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Voyage of the Adventure: Retracing the Donelson Party’s Journey to the Founding of Nashville, out this week from Vanderbilt University Press, tells the story of how, in the winter of 1779, John Donelson loaded his family and thirty slaves into a forty-foot flatboat at the present site of Kingsport, Tennessee to lead a flotilla of settlers over one thousand river miles away to the area now known as Nashville. In the fall of 2016, photographer John Guider retraced the Donelson party's journey in his hand-built fourteen-and-a-half-foot motorless rowing sailboat (named Adventure II after Donelson's boat) while making a visual documentation of the river as it currently exists 240 years later. Voyage of the Adventure contains more than 120 images from the course of the journey, allowing the reader to see how much has changed and how much has remained untouched in the two and a half centuries since Donelson first took to the water.The photos are accompanied by essays by Jeff Sellers, director of education and community engagement at the Tennessee State Museum, and other other notable scholars who explore contemporary histories of both the Cherokee whom Donelson encountered and the slaves he brought with him, some of whom did not survive the journey. Thanks to Vanderbilt University Press and Chapter 16, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee, we're able to offer this excerpt from the forward and several of the photographs.
by Jeff Sellers
I first met John Guider in 2008 while working on an exhibit the museum hosted called The River Inside, which chronicled one of Guider’s first river adventures. In it he canoed the creek behind his house to the Harpeth River, then to the Cumberland River, which flowed to the Ohio River, on to the Mississippi River, and finally to New Orleans. Guider canoed the entire watershed of the Cumberland River system! Along the way he used his skills as a professional photographer to capture the changing environment and unique river culture of the people who live and work on and around the river. John Guider is a modern-day adventurer who happens to capture his adventures through the lens of his camera.
Guider has been on many river adventures throughout his illustrious photography career but none as significant to Tennessee history as his 2016 adventure where he retraced the river journey of the Donelson party. Through the lens of his camera and on the same route as the Donelson party, Guider’s experiences give us an opportunity to reinterpret this old familiar story. Often the story of Nashville’s settlement is told from the perspective of the main character himself, John Donelson. Focusing solely on the central characters does not provide twenty-first-century Tennesseans with the full picture of our state’s settlement. So many questions come to mind when we truly think about Donelson’s journey: What about women? What about the children? What about the people of color that played just as important a role in this journey? What about the Native Americans that watched as their lands were taken from them? What about the changes to the landscape of the area as humans pushed forward to settle it? Common sense tells us that the story is immensely more complex than a paragraph in a textbook; however, the question is how to rethink the familiar story to resonate with modern Tennesseans.
John Guider. Photo by George Walker IV / USA Today Network
Guider’s photographs taken along the Donelson party’s route provide us with a fresh perspective on this early settlement story. This book shifts focus from Donelson and the white settlers to others who were just as important to the settlement of Nashville but had always been relegated to a supporting role in the traditional narrative. This book will give a voice to the enslaved settlers who had no choice in making the perilous journey. It will give a voice to the American Indians who saw the expedition not as settlement but as an invasion— a threat to their very existence. Finally, this book will give a voice to the river itself.
How has the river system that John captured in his photographs changed from the rivers traversed by the Donelson party? This diverse perspective offers a more comprehensive story. One that reveals a multidimensional narrative that extends a way for us to better understand the complicated settlement story.
Scroll down for more photos.
Jeff Sellers will interview John Guider via Facebook Live on Guider's Facebook page on Tuesday, September 15 at 7:00 p.m. CDT.
Guider is a guest at this year's virtual Southern Festival of Books.
Watch a discussion with Guider and Nashville Public Television's Will Pedigo from the Tennessee State Museum in our Video Archive.
For more local book coverage, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
Jeff Sellers is director of education and community engagement at the Tennessee State Museum.
Copyright © 2020 by John Guider. Reprinted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press. All rights reserved. Voyage of the Adventure will be published in September 2020. John Guider is an Emmy Award–winning photographer and author. The Nashville Public Television documentary Voyage of Adventure was honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2020.
More Photos from the Book:
Tennessee River, Knoxville, Tennessee, September 12. View of the downtown bridges and the eastern shore. What Donelson saw was just riverbank and possibly smoke from fires in a few trappers’ encampments.
Tennessee River, Knoxville, Tennessee, September 13. Women’s rowing team practicing against a landscape of expensive homes. I wonder what the children of the flotilla—road weary, cold, and hungry—would have thought had they passed by such a scene?
Tennessee River, Knoxville, Tennessee, September 13. The riverside estates had constrained nature. With no other activity apparent, the world for a moment was ghostly in its silence.
Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun Lock, September 14. My first lock through of the journey. The lockmaster was especially gracious, saying he had never locked through a rowboat before. When I told him I had made it myself, he was duly impressed. After that I had ten more locks to transit before I reached Nashville.
Tennessee River, Roane County, Tennessee, September 16. Sunset reflecting on the water.
Tennessee River, Thief Neck Island, Roane County, Tennessee, September 17. Moon set over the river. It’s for moments like this that I came. “ I do not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather go before the mast and on deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below.” – Henry David Thoreau.
Tennessee River, confluence of the Clinch River, September 17. The waters up the Clinch were the site of the notorious coal ash spill in 2008. Over 2.7 million cubic yards of coal fly ash inundated the waters, making it one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. Years later many locals still won’t drink the water.
Tennessee River, September 17. Sailing the waters above the Watts Bar Lock and Dam. This is approximately where Donelson met up with another group of settlers referred to as the Clinch River Company. Now it is estimated that the flotilla had thirty flatboats along with other smaller craft with around three hundred men, women, and children on board--many were enslaved people of African origin.
Tennessee River, September 17. Campsite on Half Moon Island. This is close to the site where Donelson recorded his first casualty, a slave. “Monday, March 6th (1780) . . . camped on the north shore, where Capt. Hutchings’ negro man died, being much frosted in his hands and legs.”
Tennessee River, September 17. An island still life. That evening I heard a bird gasp as it fell out of a nearby tree in the middle of its sleep.