TIMOTHY DEMONBREUN - THE NOBLE FRONTIERSMAM
BY BUNNY SIMMONS
Jacques Timothe Boucher sieur de Montbreun was born on March 23, 1747 according to the Catholic church records of Boucherville, New France, which is now Canada. He was born into the first family elevated to nobility in New France, making him a member of the upper-class Bouchers. He would grow up and become not only a learned nobleman, but a wealthy fur-trader, a Revolutionary War spy, a lieutenant-governor of the Northwest territory, the father of two different families, and the “Father of Nashville.”
His great grandfather was Pierre Boucher, whose statue stands today in front of the Parliament building in Quebec City. Pierre came from France as a twelve year old boy with his family in 1635 and helped settle a new land. Pierre grew up with Jesuit priests, lived with Indians, and was ennobled by King Louis XIV for his work as an Indian interpreter and assistant to the Governor of Trois-Riveres. Highly educated in both old traditions like math and surveying and in the new ones like Indian dialects and wilderness survival, the children and grandchildren of Pierre Boucher sieur de Grosbois grew up as prominent citizens, rugged explorers, and leaders of their cities and militias.
Jacques Timothe Boucher sieur de Montbreun, which he anglicized later to Timothe Demonbreun, was the second child of Etienne Boucher sieur de Montbreun and his wife, Delle Marie Racicot, also from a noble family. Etienne was a leader of the militia in Boucherville, a city founded by his grandfather Pierre and named after the family. Etienne was in the militia under General Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham when Montcalm was killed and the French lost the colonies to the British. Many histories of Timothy state he was wounded in this epic battle, but Timothy was only 12 at that time, and it is unlikely that he was in the militia. It is more likely it was Timothy’s father, Etienne, who may have been wounded.
The next actual record of Timothy records his marriage on November 26, 1766 to Therese Archange Gibault, also of a noble family. Less than two years later, Timothy traveled south with his pregnant wife headed for the French village of Kaskaskia, where his uncle is head of the militia. Timothy and Therese traveled with a group that included Therese’s cousin, Father Pierre Gibault, who would later play an important role in the Revolutionary War and Colonel George Rogers Clark. Along the way, Timothy’s first child, a little girl named Therese Archange (called Agnes), was born on August 18, 1768 at Fort River St. Joseph.
In February, 1770, at the young age of 22, Timothy was made an “Escuyer” or Justice of the Peace in Kaskaskia - a testament to his education and maturity. That same month, his first son, Timothe Felix was born. Records also indicate that Timothy was hunting and trading furs along the Mississippi River, because just a year later, he was given license to hunt in the Arkansas territory by his great uncle in New Orleans, the Governor, Louis Boucher de Gran-Pre.
It was during this time that the records suddenly have no mention of Timothy’s wife, Therese. Family tradition says she was captured by Indians during one of their frequent raids on the French settlements along the Mississippi. She was not heard from for ten years.
According to the Provine papers, Timothy began to hunt and explore the area around the Cumberland River as early as 1765. By 1774, Guild recorded that Timothy had 8 boats and 17 men in his employ, and Katherine Demonbreun Whitefort recorded in her history that he built his first cabin for storage of furs and tallow on the banks of the Cumberland River at Nashville that same year. In any case, he spent his summers at Kaskaskia and the winters in the south hunting in the Barrens, which was the prime hunting grounds of several Indian tribes.
Eastward in the British colonies, the Revolutionary War was being fought, and on July 4, 1778, it came west with Colonel George Rogers Clark and his frontier soldiers in their buckskins. Clark took Kaskaskia without firing a shot. 16 days later, led by Father Pierre Gibault, Clark issued the Oath of Allegiance to the soldiers at nearby Fort Vincennes on the Wabash River. Timothy Demonbreun was one of the French militia at Fort Vincennes who signed the oath. Also on the list of 128 Frenchman who pledged themselves to the American cause is a Frenchman named Joseph Derrat, who would play a big part in Timothy’s life for years to come.
As in any war, the tides turn in a hurry. On December 17, 1778, the “Hairbuyer General,” British General Henry Hamilton came with his British regulars from Fort Detroit and seized Fort Vincennes. Hamilton kept a journal where he mentioned Timothy several times, including saying that Demonbreun was a lieutenant in the American militia, and that Timothy came to him saying that he was misled into taking the Oath to America. One of Hamilton’s aides stated in his journal that Timothy was forced to prove his allegience to the British by forcing his fellow French militia to build blockhouses, under threat of severe punishment if they should not follow his orders. The supposition that Timothy was spying for the Americans is supported by the fact that his friend, Guiseppe Vigo, went to Clark at Kaskaskia and reported on Hamilton’s troops and plans. When Clark did make his famous march in the ice and snow in February, 1789, Hamilton recorded with great surprise that “Maisonville who had gone to Montbrun’s house (his own cousin) to get intelligence, was betrayed by him and delivered to Colonel Clark.”
