This invaluable collection dates to 1907, when Gates P. Thruston (1835-1912) donated his collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts to Vanderbilt University. Containing about one thousand objects, the collection remains a peerless assemblage of prehistoric Native American art from the Nashville area.
The majority of Thruston's collection came from a large prehistoric Native American town (A.D. 1050-1450) on the farm of Dr. Oscar Noel in Nashville. By 1890 his collection had achieved national prominence, prompting the Tennessee Historical Society to request an illustrated pamphlet. To our benefit, Thruston instead produced an illustrated book of some 380 pages. In order to place the work within easy reach of students and others, he apparently paid a large subvention to keep the price below cost.
After the book's publication, Thruston's collection rapidly achieved international prominence. He received a bronze medal for his exhibition at the 1893 Columbian Historical Exposition in Madrid. During the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, he received a gold medal for the “finest individual exhibition in any department,” and another gold medal at the later Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.
In 1907 Thruston sought a suitable repository for his collections. He offered them to the State of Tennessee, if it would provide a suitable exhibit building. The legislature declined to provide exhibit space, prompting Thruston to donate the collection to Vanderbilt. In an ironic twist that would almost certainly have pleased Thruston, Vanderbilt and the Tennessee State Museum entered into an agreement incorporating the collection into the Museum's permanent exhibits on Tennessee's native peoples in 1986.
Stephen D. Cox, ed., Art and Artisans of Prehistoric Middle Tennessee: The Gates P. Thruston Collection of Vanderbilt University held in Trust by the Tennessee State Museum (1985)