How did a ne’er-do-well French-Canadian adventurer wind up as one of the founders of Nashville, honored today in the home of country music with a Davy Crockett-style statue and a street bearing his name? Author and songwriter Elizabeth Elkins, a past president of the Historic Nashville preservation group, decided to find out. But the true story of Jacques-Timothe Boucher Sieur de Montbrun, she discovered, depends on who you ask and what you believe.
The result of her historical sleuthing is We Should Soon Become Respectable, the second volume in a series with the apt title “Truth, Lies, and Histories of Nashville.” Timothy Demonbreun (the most common anglicized spelling of his name) is a perfect subject: a shapeshifter who emerges as part-hero, part-scoundrel. “The challenge in Timothy’s story,” notes Elkins, “is unravelling the truth from the pretty awesome lies (or misrepresentations), many of which have become a part of Nashville’s lore.”
This much is a matter of historical record. Demonbreun was born in 1747 in New France, now the Canadian province of Quebec. He was a teenager when the British conquered his homeland and ended French rule over a territory that stretched deep into the heart of North America. In 1768 he packed up his young, pregnant bride Therese and headed to the frontier to seek his fortune as a hunter, trapper, and fur trader. Forays into the wilderness took him to what is now the site of Nashville, where he established a trading post.
Was he the first white man in that part of Tennessee, which has long been one of his claims to fame? No, other French traders had been there decades earlier. Did he live in a cave on the Cumberland River in the early years, a story that has become part of the Demonbreun legend? If so, likely not for long, Elkins concludes. Did he take up with a mistress named Elizabeth Bennett and start a second family while still married to Therese? Bingo. An early settler from Virginia or North Carolina, she proved to be a capable businesswoman – “a badass,” as Elkins puts it. The author supplies a table to help readers sort out the eight children Demonbreun had with the two women, plus two more from an affair with a third, Martha Gray.
The Tennessee frontier soon became as complicated as his personal life. When the Revolutionary War broke out, he backed the American side, double-crossed the British, served as lieutenant governor of the Illinois Territory, and stick-handled relations with the governor of Spanish-held Louisiana. Rewarded with land grants for his service during the Revolution, he opened a store that sold everything from window glass to bear grease and operated an inn and watering hole known as the Stone Tavern.
The Marquis de Lafayette, who dropped by in 1825, hailed him as “the grand old man of Tennessee.” Demonbreun also traded in enslaved people and, according to the Nashville Banner, became a drunkard who plumbed “the depths of the wine jug.” He died at age seventy-nine, some distance short of becoming respectable.
Elkins tells his story with a light, folksy touch, spiced up with dashes of wry humor. A few of the chapter titles – “Cave Man,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “The Spy Who Shagged Me” – reflect her playful and entertaining approach.
At just over one hundred pages, this slim volume may not be the last word on the Demonbreun story. He has hundreds of descendants and a project is underway to use DNA testing to try to sort out his tangled lineage. And no one knows where he’s buried. “So many parts of Timothy’s story are still out there,” Elkins admits, “whereabouts unknown.” But she has extracted enough facts from the layers of myth and fiction to provide a clearer picture of a colourful player in the early history of Nashville.
We Should Soon Become Respectable: Nashville’s Own Timothy Demonbreun
By Elizabeth Elkins
Vanderbilt University Press
Published March 15, 2022