Thomas Jefferson Papers

Nelson Patteson to Thomas Jefferson, 30 May 1820

From Nelson Patteson

Tennessee Nashville May 30th 1820.


Since my residence in this country which has been about 4 years, a number of curiosities have been discovered calculated to excite much ingenious speculation with regard to the antiquity of this country

Every part of the west from Louisania to the Lakes is in possession of numerous mounds, some representing the form of a sugar loaf, others resembling fortifications constructed with much order and regularity as if designed for great military purposes—A Mr Earle of this place whose curiosity led him to an investigation of a mound (not long since), in pursuit of those vestages of antiquity which constitute the materials in part of his infant Museum, discovered at the depth of 9 feet from the summit a very light earth resembling ashes, immediately above which there was a thin stratum of clay—at 12 feet he discovered Charcoal, at 16 feet leaves, and at 17 feet pure ashes with a mixture of lime and substances resembling human bones after having been burned, these substances when exposed to the air crumbled to dust.

There are trees [on this?] [mo]und which must be from 130 to 150 years old from their annular rings or circles—

It has ever been the custom of asiatic nations in entering1 their dead to erect funeral piles—How far such a custom might have prevailed, or reached a country so remote as this, by what means and at what time, is a subject yet unsettled—

In addition to the many curiosities and relicts of antiquity discovered in those mounds, there was found near Fayettville in this state, a peice of Roman Coin about 4 feet below the surface of the earth, in a deep ravine washed by torrents, the silver is represented to be very pure, the letters are rough and much worn, around the coin and near the edge are the following words and letters, On One Side a figure representing a man, in high releif Commodus—A.VG + H.E.R.E.L. On the other side that of a woman, with a horn in her right hand seated on a square box, with the titles T.RP.V. IMP. III. COS. II. P.P.—

A peice of coin similar to this was found several years previous in the Town of Fayettville in this state, in diging of a cellar,

How this coin [. . .], by whom brought at what time, and in what way it may be connected with the other remains of antiquity, is a source of information anxiously sought for,—That a correct account cannot be obtained is presumed, but that a chain of circumstances colating the best evidence from historical accounts will throw much light on the Subject is well known—

To solicit this from you in your declining years, when the mind i[s] anxious to seek repose, after the toils of a life devote[d] to the service of your country I know is unpleasant, my only apology is found in the remark that I should be at a loss to appeal to different resource, and have only to add that a gratification, of my Solicitude on this occas[ion] will confer the highest favour on your Ob. St.

N. Patteson

RC (ViW: TC-JP); mutilated, edge torn, and damaged at seal; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticello Albemarle Virginia”; stamp canceled; franked; postmarked Nashville, 31 May; endorsed by TJ as a letter from “Patterson N.” received 21 June 1820 and so recorded in SJL.

Nelson Patteson (d. 1828), merchant, was reputedly a native of Virginia. He was in Tennessee by 1809, when he was appointed a trustee of Pulaski Academy in Giles County in that state. The following year Patteson may have been living in Augusta, Kentucky. He applied in December 1813 for the firm of Patteson & Hagin to be army sutlers under Andrew Jackson. Five years later Patteson proposed to start a commission house in New Orleans, and in 1820 he was a partner in the firm of N. Patteson & Company. With other Nashville citizens he petitioned the newly independent government of Mexico in 1822 for permission to settle in what later became the state of Texas. By 1826 Patteson was secretary of the group, which called itself the Texas Association. He was still based in Nashville and acting as the association’s secretary two years later, when his forgeries to cover gambling debts came to light. Patteson died about the same time, an apparent suicide (Malcolm D. McLean, Papers Concerning Robertson’s Colony in Texas [1974–93], esp. 1:xliii, 78, 82, 166, 235, 297, 474, 2:401, 412, 646, 3:82–5, 89, 94, 260–2, 284, 301, 371; History of Tennessee From the Earliest Time to the Present; Together with an Historical and a Biographical Sketch of Maury, Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Bedford and Marshall Counties [1886], 750, 757, 764; DNA: RG 29, CS, Ky., Augusta, 1810, Tenn., Nashville, 1820, Giles Co., 1820; Jackson, Papers description begins Sam B. Smith, Harold D. Moser, Daniel Feller, and others, eds., The Papers of Andrew Jackson, 1980– , 10 vols. description ends , 2:602, 603; New-York Columbian, 14 Feb. 1821; Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser, 14 Apr. 1828; National Banner and Nashville Whig, 19 Apr. 1828; Natchez Statesman & Gazette, 1 May 1828; Augusta Chronicle and Georgia Advertiser, 6 May 1828).

Ralph E. W. Earl (mr earle) opened a museum of art and natural history in Nashville in 1818. Two years later he described his excavation of Mississippian mounds at Castalian Springs, Tennessee (City of Washington Gazette, 13 May 1820; Rachel Elizabeth Stephens, “America’s Portraitist: Ralph E. W. Earl and the Imaging of the Jacksonian Era” [Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 2010], 91–2, 108; Kevin E. Smith and James V. Miller, Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region [2009], 68, 71). The roman coin and the one supposedly found in the diging of a cellar were described further by a contemporary who presumed that they had been deposited 1,500 to 1,600 years before their discovery (John Haywood, The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee, up to the First Settlements Therein by the White People, in the Year 1768 [Nashville, 1823], 174–6; Jeremiah F. Epstein, “Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence,” Current Anthropology 21 [1980]: 3, 8).

1Thus in manuscript, with “interring” probably intended.

Index Entries

  • antiquities; Indian burial mounds and fortifications search
  • antiquities; Roman coins search
  • Asia; funeral customs in search
  • Earl, Ralph Eleaser Whiteside; and Indian burial mounds and fortifications search
  • Indians, American; burial mounds and fortifications of search
  • museums; in Nashville search
  • Patteson, Nelson; and antiquities of Tennessee search
  • Patteson, Nelson; identified search
  • Patteson, Nelson; letter from search
  • Rome, ancient; antiquities of supposedly found in U.S. search
  • Tennessee; antiquities of search