In the summer of 2000, I recieved a phone call regarding a matter that would later prove itself as one of the most emotionally charged experiences of my life. Not just my life, but the lives of many others would also be touched in so many profound ways. The story brings about a lot of deep emotion and a sense of sadness that lingers near me still today. This story deserves to be told and it is my honor to share it with you. My hope is that it will serve as a reminder of the eternal legacy left by the generations of ancestors who came before us - the most recent chapter in their long journey from the past into the present day.
This story begins when a private developer began site preparation on a 2 acre tract of land located near the Lakewood area of northeastern Nashville, Tennessee. Plans called for the construction of a large condominium complex on the property in addition to homes he had previously constructed elsewhere on the same property. This new addition would become known as "Hermitage Springs". Heavy earth moving equipment was employed to begin the process of clearing the tract overlooking the Hermitage Golf Course, which also happened to be a previous owner of this same property.
The site originally consisted of a high knoll approximately 2 acres in size, overlooking the bottom land to the west toward the Cumberland River which lies roughly a quarter mile away. In 1998 it had been determined and recorded by archaeologists working for the previous owner that this locale was in fact an ancient Native American occupation site and potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The owner at that time was discouraged from development and the site remained untouched. Things would change, however, when the property was eventually sold. In spite of the fact that this was a recorded archaeological site with possible national cultural significance the new owner soon began construction work on Hermitage Springs, with bulldozers and other heavy equipment scraping away at the earth.
Thankfully, neighbors of the development soon began to grow curious and started walking the newly uncovered site only to discover a very disturbing scene. Ancient Native American skeletal remains of every age and description as well as burial artifacts were scattered about the site virtually everywhere they stepped. Knowing this was obviously a cemetery a call was made to the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and soon the State Archaeologist was on site and confirmed that in fact, yes, it was a cemetery. He ordered the work halted. The landowner was then informed that he would have to secure a Chancery Court order to request permission to legally relocate the human remains on his property. Tennessee law requires compliance with the "Termination of land for use as a Cemetery Statutes" to legally remove and relocate any human burial within the State of Tennessee, including ancient Native American graves.
It was then that I would recieve a phone call from the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs. At the time, I served as President of the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights of Tennessee (the Alliance) and this matter was of great importance to myself and the Native American community. After a visit to the site and determining the extent of the situation, the Alliance began negotiations with the property owner and was given permission to monitor the site for looting and vandalism. However, construction continued on the site so we asked our attorney to undertake efforts to stop the work threatening the graves, and in August, 2000 a court order was issued halting earth-moving activity in the immediate vicinity of the burial ground. This was the first time in Tennessee that Native Americans were granted a court order in a private property cemetery relocation case in Tennessee. A stipulation was included in the court order giving officers of the Alliance permission to continue monitoring the site for potential looting activity and we maintained a vigilant watch over the property, catching numerous trespassers and active looters. Still, despite our response to the situation and a court order, nothing could change the fact that countless graves and their burial goods were now obliterated by the bulldozers.
What remained of the site was unknown until work was allowed to commence 4 years later. No one could ever imagine what awaited as the Archaeologists began to excavate deeper into the site. Their systematic stripping of each layer would reveal a total of just over 360 ancient burials dating from the early Archaic period forward to perhaps the Middle Mississippian era - a span of nearly 10,000 years of continuous use as a ceremonial burial ground - making this site one of the rarest and most unique Native American sacred sites in Tennessee, if not the entire southeastern region.
The history of this site proved to be some of the most valuable ever in regard to the information it told about the long term occupation of Tennessee and its first inhabitants. The extreme importance of the site to the ancient clans and family groups in this region soon became very apparent to those of us involved when one of the largest shell midden deposits ever discovered in Tennessee was unearthed, possibly indicating that this was considered a very sacred place. The shell would have been visible at a distance and was perhaps a warning to outsiders to stay clear.
At the completion of the project the ancient graves that had been disinterred were reburied with ceremony elsewhere on the property by myself and other officers of the Alliance for Native American Indian Rights of Tennessee.
The Donelson Plantation Revisited
In 2006, in an attempt to clear the entire construction project footprint of any additional graves, archaeologists extended the boundaries well beyond the Native burial areas to the very edge of the site in all directions. Testing soon proved positive when crews began to uncover large dark rectangular features arranged deliberately side by side along the western border of the site. There was little question as to what they were. It had long been known that this property was once a part of the original Donelson Plantation and home to a large number of slaves who worked the 1,500 acres.
William Donelson was the son of Stockley Donelson, and it was on William's portion of the plantation that these graves were found. His very large log home was known as the "Mansion" and was built in 1804 in present day Old Hickory, TN. on family land passed down from his Great-Grandfather, Colonel John Donelson. It's worth mentioning that John Donelson was an original Settler of the French Lick. Today we know it as the City of Nashville, Tennessee. The Donelson "Mansion" existed into the early 20th century but was totally destroyed by fire in 1918. Emily Donelson Walton, the daughter of Stockley Donelson, was born there in 1837. In her autobiography she stated that close by the house "were clustered log cabins occupied by the slaves." The newly-discovered burials were located approximately one quarter mile due west from where the mansion was once located. This tells us that the slave quarters were likely situated between the house and the burial ground itself. Suspecting that these graves could very well be those of former Donelson slaves, careful examination revealed the remains of just over 60 African-American individuals. A study of the artifacts recovered in many graves concluded that in fact these were the graves of slaves based on knowledge of traditional burial customs and related artifacts found with these persons.
