Timothy Demonbreun: Nashville’s Man of Mystery

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Who comes to mind when you think of Nashville’s early history? Well, there’s President and General Andrew Jackson. Or maybe James Robertson and John Donnelson, who held down the fort-literally-as the founders of Fort Nashborough.

Timothy Demonbreun's statue at Fort Nashborough (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Timothy Demonbreun’s statue at Fort Nashborough (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s another character that’s just important. He’s not as well known, but you might have driven on the downtown street that bears his name.

If you’re a new Nashvillian , you’ve probably mangled it. “Demon-brun” anyone?

Demonbreun Street is named for Jacques-Timothée Boucher, Sieur de Montbrun–better known as Timothy Demonbreun.

His Nashville story doesn’t begin on a battlefield or a plantation. It starts in a cave, hidden below an industrial park off Lebanon Pike.

Born in Quebec in 1747, into family named nobility by Louis XIV, Timothy was already an experienced fur trader by the time his was a teenager. A fur trapping expedition down the Cumberland River led him to this cave, around 1766.

Entrance to the Demonbreun Cave. In the 1930s, the cave was a tourist attraction. Now, the landside entrance is barricaded by a fence. A steel grate was put over the entrance to keep people out, but has been pried away over the years.
Entrance to the Demonbreun Cave. In the 1930s, the cave was a tourist attraction. Now, the landside entrance is barricaded by a fence. A steel grate was put over the entrance to keep people out, but has been pried away over the years.

To get to it, you have to shimmy through a hole in a chain link fence. It’s something Ray Demonbreun has done many times. The 70 year old is a sixth-generation descendent of Timothy’s

“You’re going to get your feet wet,” Ray says we slosh our way through the cave. It runs from as small ravene to a bluff on the Cumberland River, on the opposite bank from the Shelby Park Greenway.

Timothy used the cave as a base for his fur-trapping expeditions in what was then called French Lick. Ray says it wasn’t a permanent home just yet. “He traveled back and forth to Illinois, New Orleans, and everything in the fur trading business before establishing a home in Nashville,” Ray says.

Around 1780, Timothy returned to Tennessee for good, as Nashville’s first white settler.

So, those are the bare facts of Timothy Demonbreun’s life. There’s so much more that’s unknown, or half-known, or perhaps completely legend. One story Ray Demonbreun has heard passed through the family has to do with Timothy’s first wife.

“The story is the first wife was taken captive by the Indians and disappeared for ten years,” Ray says. “And he lived with this second woman, we’ve never been able to prove a marriage.”

Ray Demonbreun stands at the Cumberland River entrance to the cave.
Ray Demonbreun stands at the Cumberland River entrance to the cave.

Ray descended from one of the children form common law relationship with a woman named Elizabeth. Eventually, Timothy’s wife escaped captivity.

There are other tales–Timothy as a Revolutionary War spy, Timothy suing Andrew Jackson over a bad debt, trying to help the Fort Nashborough settlers smooth over relations with local Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes.

cemetary“A lot of this has been forgotten, but not that much, so there’s lots to find out,” says Betsy Phillps. She’s not related to Timothy Demonbreun, as far as she knows, but she does describe herself as a ‘nerdy fan girl’ of all things Timothy. Curious about the origins of Demonbreun Street, she pored over historical records to learn more about the man. She even moved to White’s Creek, where many of Timothy’s children and descendants lived…and died.

The Demonbreun Family Cemetery lies in a holler between Joelton and Ashland City. Several generations of Demonbruens are buried here, though they all didn’t spell their last name the same, as Phillips points out. There’s D E M U M B R U N and D E M U M B R I N E.

Timothy’s common law wife Elizabeth is buried here, along with their son Jean Baptiste. There’s a headstone honoring the man himself, but no one is sure if his body lies underneath. “The story is they pulled out of the old city cemetery, put him in the new old city cemetery, then at some point Elizabeth got homesick for him so she had Jean Baptiste disinter him and bring him here,” Phillips says.

Early records for the city cemetery were lost during the Civil War, hence the uncertainty about Timothy’s final resting place.

But the Demonbreun family treats this headstone with as much respect as if Timothy were buried there. On the day we visited, it was decorated with a vase of red and orange silk flowers.

Timothy fathered eight children. There are now around 13,000 people who can claim some kind of kinship to him. Family members have set up a Timothy Demonbreun Heritage Society, which meets twice a year.

Timothy's headstone in the Demonbreun Family Cemetery.
Timothy’s headstone in the Demonbreun Family Cemetery.

Ray Demonbreun grew up hearing all the legends and tales, but he says he’s been surprised by what he’s learned from research and meeting Demonbreun descendants from Tennessee and beyond.
Despite the tall tales, Ray says he’s proud of his family history. “When I first started doing this they told me, ‘if you worry about uncovering skeletons in your closet don’t start the research'”, he says with a laugh.” So far, Ray says he hasn’t found anything thing that makes him feel ashamed of his roots.

Timothy Demonbreun died in 1826, at the age of 79.

A year before he passed away, renowned French General Marquis de Lafayette toasted Timothy–a man born in Canada and descended from nobility–as ‘the Grand Old Man of Tennessee.’

 

Bradley George

Bradley George is WPLN's Morning Edition host. He covers a wide range of stories, from local history to the electric vehicle market. A native of North Carolina, he worked at radio stations there and in Alabama before arriving in Nashville in 2011.
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