A Journal of Discovery on the Tennessee River
The first journaled exploration of the Tennessee River was the river trip of John Donelson's expedition to the Cumberland River in 1779. His group embarked on the Holston River at Fort Patrick Henry and braved the frontier wilderness to settle in what is present day Nashville.
In 2017, Nashville photographer, John Guilder retraces Doneleson's journey in a solitary rowboat journey, documenting his experience through pictures. In 2020, Captain Bob Cherry piloted a 21 foot "any man's pontoon" on a 652-mile journey of discovery of his own along the Tennessee River from Knoxville, TN to Paducah, KY, sharing his story in blogs.
It might be difficult to imagine now, but a trip down the Tennessee River used to be a harrowing endeavor fraught with life-imperiling hazards, unavoidable hardships and unforeseen disasters.
The first journaled exploration of the Tennessee River was John Donelson's long and arduous expedition to the Cumberland River. It began on the Holston River at Fort Patrick Henry on the second day of winter in 1779 and ended four wearisome months later when they arrived at “Big Salt Lick,” the site of what would later become Nashville.
Along the grueling way, Donelson’s party endured bitter cold, encountered warring native tribes, suffered disease afflictions, and well before the ordeal's end were “almost worn down with hunger and fatigue.”
Their thousand-mile journey -- the flagship vessel in the motley flotilla aptly named the “Adventure” -- would take them through Indian Territory during a time of broken treaties and civil unrest; a landscape of wooded forests, rocky canyons, and large prairies of native grasses; and through treacherous rapids and currents.
But they were ultimately successful in establishing the first western settlement in what is now Middle Tennessee.
Today, a trip down the Tennessee River is not nearly so danger-fraught and “disagreeable,” as Donelson found it. His pioneering odyssey was meditatively retraced in the autumn of 2017 by photographer John Guilder, who partnered with The Tennessean and PBS to document his own solitary boat trip along the Donelson voyage course.
“I wanted to follow that same path and record what it’s like today -- where we’ve come from and where we might be heading,” said Guider, who made the journey in a small, hand-built, motorless skiff powered only by oars and a small mainsail. You can stowaway on Guider’s “Adventure II” in the hour-long PBS documentary that pays modern witness to the richness of the Tennessee River’s beauty and history.
Guider gained a deep appreciation for what Donelson’s party saw and endured -- while at the same time enjoying a relative security and peace of mind entirely absent the pioneers’ experience. “I liked the fact that if something really went terribly wrong, I get to the river bank, walk to the nearest highway, stick out my thumb and in an hour or two I would be safe,” he said. “Donelson didn’t have that."
To help commemorate the 240th anniversary of Donelson’s excursion this year -- and in an effort to demonstrate that you don’t have to be a jet-setter to enjoy a leisure cruise on the dam-tamed, but ever mighty and magnificent Tennessee River -- Captain Bob Cherry piloted a 652-mile journey of discovery of his own along the famed southern American waterway that has served as an indispensable route of passage for indigenous people, explorers, pioneers and commerce for thousands of years.
To highlight his assertion that exciting and inspiring waterborne road trips along the Tennessee River are genuinely affordable, Captain Bob named his cruise “Any Man’s Journey.” A self-described “long-term river rat,” he chose a 21-foot pontoon boat for the quest because “that’s the average man’s boat.”
Bob and a couple of his mates completed their outing in seven days on a shoestring budget. Traveling an average of 100 miles per day at a speed of 15 mph, their average of 2 mpg exceeded the projected 1 mpg. The engine time on the motor was 55 hours at the trip's completion.
Captain Bob’s journey began on the Tennessee River just above Knoxville and ended near Paducah, Kentucky, at the confluence of the Ohio River.
Originally called the Cherokee River, the Tennessee River was in the 19th Century considered to extend from the mouth of the Clinch River in Kingston to Paducah. It was not until 1889 that federal law placed the start of the river at the current location in Knoxville.
You can relive Captain Bob’s cruise -- and get started planning one of your own -- at our day-by-day blog journal documenting his voyage navigations.
The stories of the Tennessee River are a continuum of history that should not be lost to dusty archives or to academic journals. Just as the river teems with a richness of life, so should the stories that are shared.
.“VOYAGE OF ADVENTURE: RETRACING DONELSON'S JOURNEY” History Shows, East Tennessee PBS, 07/26/2018 Television.