It was a turbulent time in the newly conquered Northwest territory, and it was difficult to establish government and order. In 1783, the Governor of the territory, Richard Winston resigned his post and appointed Timothy Lieutenant-Governor in his place. Colonel Montgomery later wrote of Timothy, as preserved in the Draper Manuscripts, that he “behaved himself as a friend to the cause of America in every respect...” and when volunteers were called for to defend Fort Jefferson, Timothy had been only one of 12 men who stepped forward.
It was also at this time Timothy’s wife, Therese, reappeared as a godmother in the records of her cousin, Father Gibault and the old records of the Immaculate Conception Church at Kaskaskia. Her signature and Timothy’s were also on an old power of attorney authorizing sale of their property at Vincennes. The Draper Manuscripts tell a fantastic story about Timothy and Therese during this time period. According to Draper, they were traveling from Canada to Kaskaskia when their party was attacked by Indians. Everyone in the party was killed except Timothy and Therese, who are spared out of respect that the Indians had for Timothy from all their trading and dealings in the past years. The Indians strip them of everything except the clothes on their back. Draper says Timothy made a raft out of logs and grapevines and they floated down river to safety.
In the 1780's, Timothy traveled between Kaskaskia and the new settlement at Nashville. He was in court records as “retailing liquor without a license” in Nashville, and during the same years, Timothy requested reimbursement from the Virginia government for traveling from Kaskaskia to Cahokia several times. Timothy was also dealing with the Spanish governor, Cruzat, across the Mississippi at St Louis. When Cruzat illegally seized two refugees from Spanish territory who are in asylum of America at Kaskaskia, Timothy wrote a letter to him, which some say was a masterful handling of the situation, and may have avoided further conflict with the Spanish by a fledgling American government and army at the time. Later, Cruzat offered Timothy a home in St Louis and an officer’s position in his army, which Timothy refused.
In 1786, Timothy resigned his office as Lieutenant-Governor and his rank in the military. A midst great conflict in Kaskaskia between French citizens and the new American government, Timothy decided to go to Nashville permanently. A possible explanation from an old newspaper article from 1848 in which the writer says that he was told secondhand by a Major Rutledge that Timothy had been involved in a duel where the antagonist was killed, and Timothy fled Kaskaskia to avoid repercussions.
It was this time in Timothy’s life when his “Nashville wife” comes into the picture, which was really his mistress. In January, 1787, Elizabeth Bennett - commonly called Hinslar, as the records usually said- was in court for having a bastard child. There is no record of the father of this child, but later birth dates of his “illegitimate” children indicated the child is Timothy’s. Timothy was also in Kaskaskia records as the father of children with Therese at the same time.
Timothy received his first land grant as payment for services in the Revolutionary War in 1788. He sold this 1000 acre grant to his oldest daughter and new son-in-law, Jacques Chenier. For the next 4 years, Timothy was in both Kaskaskia and Nashville records, signing various petitions, appearing in court, and at the baptisms of his children at Kaskaskia. May of 1790 was the last time Timothy’s French wife, Therese, was in any records, and it was for the baptism of their fifth and last child, Marie Louise.
Other than her baptism, Marie-Louise is never found in any other records. Family stories tell a horrifying story of Therese being with Timothy at Nashville when one of the frequent Indian raids occurs. Therese was horseback riding with her baby daughter when they were overtaken by Indians. Marie Louise was ripped from her mother’s arms and scalped. Tradition says that Therese never recovered from the traumatic event and died. There is no record of when or where Therese died; some say that Timothy took her all the way back to her family in Boucherville, Canada.
The famous Buchanan’s Station raid was a turning point in Timothy’s life. Letters record that Joseph Derrat, the French militia soldier who had been with Timothy at Vincennes, was now an Indian spy and reporting to Governor Blount and James Robertson. Derrat warned Robertson and Timothy of the impending raid on Buchanan’s Satation, but no one realized just how soon it was coming. Elizabeth Bennet was in Buchanan’s Station that night and helped mold bullets while 20 men fought for their lives against was reported to be over 300 Indians. The next day, after the men of Fort Nashboro came to the fort’s aid, Timothy carried a letter with the news of the raid from General James Robertson to Governor William Blount in Knoxville. Then Timothy carried a letter from Blount about the raid to the Secretary of War, Henry Knox, in Philadelphia.
