The remarkable Frenchman who visited Tennessee in 1797

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, October 5, 2022

By Bill Carey
Without intending to, I’ve been following the path of the former king of France.

I haven’t left the country. And my only notable trip out of state was a six-day family vacation in New England this summer. But I’ve been running into Louis Philippe wherever I go.

Let me explain.

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When Tennessee first became a state in 1796, the most important thing happening in the world was the French Revolution. Members of the French royalty who remained at home did so at their own peril.

Louis Philippe, a nobleman and a distant relative of King Louis XVI, came to the U.S., along with two of his brothers and one servant. They met some of the most remarkable Americans of that era, including Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. During Louis Philippe’s stay at Mount Vernon, former President Washington reportedly got out a map and said something like, “If I had time to travel, here’s where I would go,” drawing a route across the Appalachian Mountains, across Cherokee territory and into the Southwest Territory.

The French quartet took Washington’s advice, heading south and west into Tennessee, following the natural river valleys. The entourage arrived in Knoxville on April 30, 1797, and, at first, stayed at a local inn called Chisolm’s. However, the royal visitor had a bad experience there; a story, still repeated by tour guides at Knoxville’s Blount Mansion, claims he woke up screaming one night and ran headlong into the Tennessee River. At the time he thought he was on fire; in fact, he was being attacked by bedbugs.

The next night, the story goes, Louis Philippe moved to William Blount’s home. That home is also still standing, and I visited it in July.

From here they headed south and spent several days at the Cherokee blockhouse at Tellico. They met many members of the Cherokee tribe, watched an event in a large Cherokee meeting house, and witnessed a long game of stickball. In his diary (published in 1976), he made many comments about Cherokee culture, religion and family life. “When they [the Cherokee] take a notion to travel, they saddle and bridle a horse, roll their blankets, and leave without further ado,” he wrote. “Truly nothing is freer or happier than these Indians.” He also described what was left of Fort Loudoun — “buried under brush now, with only a little rubble and a few irregularities of terrain to commemorate the fort’s existence.”

Then came the most dangerous part of his journey, as he and his entourage headed west across the Cumberland Plateau — still Indian territory at that time. Although officials advised people to wait for military escort to cross the mountains, the French visitors headed west anyway across what was commonly referred to as a “desert.” Louis Philippe was impressed by the wildlife he saw. “There is more game in this desert than in a hunting preserve at home,” he wrote. “Here are many bears, deer, some buffalo, few elk.”

After a few days they arrived at the landmark known as Fort Blount (along the Cumberland River in present-day Jackson County). The travelers were disappointed by the hospitality. “To restore us from the hungers and fatigues of desert they gave us cornbread, a little milk and fatback of bear, salted and smoked, which we found impossible to swallow, hungry or no.”

Hungry and tired, the visitors continued west, staying at homes along the way, as people did in that era.

Nashville made a positive impression on Louis Philippe, although it was far more crowded than the visitors would have liked. “The house was full, and even sleeping on the floor there was hardly room,” he wrote.

Nashville being Nashville, there are no structures standing in which Louis Philippe stayed. However, the house in which he spent the night was at the present-day corner of Fifth and Church — a corner I walk past every week.

From there the Frenchmen headed north, into and through Kentucky, back towards Pennsylvania. They later visited Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New York and Philadelphia again, and even spent the night at the little-known William Pitt Hotel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (which I happened to visit in June)!

And now for some history you may have slept through in high school: King Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution. Decades later, in the revolution of 1830, Charles X was driven from the French throne, and Louis Philippe became King of France. He would remain king until he was driven from power in 1848 — in the events depicted in the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables. However, while he was king, Louis Philippe would often greet visitors from America and ask them whether they still made visitors sleep three to a bed in a place called Nashville.

Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.