The First Residents of Historic Travellers Rest

From as early as 1270-1316 A.D., more than 500 years before John Overton purchased the land which would later be known as Travellers Rest, the area was occupied by Native Americans during what archaeologists call the Mississippian period (circa 1000-1450 A.D.). Based on written accounts of Dr. Rush Nutt from 1805, the prehistoric Native American site is thought to have included an earthen mound and palisade or earthwork wall for protection. The site is speculated to have been as large as 10-12 acres, but due to the landscape changes that have occurred over time, it is difficult to say if the exact boundaries of the site will ever be clearly defined. While exploring Middle Tennessee in 1920 for the Bureau of American Ethnology, William Edward Myer was contracted make a map of the Travellers Rest archaeological site which supports Dr. Rush Nutt’s description from more than 100 years earlier.

There are certain cultural elements of the Mississippian period which are unique to the Cumberland River Valley in Middle Tennessee. In the area surrounding what is now Nashville, Native Americans often interred the deceased in stone boxes or limestone coffins. Many of these stone box burials have been uncovered at Travellers Rest over the years, as well as Native American wattle and daub houses. Because of the numerous burials previously uncovered on the site and the laws protecting these burials, Travellers Rest currently refrains from undertaking any unnecessary ground-breaking activities.

This filleted, notched rim prehistoric ceramic bowl was found during excavations performed by the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey from 1963-1973. The bowl is filled with burned freshwater snail shells, which were likely cooked and eaten, and include species that are still commonly found in rivers and streams in Middle Tennessee. The bowl was uncovered during the excavation of house site #1, which was located to the northeast of the historic house. Image, Historic Travellers Rest archaeological collection.
This clay hearth was excavated by the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey from house site #4, which was located near the current visitor center. In 2019, charcoal was removed from the hearth and radiocarbon dated to provide an absolute date for the prehistoric occupation of the site. Image courtesy of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.
This anthropomorphic ceramic effigy vessel was discovered in a stone box burial during an excavation in 1995-1996. Pottery making as part of ceremonial or burial practices is frequently found from the Mississippian period. The detail of the face and appendages are indicative of a skilled artist. The ‘rim rider’ figure depicts the Wild Boy, who was one of the Hero Twins from a Native American folk story tradition kept by historic tribes. While the story is known to Native American communities throughout the Southeast, the double plait on this figure’s head is a cultural marker specific to Nashville area depictions of the character. Images courtesy of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.