Historic statues, like any way of telling history, always come with a point of view. This statue commemorates the moment that two founders of Nashville, James Robertson and John Donelson, reunited on approximately the very spot the sculpture sits, and clearly represents it as a noble if somber moment. In the middle of the American Revolution, Roberston (shown with an ax over his shoulder) and Donelson (shown with a rifle) were part of a group of colonists who sought to settle along the Cumberland River. In late 1779, Roberston traveled by land from what is now Kingsport, TN with a group of about 200 men. They chose a site known as French Lick to build Fort Nashborough. Donelson came by river with a large group that included families, arriving on April 24, 1780. It’s entirely plausible that Roberston and Donelson shook hands that day. Of course, what the statue doesn’t really address is the Cherokee who lived on this land. Well, the large plaque beneath the two men which tells the story of the founding does mention how Donelson overcame “savage Indians” in his journey downriver. There is a faded “YOU THIEF” underneath Donelson as viewed from behind him. Commentary? (See the slideshow below.) The text of the main plaque also mentions the Cumberland Compact, the “constitution” of the settlers. The large plaque in front of the statue lists the signers of the compact.
The work was commissioned by Mayor Ben West, who may be best remembered today for a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement in Nashville when he agreed with student leader Diane Nash that discrimination based on color was wrong. It was done by Thomas Puryear Mims, who was a professor and artist-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, and was installed in 1963. Mims did a number of other sculptures around town, though this is the first one I’ve discussed on this blog.
A recent report by Metro Arts on the condition of Metro-owned art rates the condition of the work as poor and places the need for repairs at a high priority (see page 25). You can see some of that in these pictures, including the staining on the bronze and the damage to the pedestal. This sculpture is also protected by the Tennesee Heritage Protection Act, a bill designed to protect Confederate monuments from being taken down, but which applies to all publicly owned historic monuments. To my knowledge, there are no monuments in Nashville to Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee leader who fought against settlers moving into Cherokee lands, including an attack on Forth Nashborough in 1781.
Located on the 200 block of First Avenue South, a little south of Church Street. This is downtown, so lots of parking, very little of it free.
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