NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If a state is defined more by the myths, legends and folklore of its people than by lines on a map, Tennessee’s dictionary entry would take volumes.
Many of the state’s legends are widely known — Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton — but some have faded from memory. The Tennessee State Library and Archives, near the state Capitol, resurrects many of them in a new exhibit celebrating more than 200 years of “Tennessee Myths and Legends.”
Curators pulled together dozens of Tennessee stories that help define the state’s heritage in a context different from the music, mountains, sports and politics that say “Tennessee” in popular culture today.
What baby boomer can’t hum the theme song from the “Davy Crockett” TV series of their childhoods?
Who doesn’t know of Andrew Jackson, Nashville’s “Old Hickory” war hero, Memphis land speculator and U.S. president who redefined executive power and preserved the Union against South Carolina “nullifiers”?
Or John Luther “Casey” Jones of Jackson, engineer in 1900 of a late passenger train out of Memphis, “high balling” into Mississippi to make up for lost time and ultimately slamming into another train.
They’re all there, but “this exhibit highlights not only some of Tennessee’s best-known myths and legends but also some of its more offbeat ones,” said Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who oversees the Library and Archives. “It’s a great place to learn trivia about the Volunteer State that you can use to impress your friends at parties.”
It’s not likely, for example, that many know the legend of Nocatula and Conestoga in Athens, or of a pair of Memphis ghosts, “Pink Lizzie” and “Orpheum Mary.”
West Tennesseans may not be familiar with the Bell Witch of rural Robertson County, unless they saw the movie “An American Haunting.”
And what of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition dying under mysterious circumstances in a Lewis County inn?
Or Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel calling himself the “Boy Distiller” at age 16?
Or the outlaw Jesse James, who tried to settle down under the assumed name of J.D. Hand, with his wife and three children in Nashville.
“His neighbors liked him and he was said to be a family man who attended church regularly,” according to the exhibit.
Born on more of a low hill in Greene County than a “mountain top,” David Stern “Davy” Crockett moved steadily west and won a congressional seat in West Tennessee before famously declaring “to hell with Tennessee” and heading to Texas. He died at the Alamo, although the exhibit notes that there’s some dispute about that.
The East Tennessee tale of Nocatula and Conestoga began in 1780 when a British officer severely wounded in the Battle of King’s Mountain was found by Cherokee Indians and taken to their village.
He was nursed back to health by Nocatula, daughter of chief Atta-kulla-kulla, and the couple fell deeply in love. “The union was blessed by Atta-kulla-kulla,” who, the exhibit adds, gave the solider the name Conestoga, meaning “oak.”
“But jealousy within the tribe soon struck and one of Nocatula’s previous suitors ambushed Conestoga. When Nocatula reached him, he was already dead and, in despair, she drew the knife from his fatal wound and plunged it into her heart.”
Her father ordered the bodies buried together and placed an acorn in Conestoga’s right hand and a hackberry seed in Nocatula’s. The following year, the story goes, sprouts of an oak tree and a hackberry tree appeared. As they grew, their branches intertwined.
The trees stood on the grounds of Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens until the 1940s.
Meriwether Lewis died at age 35 in 1809 at the inn where he had stopped for the night along the Natchez Trace. He was governor of Louisiana and was traveling to Washington. Mrs. Grinder, the proprietress, reported seeing Lewis mumbling in a strange manner and, later that night, heard a gunshot in his room.
Historians generally agree that he committed suicide, but a new debate rages today.
According to legend, ghosts inhabit a fair number of Tennessee landmarks.
The exhibit features “Pink Lizzie,” who first appeared in 1871 to 13-year-old Clara Robertson, a student at the old Brinkley Female College in Memphis. During a trance arranged by Clara’s father, the ghost spoke and identified herself as Lizzie Davidson, daughter of Colonel Davidson, builder of the mansion the college then occupied.
Then there was “Orpheum Mary,” said to be the spirit of a 12-year-old girl struck by a streetcar and who died after being brought into an opera house that stood in the same spot where the Orpheum now stands.
The exhibit runs through April 29 at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, across from the State Capitol. The library and exhibit are free and open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., excluding state and federal holidays.
Richard Locker/ The Commercial Appeal