Whitty on Guider and West and Williams and Bender and Sellers, 'Voyage of the Adventure: Retracing the Donelson Party’s Journey to the Founding of Nashville'

John Guider, Carroll Van West, Learotha Williams, Albert Bender, Jeff Sellers
Seth Whitty

John Guider, Carroll Van West, Learotha Williams, Albert Bender, Jeff Sellers. Voyage of the Adventure: Retracing the Donelson Party’s Journey to the Founding of Nashville. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2020. 160 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8265-0109-7

Reviewed by Seth Whitty (University of Houston) Published on H-Slavery (September, 2021) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56452

Voyage of the Adventure: Retracing the Donelson Party’s Journey to the Founding of Nashville, by John Guider, Jeff Sellers, Learotha Williams Jr., Albert Bender, and Carroll Van West, offers a unique reexamination of the famous voyage led by John Donelson in 1779 and 1780. This expedition would lead to the creation of the Cumberland Settlements in what is today Middle Tennessee, and the creation of Nashville, Tennessee. This work is dedicated to emphasizing the history and imagery of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers that provided the expedition’s main source of travel through 120 images taken by John Guilder.

In 2016, Guilder recreated the route of Donelson’s party by boat. The pictures that are on display within this work are meant to exhibit the changes that have since taken place on the rivers due to the area being settled. Additionally, Voyage of the Adventure focuses on the experiences and actions of those who have been marginalized in the retelling of the expedition and the founding settlement of Middle Tennessee, such as the enslaved people who were forced to partake in this journey and the Cherokee people who encountered and fought against Donelson’s party. By centering the narrative on these elements, the authors argue that “this diverse perspective offers a more comprehensive story. One that reveals the multidimensional narrative that extends a way for us to better understand the complicated settlement story” (p. xiii).

Voyage of the Adventure contains three essays that focus on the experiences and histories of enslaved African Americans, Cherokee people, and the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers during the expedition and the decades following. The first essay, “Black Faces Along the Cumberland River Basin,” by Learotha Williams Jr., examines the history of enslaved people during the expedition, as well as the those who were forced to live and work within the state of Tennessee in the years that followed. Following previous historical work, “A Cherokee Perspective on the Founding of Nashville and the Late Eighteenth Century,” by Albert Bender, exhibits how the Cherokees effectively fought against Anglo expansion before, during, and after Donelson’s party arrived in the area that is today Tennessee.[1] The final essay, “Modern Times for the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers”, by Carroll Van West, explores how the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers have been tamed through the creation of dams and steam plants to better suit the economic and transportation needs of the state. He writes that the rivers of “Native Americans and John Donelson are gone. Guilder’s Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers remain, still compelling, still magical, but no longer wild of nature” (p. 149).

The main strength of Voyage of the Adventure is the essay written by Williams and the historiographical intervention that he makes by examining the experiences of enslaved people in Tennessee. He reveals how, despite the fact that African Americans held in bondage made up a significant portion of the population and were responsible for the construction of settlements in Middle Tennessee, historians have not fully analyzed their importance within this region. Furthermore, Williams writes that past scholars who did study the history of enslaved people in the Cumberland settlements “often describe the quaint farms, plantations, and furnaces where they worked but overlook the ways in which they resisted enslavement,” like destroying tools or working slowly on purpose (p. 28).[2] “Black Faces Along the Cumberland River Basin” is a timely intervention in the scholarship on slavery during the nineteenth century because it highlights an area, Tennessee, that is often overshadowed by studies that focus more heavily on the Deep South. Williams displays how crucial enslaved African Americans were to the creation of this region of the state, and how they experienced much of the same violent and exploitative treatment that those in bondage underwent in the Deep South.[3] Lastly, his discussion on the dual nature of the city of Nashville is important as well, as he notes that it became a principal location for the internal slave trade and a portal for African Americans to escape from slavery during the Civil War (pp. 26-27).

The photographs by Guilder of the rivers and surrounding landscape are beautiful and offer a unique chance for the reader to have a visual aid to the events and topics discussed within the essays. However, there are times when these photographs and the writings of Guilder describing his experience are at odds with the content of the three essays. His reflections on the people that he met and their attitudes and problems, such as issues related to urban disparities and drug addiction, are at times narratively jarring when taken together with the different essays. For instance, Guilder writes of a man’s frustration over the discrepancy between his small community and the wealth of larger cities, and then the next writing is Bender’s essay that focuses on Cherokee resistance to Anglo settlers in the eighteenth century. While this work is meant to accurately display the past and present conditions of all of the people that lived and traveled on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the connections between these topics are occasionally not very tight.

Despite this issue, Voyage of the Adventure is an engaging and important work that brings attention to the multidimensional elements of the Donelson expedition and the settlements and cities that grew out of this journey. The imagery and writings of John Guilder are exquisite, and the three essays are meaningful examinations of the people and forces of nature involved both during and after the expedition. This work contributes to the fields of Native American and environmental history, and Williams's essay in particular adds to the historiography of slavery in the United States by showcasing the experiences of enslaved African Americans and the influence that human bondage had on areas outside of traditional regions of study.


[1]. Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[2]. Cynthia Cumfer, Separate Peoples, One Land: The Minds of Cherokees, Blacks, and Whites on the Tennessee Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[3]. Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Citation: Seth Whitty. Review of Guider, John; West, Carroll Van; Williams, Learotha; Bender, Albert; Sellers, Jeff, Voyage of the Adventure: Retracing the Donelson Party’s Journey to the Founding of Nashville. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. September, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56452

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.