The Donelson Journal
FACT or FICTION? Colonel John Donelson, who led the well-known river migration that reached “ye French Salt Springs” (soon to be called Nashville) in 1780, kept a journal throughout that momentous voyage.
What is labeled as “The Original” Donelson Journal has been preserved in the Tennessee Historical Society collection at the State Library and Archives for well over 150 years, and has appeared in countless histories. But are these the pages on which Colonel Donelson wrote the details of the epic river journey as it unfolded?
Before you give your “final answer” on the question of its authenticity, youmight want to reread the journal, particularly the entry for the 8th of March.Notice the conversational tone with which several dire events are described,and notice the changes between past and present tense. If that isn’t enough to raise some doubt concerning thejournal, there’s the matter of handwriting. Also available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (the Draper Papers, 1XX12 and 9DD34) are two letters by Colonel Donelson. The script is clearly different from what is contained in the journal, so the Colonel did not write the version of the journal kept at the archives. So could it be a copy? If it is a copy, where is the original? The plot thickens.
Also in the Historical Society collection is a microfilm copy of what is called “John Donelson’s Surveyor’s Fee Book,” which includes, in Colonel Donelson’s handwriting, ten entries which were actually made while the river journey was underway. The fee book also contains the handwriting of Colonel Donelson’s son, John Donelson Jr., as he completed one of his father’s entries. So could the journal have been kept by the Colonel and his son as they continued their voyage? Clearly not.The entry refers to General (James) Robertson, who did not become a general until 1791. So there is strong circumstantial evidence that the Donelson Journal was written a number of years after the events it describes took place.A reasonable guess is that what is covered from March 8th forward was written in the early 1820s by John Donelson Jr., in connection with the state’s first comprehensive history, John Haywood’s Civil and Political History of Tennessee.
But if you still think that the old Colonel might have penned the journal,despite indications to the contrary,there is a smoking gun. Also at the archives, in the Draper Papers (5J, 3), is a letter from Stockley Donelson, son of John Donelson Jr. In 1884 he wrote:
“There is an old ledger in my possession. The ledger contains…the old Journal by Col. John Donelson. Colonel D. carried the Journal to the place where Ephraim Peyton’s wife was delivered of a child. The balance of the Journal was kept by John Donelson, Jr. who had a copy of the whole made which is deposited in the Historical Society at Nashville.”
So it appears that the Colonel stopped writing in the journal on March 8, 1780, and that the rest of the information was added, perhaps 40 years later, by his son. But those circumstances do not diminish the historical value of the journal—they might enhance it.Being largely composed well after the voyage took place, the journal probably contains much more detail than if it had been written on the river. John Donelson Jr. was an eyewitness to what took place, as was his wife, Mary, who almost certainly contributed her recollections to what was ultimately written.
Paul Clements is author of A Past Remembered and the forthcoming book, Chronicles of The Cumberland Settlements. For more information on the above topic see his article “Tennessee Notes” in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Winter 2005 (Volume LXIV, number 4) .