and reporter
Modern Times for the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers
Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University
"This is an angle on Tennessee's history that is rarely seen or taught. Although we are, thank goodness, currently in a phase when many—or at least some vocal thinkers—question just how great the 'great men' of local history really were and hold their actions under a critical microscope, we still rarely venture into truly considering the experiences of the lesser known or marginalized people of Tennessee's past. Discussion of the ripple effects of past actions on the present landscape rarely ventures beyond politics or the broadest strokes of race relations. This book lives fully in that space."
—Nina Cardona, WPLN, Nashville Public Radio
My little cocoon of a boat had become so personal to me that I had a hard time deciding on a name for it. Then one day, years into my project, I was walking around the Metro Nashville Courthouse and read a plaque detailing John Donelson’s journey to the founding of Nashville. His boat was named the Adventure. That was it. I would name my boat the Adventure II because I had left on my odyssey from nearly the same spot where Donelson had landed. In a way, I felt like I was continuing the adventure.
But now that my boat had a name, I had something else to think about. Why did Donelson risk it all to make the journey? For me all that was left was to try to find out. As T. S. Eliot once wrote, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
Fascinated by his story, and in love with the water and Tennessee, I decided to retrace Donelson’s one-thousand-mile journey down the Holston, Tennessee, Ohio, and Cumberland Rivers in my handmade row/sail boat to get a visceral sense of the adventure and to see firsthand all that has transpired in the intervening years.
Toward the end of the summer of 1779, John Donelson traveled with his family of ten (including twelve-year-old Rachel) and thirty enslaved people from his one-thousand-acre estate in the Commonwealth of Virginia to the outpost Fort Patrick Henry, which sat on the banks of the free-flowing Holston River in what is now the community of Kingsport, Tennessee. He was ill prepared for what awaited him.
I launched on Monday, September 5, 2016, Labor Day, to much fanfare and many clicking shutters.
Of the hundreds of photographs I took along the way, this book contains the most representative of the Tennessee I saw. My lasting impressions are two. The first is that there are two Tennessees, one rural and one urban, and the gulf between them (social, cultural, economic) is more massive than most of us realize. With 20 percent unemployment the norm in the rural counties, some riverside communities go on welfare every winter until the diners go back to full-time hours. Rebel flags and Trump signs dot the rural landscape, and people speak openly about their resentment toward the nearby cities. The Democrats were not going to carry rural Tennessee in the upcoming election the way they had a few decades earlier.
Rampant unemployment and inferior education facilities combined with inadequate healthcare and social services have put the rural communities at risk, causing many to turn to drugs to counteract a feeling of hopelessness. Stories of the out-of-control meth epidemic ran through my journal from beginning to end.
Nature, of course, is at a tipping point as well. The second lasting impression I came away with is that we have done untold damage to our waterways and the wildlife that relies on them. Nature, given the chance, is self-healing. Massive TVA construction sites are not. Though nature has ways to regenerate and purify itself when damage is fairly small-scale, the locks and dams and power plants remain toxic. Most were designed for a work life of fifty years. The infrastructure has reached that limit, and the cost of repairs is constantly increasing. The American Society of Civil Engineers emphatically warns that modern American infrastructure is in a state of crisis. More than two thousand dams are at risk of collapse; combined with highway degradation and structural damage to more than 10 percent of all bridges, the costs of repairs exceed $3.5 trillion. Where will that money come from, especially when 1 percent of the population controls over 90 percent of the wealth? What happens when the TVA runs out of coal, or when the maintenance costs for those dams and power plants override any potential for profit? What happens when the TVA can no longer afford its CEO’s $6.5 million salary?
My love is for nature and for the regenerative and restorative powers it brings to my body, mind, and spirit whenever I am in it. The intention for my photographs is to share the beauty that confronts me. Hopefully they will reinforce the message that natural places need to survive. Vincent van Gogh wrote, “Those who love nature can find beauty anywhere.” I want my images to evidence his words.
What remained of the Donelson party landed on Monday, April 24, 1780, with bleak prospects ahead. On Monday, April 24, 1780, Donelson wrote:
“This day we arrived at our journey’s end at the Big Salt Lick. Where we all had the pleasure of finding Capt. Robertson & his company. It is a source of satisfaction to us to be enabled to restore to him & others their families and friends, who were entrusted to our care, and who, some time since despaired of ever meeting again. Tho our prospects at present are dreary. We have found a few log cabins which been built on a Cedar Bluff above the Lick by Capt. Robertson and his company.”
A modest party of friends welcomed me into port in Nashville on Saturday, October 29, 2016. My home was already there and waiting. My rest was assured.
For Tennesseans new and old, I hope that this book will awaken a sense of our unique waterways and their unusual history, particularly the harrowing journey that led to the founding of Nashville and the new perils that await us, its residents, if we do not act sooner than later.