“Every library in Tennessee should have this
volume in easy reach. So should the wider
circle of individuals, avid readers of state and
local history, who may think they have heard
all the great stories before.”
A long line of volumes, of which Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements is the latest, have been based on the vast amounts of
first-hand documentation compiled by 19th-century historian Lyman
C. Draper, “whose intense curiosity led him to record a staggering amount of information about those who lived through [the] long years of killing and deprivation” that marked the settlement of what we now recognize as Middle Tennessee—particularly in the years from 1779, when James Robertson led the first party of settlers here, to 1796, when Tennessee became the 16th state of the new United States of America.
Paul Clements, a lanky, affable, middle-aged, native Nashvillian, bears no physical resemblance to the sobersided Lyman Draper. But in their essence, Clements and Draper are two peas in a pod: lifelong, self-made, hopelessly addicted micro-historians whose basic instinct and ambition has been to learn all that is knowable about the subject at hand. To his credit, Clements at least knew he had to raise a fence around his chosen territory, and stay inside the boundary. Draper could never stop expanding his vision. No wonder he remained a gatherer of facts and artifacts, not a writer of frontier history. This new book is the fruit of a 10-year commitment by Clements to document, annotate and index all extant material of, by or about the explorers, pioneers and settlers who migrated from the East in a determined and ultimately successful attempt to wrest the wilderness land of the lower Cumberland River valley from its native claimants.
In scope and density and sheer volume, Draper’s work dwarfs that of Clements (who, incidentally, lives in Williamson County and spends most of his working hours at the Metro Archives in Nashville). Even so, both the idea and the execution of the Chronicles make this 785-page guide to the early historical record of Middle Tennessee seem almost like an extension of the Draper canon. If Draper himself could peruse this book, I can easily imagine that he would have mixed feelings of pride and envy—pride at seeing what his own solitary labors had inspired, and envy on holding in his hands a fully-realized work of compilation and writing, the likes of which he had aspired to but never achieved in his four decades of professional service in Wisconsin. Further to Draper’s amazement would surely be the more than 300 computer-generated maps in the Chronicles, created by George Clements (a cousin of Paul’s) to pinpoint on the Middle Tennessee map precisely where pertinent structures were located, and where certain events and incidents took place.
Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements could hardly be classified as light reading. In a sense, it’s a reference book, and an excellent one, a model of organizational clarity and accessibility—but not something you would be likely to read through, start to finish, as you would a novel or a biography. Yet, unlike most reference books, this one teems with first-person drama, lifted directly from the diaries and letters of people who lived through those perilous times, or from the writings of second or third parties—like Lyman Draper—who went to extraordinary lengths to rescue eyewitness stories from oblivion. These tales unfold in a relentlessly chronological flow from prehistory to statehood—and tucked away in the interstices is the understated but commanding prose of Paul Clements, the master builder of this imposing house of history. Chronicles was conceived, compiled, written, edited and designed by him—more or less in that order. The book is a sterling example of what can result from the 10-year obsession of an intellectual exercise fanatic whose mind is seized upon and captured by an idea, a vision, a goal, a destination. Nothing will suffice for this tormented person except a certain resigned arrival, punctuated by lingering doubts that the end has truly been reached, because there is always more to be researched and discovered.
Both in his short previews of each year of the decade and in his selections describing people and events, Clements unites a cacophony of voices into a semblance of coherent narrative. Whether read at random as singular episodes—war stories—or as a chronological account of the flowering of the lower Cumberland River valley, the Chronicles seldom stray far from the path laid out at the start by their Draperesque compiler.
At the end of a long epilogue filled with pioneer voices receding toward the future from his 1796 chapter, Paul Clements offers a brief concluding essay that gathers some of his thoughts about what this massive mother lode of local history has taught him, and what it offers to all of us. He cites and celebrates some of his heroes, foremost among them being James Robertson, the undisputed leader and savior of the men and women who risked their lives— and sometimes lost them—to establish stable, permanent communities in this sprawling river-valley wilderness. Clements draws some provocative parallels, both positive and negative, from the machinations of powerful men in every age, from the 1780s and ’90s to the present.
Perhaps most vividly, Clements can stand at a site in Middle Tennessee—in a field, on a river bluff, at the confluence of two streams, anywhere that some dramatic event took place 200 or more years ago—and feel history awakening there, coming alive in his mind, echoing in his ears, rumbling beneath his feet. His long years of immersion to such a depth have given the true stories he delivers here the urgency and immediacy of a newly-uncovered cache of letters and diaries from the front, telegrams from the battlefield, emails from yesterday.
Not since The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture was published 12 years ago has a state history volume of this magnitude and importance come along. Every library in Tennessee should have this volume in easy reach. So should the wider circle of individuals, avid readers of state and local history, who may think they have heard all the great stories before. Perhaps— but not, I submit, until they’ve drunk deeply from the Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements.