The Small Triumphs of a History Nerd: Timothy Demonbreun Edition



So, there I was, innocently flipping through the Joseph Deraque folder of the William Provine Papers down at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, just trying to figure out why Joseph Deraque and Richard Finnelson would have gone to the trouble of warning Nashville about the pending Indian attack that would be known as the Battle of Buchanan's Station ...

Provine is an interesting dude in his own right. Born in 1867, he was a Presbyterian minister and the editor of the Tennessee Historical Society's journal. His papers are stuffed full of notes and snippets of newspapers and speculation and supposition and facts you know he must have gotten from somewhere, but the original source is long gone. Reading through his papers is like catching up on 100-year-old gossip.

Anyway, so there I am, flipping through the Deraque folder and there's some Timothy Demonbreun stuff mixed in there, because, aside from saving Nashville, the other thing Deraque (Anglicized to Durat then Durard and now some of his descendents are even Girards) is known for is marrying Demonbreun's mistress when Demonbreun's wife decided she was going to move to Nashville from Kaskaskia, if Timothy liked it so much.

And Provine has some notes on Deraque that end

He knew the "Malugins," they came from the up-river country, and were of Portuguese descent & some live near Lavergne on Stones River.

Timothy Demonbreun lived with three women as "common-law wives." —his legitimate wife was Agnes Gibeau, the other women were:

1. Elizabeth Himslar

I turn the page to see who the other two are and ...

Nothing! The page with the names of Demonbreun's two other mistresses is missing! I print out my one page and go to the woman who is at the microfilm desk. She looks at it and, indeed, the other names are missing.

She sends me to the manuscript desk where I'm divested of my purse and any objects which might deface the original papers and I begin flipping through folders, the dry, browned papers crunching under my fingers.

And finally, I find the second page, out of order:

Timothy Demonbreun lived also with a woman by the name of Crutcher, by whom he had no children.

Timothy Demonbreun also lived with Martha [Patsy] Gray, [who was an aunt of Wm Bennett] , by whom he had two children — a boy and a girl. They were quite small when Bennett visited them & does not know what became of them, he thinks this woman was from Georgia.

I felt like Nicolas Cage finding some weird message only he could understand at the Library of Congress. I wanted to shout, but instead returned the folder and said, "I found out that Timothy Demonbreun had two other mistresses." And the man I spoke to nodded politely and went back to his work. I might as well have said, "I found out James K. Polk was a man." It was a little deflating.

Honestly, doesn't some Republican have a lazy brother who needs a bullshit job? And couldn't we hire that brother to sit at the entrance to the TSLA and high-five people who find out things that have been forgotten for 100 years?

In the current edition of The Paris Review, Rich Cohen has a beautiful piece on New Orleans and Jean Lafitte called "Pirate City," and in that essay he says, ”History is not what’s remembered, but what remains when everything else is forgotten."

What remains of Timothy Demonbreun in Nashville's collective imagination is a street and an uncomfortably sexy statue down by the river of a man portrayed in local lore as a simple French fur trader who lived in a cave. What we've forgotten is a really rich story of a well-connected Frenchman who was part-merchant, part-diplomat, part-family man (or should we say families-man?) and part sexy horndog.

We have the kind of history that is more interesting than most movies. It's a shame we don't know more of it.

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