A Past Uncovered: The Story of the Enslaved People of Travellers Rest

Historic Travellers Rest Plantation & Museum
Nashville, TN

Travellers Rest was the home of Judge John Overton built in 1799 on the site of a pre-historic Mississippian burial mound. His work as an attorney, judge, politician and land developer was instrumental in the early settlement of Tennessee. His family occupied this site for nearly 150 years before it was acquired by The National Society of The Colonial Dames in Tennessee in 1954, who oversaw its restoration until a community board was established and a staff was hired in 1989.

Historic Travellers Rest Plantation and Museum followed the early model of historic preservation and focused on the history of a white founding father. The Colonial Dames set a high standard for restoration relying on national consultants. That legacy was continued by the staff and community board, but the story of the Mound Builders and the enslaved population had been told in limited degrees. A Past Uncovered: The Story of the Enslaved People of Travellers Rest is a significant departure for the organization which has followed good preservation methods, but needed to more fully integrate the African American slaves who lived their lives building a farm for the white Overton family. This tremendous step forward for the organization was a precursor to an expanded interpretation as outlined in the Strategic Plan adopted six months later.

Interpreting slave history is never easy, and resources for accurate research can be scarce. The stories and realities are horrific and difficult for even adults to grasp, to discuss, and to share. Historic sites have an obligation to share their knowledge of slavery and its realities, and fortunately, staff at Historic Travellers Rest has access to better documentation about the enslaved population than most sites. That documentation, along with artifacts, both reproduction and historic, allowed them to present the slaves of Travellers Rest as real people with names, ages, family groupings, skills and descendants. They were more than the sum of their monetary value. They were the people who built a farm and made significant contributions to their communities.

A Past Uncovered opened in February 2015 as a permanent part of the site’s interpretation. It is shared with all visitors to the site. Our opening day, free to the public, received a record setting 750 plus visitors who well represented Nashville’s demographics, crossing race and economic levels. To expand and deepen the reach of the exhibit, the museum has solicited and received grant funding that will allow them to create podcasts to be broadcast from the website so they can share exhibit content and explore topics they were unable to include alongside new research. By reintroducing the story of slaves at Travellers Rest, this site has made a decisive step towards telling a more complex and diverse story of life on the Tennessee frontier.