Re-envisioning the Noel Stone-Grave Cemetery (40DV3), Davidson County, Tennessee

Kevin E. Smith (Middle Tennessee State University)

Anyone with even a passing interest in Nashville’s late prehistory has heard of “The Noel Cemetery,” immortalized by the two editions (1890, 1897) of The Antiquities of Tennessee by Gates P. Thruston (Figure 1). The excellence of the volume prompted the American Association for the Advancement of Science to elect him a fellow – something he considered the highest compliment every paid him. Thruston’s preface is dated June 1890 and begins with mention of “the large aboriginal cemetery near Nashville [that] was discovered and explored about two years ago.” That reference is to the enormous numbers of stone-box graves along Brown’s Creek on land then a farm of Oscar F. Noel. By Thruston’s estimate, about 4000 stone-box graves were dug during the four years between 1886 and 1890. While we can only hazard a guess as to how many were dug before and after, certainly it would not be outlandish to suggest a number as high as 8,000 graves. Thruston and the Noel Cemetery would further be immortalized by the preservation of the collection largely intact. Thruston donated it to Vanderbilt University in 1907, where it remained until 1982 when it was placed on permanent loan to the Tennessee State Museum. For those unfamiliar with stone-box graves and cemeteries in the Nashville area, you can read about them in John T. Dowd’s article in Tennessee Archaeology.


Figure 1. Gates P. Thruston, ca. 1875 (TSLA Photograph 4547) and the cover of Antiquities of Tennessee.

The current boundaries of “The Noel Cemetery” encompass over a square mile (Figure 2, left) – originally incorporating in 1972 every mention of one or more stone-box graves in the vicinity – and was expanded even more as “new” historical records turned up and scattered stone box graves were uncovered by utility lines and swimming pools. I was puzzled about how to interpret this site as early as 1985 when I started working on my dissertation – and have continued to pursue research over the subsequent 30+ years (including multiple projects with colleagues Mike Moore and Steve Rogers).


Figure 2. Map of the Noel Cemetery with Cain’s Chapel addition as published in 2009 (left) and revised preliminary ideas as of 2019.

I discovered a critical clue in the Warren K. Moorehead papers in Columbus, Ohio. Moorehead kept multiple scrapbooks of newspaper clippings – anything related to relics – including one about the Noel cemetery from an unknown publication. Eventually, we located the issues published between May 1886 and April 1887 – which contained new details about its initial discovery (Figure 3). Perhaps the most significant realization was that the discovery –quickly following by extensive plundering – happened in 1886 when the light rail line was surveyed and laid out from Nashville’s Public Square to the newly created Glendale Park.


Figure 3. Left: Volume 1 Issue 1 of the Cumberland Collector, May 1886; Upper right: Daily American, 4 Oct 1886;  Lower right: Daily American, 24 Oct 1886.

Glendale, Nashville’s first amusement park, and the rail line were one of the many projects of Oscar Fitzallen Noel and partner James Caldwell (Figure 4). As described by Thruston (1890:2), “one of the largest and richest of these aboriginal cemeteries… is situated upon the farm of Mr. O.F. Noel, adjoining Glendale Park.” As the park and trolley closed in the 1930s, my most recent task was to relocate precisely where the rail line left Glendale Park and entered Noel’s farm. In August 2019, with the assistance of several local residents, I found the property corner – which by happy coincidence had been re-surveyed only a few weeks earlier (Figure 4, left). And, in fact, an amazing segment of the rail bed survives precisely at that spot (Figure 4, right). Combining many other bits of evidence, I can now very confidently place the cemetery of “not less than three thousand closely laid stone graves” (Thruston 1890) at the location marked “A” on Figure 2. The location almost certainly contained a 10-15 acre palisaded village – a fact that went unnoticed by the multitude of individuals interested in the contents of the graves.


Figure 4. Center: Plat map (1890) of Glendale Park showing the corner with O.F. Noel; Left: Property corner at the corners of the park and farm; Right: Surviving segment of rail line leaving the park and entering “Noel’s Farm.”

These revelations also allow a reconsideration of the “Cain’s Chapel” site mapped by Edwin Curtiss for the Peabody Museum a decade earlier in 1878 (Figure 5). That site is clearly a distinct site – and almost certainly constitutes a small Mississippian center with a single large platform mound, multiple small burial mounds, and numerous cemeteries. Thruston (1890) and others participating in the 1886-1890 diggings consistently note a large mound ½ mile northeast of the “Noel Cemetery” – notations which happily correspond with my previous identification of Cain’s Chapel at the location marked “B” on Figure 2. Although too far away to be considered a single Mississippian archaeological site – I suspect that the residents of Cain’s Chapel probably moved their community to the Noel Cemetery locale about AD 1400 or slightly thereafter. Currently, Robert Sharp, David Dye and I are segregating the hundreds of surviving diagnostic artifacts from the two locales – our detailed re-examination will hopefully reveal some chronologically significant distinctions, but for now, we can relatively confidently assign both sites to the Late Thruston phase (AD 1350-1450).


Figure 5. Curtiss sketch map of the Cains Chapel site, April 1878 (Putnam Letterbook IV-C 554; Peabody Museum Collections Department).

One final locale within the larger site 40DV3 also seems clearer in retrospect – the small portion of a palisaded Mississippian village excavated by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in 1973 (Figure 6). Marked “C” on Figure 2, the locale represents a third distinct community – here assigned a 10-12 acre size. In the yard of “Noel Place,” this was almost certainly the site where Dr. Oscar French Noel, Jr., the great-grandson of Oscar Fitzallen Noel, dug most of his personal collection in the early-mid twentieth century. Documented artifacts suggest this town predates the other two – falling into the Early Thruston Phase (AD 1250-1350).


Figure 6. 1973 excavations by the Division of Archaeology, showing structure, palisade wall, and other features.

I have renamed site 40DV3 as “The Noel Cemeteries“ — appropriate enough as they were all part of the Noel family holdings at various points in time. As one of the most densely occupied parts of Thruston-phase Nashville, there are many other smaller clusters of stone-box graves that probably represent the mortuary remnants of hamlets and other smaller settlements. Nonetheless, just placing these three large settlements more confidently on the landscape will allow us to continue refining and re-envisioning our understanding of this part of “Ancient Nashville.” Well into my fourth decade of pondering on the “Noel Cemetery,” this is certainly not “the last word,” but rather a major step forward.