- Historic Sites
Louis Philippe In America
The future French king asked Washington for directions and got an arduous tour of a new nation’s wilderness
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
The brothers crossed into the new state of Tennessee and arrived on April 30 at its capital, Knoxville, consisting of about a hundred houses. Though their inn was a good five years old, the bedroom walls still gaped where the builders had withdrawn the beams support- ing the scaffolding. Modern research identifies their stopping place as Chisholm’s Tavern, still standing, and records a tradition that Louis Philippe, assailed by bedbugs, greased himself vainly with hog’s lard and finally ran out screaming to plunge into the Tennessee River.
Here the travellers made a digression to visit the Cherokee reserve in the Great Smokies, around TeIlico Plains, sixty miles south of Knoxville. The Indian agents and a small garrison occupied a fort, or blockhouse, which commonly stood wide open. Indians strolled in, picked up pipes lying about, squatted, and smoked. The fort contained a store where white men’s goods—but no whiskey—were for sale at nominal prices. Indian produce was similarly cheap. Louis Philippe, always delighted with a bargain, bought a pig, a wild turkey, and a gallon of strawberries for a quarter-dollar. The commander, Major John Strother, was proud of his peaceable kingdom. He explained that the famous Indian atrocities were usually reprisals for the atrocities of aggressive whites trying to provoke government intervention and the confiscation of Indian hunting grounds.
The princes visited the Indian village, of which the chief feature was the maison de ville , town hall, a large hexagonal structure, log-framed, roofed with cornstalks, and resembling an enormous haystack. It was used for meetings and for ritual dance. Three pillars supported tribal totems—snake, tortoise, lizard…painted in black on white panels and reminiscent of coats of arms.
Louis Philippe, ever curious, inquired into the Indians’ religion (they seemed to do without), legal system (they made laws readily and as readily forgot them), division of labor between the sexes, status of women, sexual morality (it barely existed). He noted that the promiscuity of the women deprived them of male respect. He drew a lesson for France: the new laws permitting freedom of divorce will bring in something like Indian concubinage. Women, he wrote, can rise out of their present dependence “only by the sentiments they inspire in men, not at all by the pleasures they may offer. To avoid debasement these pleasures should be reserved, as a means of augmenting the emotions of the lover who thinks himself beloved. But if the pleasures are lavished on many, the magic of emotion disappears, and women fall into debasement and thence into dependence.”
With the commandant’s permission, Louis Philippe offered a prize of two kegs of whiskey to induce the Indians to stage a ball game, beside what is still known as Ball Play Creek. The contestants, their bodies oiled, tried to drive a deerskin ball between the opponents’ goal posts. All means of propulsion were permissible: feet, hands, and short lacrosse sticks. The spectators admired the players’ agility and ferocity.
The next day, disregarding an Indian deputation that presented the empty whiskey kegs and asked for a refill, the travellers returned north and headed west for Nashville. They now entered a difficult, debatable land, where the Indians were still unpacified. They were adjured by white settlers to join an armed party, but they were too impatient and reckless to delay. The road was a mere track through the wilderness. There was not a settler for a hundred miles; and when at length the wayfarers found one, he had no food for sale except a little smoked bear’s grease and corn. The track is followed by modern Route 70 and 7oN, across Crab Orchard Gap, through the present Crossville and Cookeville to Carthage on the Cumberland River. The river was then bordered by nearly impenetrable canebrakes. Cabins and tilled fields began to appear. At Major Dickson’s in Castalian Springs the Frenchmen had their first coffee in many a day.
On May 10 they arrived in Nashville, a town of some eighty houses, with pretensions toward elegance. An English visitor in this year was astonished to see there two coaches “fitted up in all the style of Philadelphia or New York.” The princes stopped at Captain Jesse Maxwell’s house, now the Maxwell House Hotel. They had envisioned relative comfort, after their nights under the stars or the rain. But court was in session and the inn crowded; they were forced to sleep three in a bed. (Later King Louis Philippe liked to ask Americans: “Do they still sleep three in a bed at Nashville?”) They met some of the town’s celebrities, including Captain Timothée de Montbrun, a former French officer turned Indian trader, who on meeting the princes was “excited like one affected with St. Vitus’s dance; he could not keep his hands, his feet or his tongue still.”
Now the party turned north, on a track or “trace” that has become Route 31E, through Gallatin and Glasgow. They passed through the “Barrens,” a wild, hungry, treeless land, almost empty of settlers. They stopped one night at a Captain Chapman’s; he greeted them with suspicion, presuming their purpose to be the rousing of the Indians against the Americans. The Captain was an angry man; he asserted that all the West hated the American government, the worst conceivable. Night fell; the Captain and his wife took a “puncheon” bed of trimmed timber at one side of the room; “that seemed to us very natural.” The Frenchmen disposed themselves on the floor, with their feet toward the fire. Another bed stood beyond them.