- Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements, 1779-1796 by Paul Clements
Nashville writer Paul Clements’ interest in local history began when, as a boy, he found an arrowhead in his driveway. As an adult, he set out to discover exactly what had happened in his own neighborhood and to figure out the precise places where they had taken place. His neck of the [End Page 194] woods is the Cumberland River basin, now known as Middle Tennessee, centered on Nashville. In the late eighteenth century, the area was a contested crossroads, with Creeks, Chickasaws, and Cherokees laying claim to region. It did not take long for settlers to move it, staking a claim to the rich land all the while ignoring Indian claims and setting off a cold war with those whose territory had been invaded. Focusing on what he terms a “cultural conflict,” Clements is especially interested in the “local frontier history” of the area—or rather, the attacks by various Indian tribes on the interlopers, who are his heroes. (xiii) Clements is untroubled by scholarly distinctions regarding frontiers, borderlands, and “middle grounds,” nor does he attempt to explain the more complex issues underlying native land claims and conflicts with Europeans.
Rather than attempt a narrative account, Clements has arranged extracts from hundreds of manuscripts, published primary sources, and newspapers to “piece together a highly detailed historical mosaic of frontier times, using, as much as possible, the words of individuals who witnesses those times.” (xiv) He provides brief contextual introductions to the various parts, which are arranged by topic (“The Creeks and the English,” “The French and Indian War,”) and then by date, annually from 1780-1796, thereby chronicling the activities of such early Tennessee settlers as James Robertson and John Donelson. Alabama readers will be interested in material on the Creek Indians, especially those relating to Alexander McGillivray and the 1790 Treaty of New York, as well as details of conflicts with settlers in the Cumberland region.
Like all editors, the author acknowledges “subjectivity” (xiv) in his selection of material. His selection hails mainly from fairly accessible works as well as some more difficult to locate sources for the average reader, including early newspaper reports, archival sources, and Lyman Draper’s manuscript collection. His emphasis on settler fortitude and bravery in the face of Indian attacks obscures the more complicated story he might have told. Likewise, he admits that he gives virtually no attention to the story of enslaved and free African Americans in the massive book. As such, those interesting in thrilling tales of raids and reprisals might gain something from lifting the heavy tome, but it presents an over-simplified view of conflict throughout the region as well as obscuring the complexity of the region’s economic and political development. But for those who seek assessable primary material, the book provides an entry in the region’s history.
Unfortunately, the author did not adhere to modern documentary editing practices. He admits to “considerable editing, mostly in the form of resequencing and deletions—for reasons of clarity and focus.” (xiv) He suggests that readers consult the originals in order to “evaluate. . .[and] [End Page 195] determine what editing decisions were made.” It is possible for readers to eventually figure out where most of the edited pieces are located by unnumbered notes at the end of the volume. Clements engaged in an even more egregious practice in that he changed third person accounts, often written years after an event, into first person accounts, “changing ‘he’ or ‘they’ to ‘I’ or ‘we’” in complete violation of every standard of modern documentary editing and thereby presenting derivative material as if it were a first-person account. (xiv) Readers who miss this disclaimer in the introduction will certainly be mislead into thinking these are primary accounts unless they consult the unnumbered notes, where this is acknowledged.
The book’s main redeeming feature is the author’s interest in fixing the locations of historic settlements and trails. The book contains a...