We Should Soon Become Respectable
Nashville's Own Timothy Demonbreun
Lightly called a "fur trader," he came to the city to make his fortune and fame, much like songwriters today. Looking back, it would be easy to call Demonbreun, the son of French Canadian near-royalty and brother to two nuns, a spoiled child who did what he wanted, a classic-case misogynist and polygamist, a conceited adventurer. He was a man who conned the Spanish governor out of a war, carried on graceful correspondence with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, owned several slaves, may have served as a spy, and was a decorated veteran. He fought in the Revolutionary War, extraordinarily so it seems, given the number of land grants he received across Kentucky and Tennessee.
He's also known around Nashville as the guy who lived in a cave.
Author Elizabeth Elkins sorts through the legends and nails down the facts in order to present the true story of "Nashville's First Citizen."
Chapter 2: The Road to Music Row
Chapter 3: New France
Chapter 4: A River Runs through It
Chapter 5: Cave Man
Chapter 6: A Tale of Two Cities
Chapter 7: Your Cheatin' Heart; or, "It's Complicated" at Lot 45
Chapter 8: The Other Woman
Chapter 9: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Chapter 10: Granny Rat and Jacques Derrat
Chapter 11: Whiskey and Lafayette
Chapter 12: The Trouble with Felix: Timothy's Last Will and Testament
Chapter 13: Graverobbers
Chapter 14: The Demonbreun Society
Chapter 15: The Gun, the Watch, and the Desk
According to the William Alexander Provine papers (which seem to be full of half-clues and shadows of everything that was really going on in Timothy’s life, thanks to plenty of unclear or half-finished letters and ideas), Timothy began to hunt and explore the area around the Cumberland River in the early 1770s. By 1774, Timothy had eight boats and seventeen men in his employ, and Katherine Demonbreun Whitefort recorded in her history that he built his first cabin for storage of furs and tallow on the banks of the Cumberland River at Nashville that same year.
But it is Josephus Conn Guild’s story of the day Timothy’s “discovered” what would become Nashville that set the legend in motion. In his 1878 book Old Times in Tennessee, Guild gave us a melodramatic retelling of events, setting a narrative that has blurred the lines between fact and fiction ever since:
"They ran up what is now Lick Branch . . . and tied up their boat . . . DeMonbreun wore a blue cotton hunting shirt, leggings of deer-hide, a red waistcoat that had once been in the French army and a fox-skin cap, with the tail hanging down his back. He was a tall, athletic, dark-skinned man, with a large head, broad shoulders and chest, small legs, a high, short foot, an eagle eye, and an expression of daring about his mouth. His followers addressed him as Jacques. They concluded to trace the stream in which their boat was then lying to its source, and as they followed its meanderings, they noticed a movement among the bushes . . . One of the men lowered his gun but DeMonbreun ordered him not to shoot, as their object was to trade and not make war."
One of the most enduring Timothy myths, one touted by generations of historians from Joseph Conn Guild to Harriette Arnow, is that during this time a fox-skin-cap-wearing Timothy lived in a cave above the Cumberland River. It was a secret place safe from native attack and a perfect place for his mistress to have their child.
Arnow believed the cave was somewhere between Mill Creek and Stone’s River, placing it on the east side of Nashville. This cave had a long ladder for access, one that Timothy pulled into the cave after he settled in for the evening. Today, there is a cave in this location, now on private property, that has been so often thought of as “Demonbreun’s Cave” that it even received an official historic marker from the state of Tennessee. This cave has one entrance above the river, and another land entrance a few thousand feet inland. Not many Nashvillians today have seen the cave, but if you stand in the right spot at Shelby Bottoms Park you can see the entrance above the swirling currents. (You can also sneak around Cave Road and Omohundro Road on the south bank, climb down a rotting set of stairs, hang over the side of the rocky bank, and shimmy over, dodging bats leaving at dusk, to peer into Timothy’s supposed quarters.) It’s the only property in the city listed on the National Register of Historic Places that requires a boat trip to access legally.
We know a few things for sure about Nashville’s history at the time. French game trappers were coming in and out of the area, alongside a few long hunters from Virginia. The long hunters were men from the New and Holston Rivers region of Virginia who made expeditions into the British colonial frontier wilderness of present-day Kentucky and Tennessee for as much as six months at a time. Much like Timothy’s winter hunting schedule, this was an October to April affair. These men were Scots-Irish, mostly Protestant, a stark contrast to the French-speaking Catholic who also hunted around the salt lick.
One thing these men had in common, however, was a tendency to want a woman in both locations: one at home, and another at the hunting grounds. For French fur traders like Timothy, that woman was often a native, someone who could speak the language and generally ease arguments and handle discussions with native tribes much more easily than a lone Frenchmen with a gun and a desire to share the meat and hides. A partner who had safe passage through the native lands meant less-risky travel.
Timothy’s time in the cave was not likely spent alone. He had a woman in the cave with him and they had a baby with blue-gray eyes, named William. The year of William’s birth is difficult to confirm with any accuracy, with a wild swing of 1784 to 1794 depending on the source. But wife Therese was back home in Kaskaskia, or a captive off in the Dakotas, either way now likely battle-scarred after numerous incidents with various natives and/or raising at least three of Demonbreun’s other children. The cave was simply his Nashville home, and the woman, Elizabeth Bennett (likely born Elizabeth Himslar, but who might have married someone named Bennett prior to meeting Timothy), was either a mistress or a second wife.
Nobody truly knows Elizabeth’s story before she met Demonbreun. Who she is, how she got there, how they met, and what those two were really doing in a damp, musty stone room fifteen feet above the racing Cumberland remains unclear. It is unlikely she could read or write, and she left no written trace of her thoughts or motivation. She may have come to the area with an English exploratory party from, one, her birthplace in Virginia (corroborated with a later census as her home state) and she may have been half Choctaw; or, two, from her birthplace in North Carolina, making it more likely she was half Cherokee. Her gravestone gives her a birthdate of July 24, 1740. It also lists her death as 1856, making her 116 years old, but we’ll get into that later.
We may never know if, or for how long, the pair lived in the cave. When a flotilla of English settlers led by James Robertson arrived in 1779 and built what came to be known as Fort Nashborough, Timothy already had an adjacent trading post, and soon set up more traditional housing “in town.” Family rumors today indicate he may have kept Elizabeth in the cave since the English did not approve of the affair.