With the discovery of the African-American individuals, it became immediately apparent to me that these persons, their names, and most every detail of their lives had been almost totally washed away by time over the past 165 years. However, several persons displayed distinct Native American traits. Suddenly finding myself connected to these people in a very profound way, I began to wonder what information might still exist in regard to these long forgotten persons, and so began another compelling journey. During research at the Tennessee State Archives, and elsewhere, a story began to unfold that held me spellbound over the ensuing months.
For example, I discovered the story of Ella Sheppard, who was born into slavery in 1851. Ella, as a small child was purchased by her own father for $350 to end her bondage from her master. Young Ella would then leave Tennessee with her father and recieve an education in piano in Cinncinnati, Ohio. After the Civil War, as a young woman she returned to Nashville where she taught piano and eventually would help form the chorale group the "Fisk Jubilee Singers". Many of their songs were the same spirituals once sung by their own family members in the fields of their former plantation homes. The talented Jubilee Singers would go on to tour the world and even perform for the Queen of England. It is through the money they earned performing that Nashville's Fisk University would begin and emerge as one of America's first all-Black colleges. Ella would eventually marry George Moore and raise a son, George Jr. The family is buried in the Old Nashville City Cemetery.
Ella Sheppard is possibly connected to the Donelson slave cemetery through her Great-Grandmother Rosa, a Donelson slave herself, who was in fact married to the son of a Cherokee tribal leader. Rosa's Cherokee husband was himself a free man but chose a life of submissive servitude to remain close to his wife and family; the couple had as many as 12 children. Were these children, relatives of Ella Sheppard Moore, amongst those of mixed heritage found in the Donelson slave cemetery in 2008? It is highly probable.
I would also learn of an African born slave known to the other Donelson slaves and to the Donelson's themselves as "Uncle Guinea George". It is said that Guinea George took great pride in keeping the other slaves very uneasy in his presence and somewhat frightened by simply speaking and singing songs in his native language. To add to his fearsome reputation, his smile revealed a row of teeth all perfectly filed to a point that he claimed were better for chewing. George was most likely from the African Nation of Ghiana, in West Africa, based on the custom of his filed teeth which were then known to exist among several tribes. Ghiana was also a leading exporter of slaves to the Americas. George proved so frightening to the other slaves that the Donelson's themselves cast him off to an Island belonging to Stockley Doneson to live all year except at harvest time when he was called to the plantation to do his share of work. This island surprisingly still exists in the Cumberland River just to the west of the former Donelson plantation today. Emily Donelson Walton states, "He seemed to be a law unto himself" meaning that he came and went as he pleased and was allowed an enormous amount of freedom on the property. When he tired, he would stop his work and simply return home to the Island leaving the other slaves still toiling at their labor.
William Donelson willed his slaves their freedom upon his death with the stipulation that they leave the United States for a Colony established for them in the African Nation of Liberia. Records indicate that a small number of his former slaves did in fact return to Africa in keeping with the terms of his will. My research gave me just a brief glimpse into their lives but unfortunately, my trail began to run cold. A thorough forensic investigation was conducted by anthropologists from Middle Tennessee State University on the African-American remains from Hermitage Springs and the long term effects of years of intense manual labor presented its evidence in the form of skeletal trauma and severe arthritis in most of those examined. Unfortunately, we will never know the people for who they were as individuals. That remains an issue that haunts me and will forever.
So That We Never Forget Them Again
Andrew Jackson, the 17th President of the United States, had a close family relationship to the Donelsons. His plantation, known as the Hermitage and operated as a historical attraction in Nashville, is located near what was once the Donelson Plantation. Considering this relationship, it was decided by members of the African American community, the Alliance For Native American Indian Rights, the State Division of Archaeology, and management of the Hermitage itself, that this historic setting would provide a well maintained and dignified place for the reburial of the remains from the Donelson slave cemetery. In 2009 a widely attended reburial and dedication ceremony was conducted in their memory on the grounds of the Hermitage near Tulip Grove Mansion. These persons rest in dignity and with respect today because of the efforts of those who vowed to honor and revive their memory. I commend all those who dedicated themselves to this endeavor. From the early days of discovery to the day I last walked away from the dedication of the Slave Memorial on the grounds of the Hermitage many lives were touched in many ways. I pray we never face another experience like it - I will carry the profound impact it left on my life forever.
The construction work that initiated these events was never completed. The costs of the extensive archaeological work and construction delays incurred by the developer were enormous and in the process he became unable to secure additional funding, investors or buyers for the project, leaving him unable to recoup his multi-million dollar investment in the property. As of this writing in 2012, the Hermitage Springs site remains empty and undeveloped.