Surprisingly, the next spring, Elizabeth married Derrat. Their marriage is recorded as March 12, 1793. No one knows exactly what happened between Timothy and Elizabeth, or with Therese, but Timothy now had the baptisms of five children recorded with Therese, three children who would be mentioned as illegitimate children in his will, and one son who remains a mystery to this day, Felix.
Whatever happened did not totally separate Timothy and Elizabeth in their dealings. For the rest of their lives, land deeds recorded buying and selling between the two. Elizabeth went on to have at least three children by Joseph Derrat. She is still passed down in family history as the spirited lady who went on to own a “bawdy house” somewhere in the Germantown area.
Timothy became a prominent member of Nashville society. His stone tavern is on an 1804 map of Nashville. Newspaper ads boast that he had window glass, paper and buffalo tongues for sale.
Timothy was a staunch Catholic throughout his life. He donated land for the first Catholic church so he could "worship God in the manner of his ancestors" as the deed stated. The first Catholic mass in Tennessee is conducted by Bishop Flaget in Timothy’s home in 1821. Accounts say that old Timothy met the Bishop at the door with tears in his eyes.
Just a year before Timothy’s death, one of the most celebrated events in young Nashville’s history occurred. The famous French General, the Marquis de Lafayette, was touring the country, and his trip went through Nashville. At the gala dinner in Lafayette’s honor, a toast was made to Timothy as “the grand old man of Tennessee and the first white man to settle the Cumberland country.”
A single paragraph in the Nashville Banner & Nashville Whig told of the passing of Timothy Demonbreun. “Died, in this town, on Monday evening last, Capt. Timothy Demumbrane, a venerable citizen of Nashville, and the first white man that ever emigrated to this vicinity.” He died October 30, 1826 at his house on the corner of what is now Third and Broad. His friend, the silversmith and a future mayor of Nashville, Joseph Elliston, was the executor of his estate. His will divided his wealth between three legitimate children - Agnes, Julia, and Timothy, Jr- and three illigitimate ones, John Baptiste, Polly, and William. To this day, descendants of Felix Demumbrun of Kentucky do not know for sure if they are descended from a disinherited son of Timothy’s, a grandson, or exactly who Felix’s mother was. The facts are lost in the past.
Timothy’s death is further shrouded in mystery because no one recorded exactly where Timothy was buried. Some speculate it was in the new City Cemetery in Nashville. Later newspaper articles related stories that he was buried behind a local blacksmith shop. The favorite family story says that Elizabeth moved to the Marrowbone area of Cheatham county with her son, John Baptiste. Sometime before she died, she had Timothy exhumed and moved to the family cemetery in Marrowbone. There is no doubt that her son, John, buried his mother there. A large tombstone marks her grave and says “Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Elizabeth Durrard b 7-24-1740 d 2-7-1856 by her son J.B. Demumbrine.” If her tomstone is correct, she lived to be 115 years old.
Timothy Demonbreun lived many lives, held many offices, and accumulated much wealth in the standards of that era. He had dealings with important men like Colonel George Rogers Clark, James Robertson, and Andrew Jackson. He slept in comfortable beds in his house as a governor and also made the earth his bed during uncountable nights during the hunting seasons. He dealt with Spanish governors, frontier governors, and Indian leaders. He had a noble Catholic wife and a frontier mistress that some thought was half-Indian. He brushed death many times, but the nobleman of New France died without fanfare in a place that he had helped raise from an Indian hunting ground to a growing city in a new state. His name is synonymous with courage, honor, and self-sacrifice that is the hallmark of the pioneers that settled the Cumberland.
For additional information including a timeline of Demonbreun's life, visit
1. Cate, Wirt Armistead. “Timothy Demonbreun.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly Mar 1957 : 214-227.
2. Provine Papers in possession of Tennessee State Archives, Nashville, TN.
3. Guild, Joseph. Old Times In Tennessee. Nashville: Tavel, Eastman & Howell, 1878.
4. Whitefort, Katheryn Demonbreun. A Genealogy and History of Jacques Timothe Boucher Sieur de Monbreun and His Anestors and Descendants. Ann Arbor, 1939.
5. Henry Hamilton’s Journal online @ www.statelib.lib.in.us/WWW/IHB/resources/hamilton
6. Draper MSS 51J24, 51J25, 51J26, 51J70 on microfilm at McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville, TN.
7. Demunbrun, T. Weldon. The Forgotten Frenchman. Timothy Demonbreun Heritage Society, 1977.