Exploring the Demonbreun Cave, Nashville’s first residence

Tennessee 225

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – From a distance, it appears as a large crack in the rock on the Cumberland River. Up close, it’s a national historic landmark.

The Demonbreun Cave was home to Nashville’s first white citizen, Jacques-Timothe De Montbrun, also known as Timothy Demonbreun.

News 2 spoke with Gordon Belt, Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library and Archives, about the importance of the cave.

He said they have a collection from William Provine that shows maps of the cave. Provine was a member of the Tennessee Historical Society and a Presbyterian minister, who took a great interest in the early period prior to statehood. 

“He collected a lot of material related to the early explorers of this region. What we have here on display is a few items he had gathered during his research of Timothy Demonbreun, who was a noted fur trader, a French Canadian, who came to what is now Nashville – what was known then as French Lick. He went to trade with the Native populations for furs,” explained Belt.

Belt said the cave is only accessible through a portal about 400 feet about the Cumberland River and another entry above ground.

“There were apparently 3 rooms in the cave, and the cave itself is about 150 feet in length,” Belt said.

Courtesy: Susan McKenna

Belt said Provine began working with the Tennessee Historical Society to collect stories and interview people who knew about Demonbreun.

“He would’ve collected newspaper clippings and that sort of thing, taken notes. And all of this was gathered in a service to the historical society. Demonbreun is known as the first citizen of Nashville. He was the first person of European descent to come to this area and trade with Native Americans who were using this area as a hunting ground, a shared hunting ground,” said Belt.

Belt said this cave is a significant piece of history.

“It is actually one of only two caves that is on the National Register of Historical Places, and it’s for the reasons we talked about that the fact at it was really a point at which Demonbreun sought shelter and conflict,” said Belt.

Belt said a lot of people associate the name Demonbreun with the Nashville street.

“If people take a look further back into history, they’ll see it’s a real important reason why we named the street after that name. He was not only just the first person of European descent to come to Nashville when it was French Lick, but also, family members related to Demonbreun were quite prominent in Nashville as well,” explained Belt.

Others, like Billy Stallings of Hendersonville have been fortunate enough to explore the cave first-hand.

“I saw a giant hole in the cave on the other side of the river and I thought… I wonder what that cave is? It turns out, that it was a tourist attraction in the early 1900s, 1930s, somewhere in that era. They built a staircase down to where they would have people pay to go into the cave,” said Stallings.

The cave is no longer a tourist attraction. It’s also challenging to access.

Stallings told News 2 that having the opportunity to walk through the cave brought the past to life.

“I just love history! So, going back and seeing a place like that and imagining what it was like when it was there, that’s kind of what I do,” said Stallings.

Stallings said it’s important to record these landmarks on camera while we can.

“There’s all kinds of things that I’ve filmed that have disappeared. Things have been torn down, things have been moved. When I find a story, I try my best to capture that story as quickly as I can in case that happens,” explained Stallings.

Tennessee 225: Dive into the history of the Volunteer State.

The 3A-32 historical marker near the Pedestrian Bridge in Nashville for Demonbreun Cave reads:

Jacques-Timothe De Montbrun, French Canadian fur trader and later lieutenant governor of Illinois Country, visited the area as early as 1769. On at least one occasion he took refuge in the cave 0.9 mile E. when attacked by Indians. He settled in Nashville in 1790, living there until his death in 1826.

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