"The great chain of friendship..."

On the second of June 1769, a company of about twenty men from North Carolina and Virginia gathered at Powell’s Valley—a majestic oasis nestled within the mountains of southwest Virginia—to hunt and explore the vast wilderness of the trans-Appalachian frontier. But these men were not nature seekers. They sought to make a living from their hunts, trading pelts for profit.

As they embarked on their journey, this eclectic assemblage of hunters, surveyors, and explorers—known collectively as “long hunters” for the long months they spent apart from civilization—gazed in awestruck silence at the beauty of this country.

One writer described the region as “an amphitheater, inclosing as it were, an ocean of woods swelled and depressed with a waving surface, like that of the great ocean itself,” and that upon entering these metaphorical waters, the long hunters found that “their enraptured imaginations could not find words sufficient to depict.” In his History of Tennessee, John Haywood remarked, “All the country through which these hunters passed was covered with high grass, which seemed inexhaustible; no traces of human settlement could be seen, and the primeval state of things reigned in unrivaled glory.”


"Cumberland Gap." Engraving by S. V. Hunt from a painting by Harry Fenn. Illus. in: Picturesque America by William Cullen Bryant. N.Y.: D. Appleton & Co., 1872.
Image credit: Library of Congress

These awe-inspired descriptions, repeated in reminisces by these explorers and their descendants and published in early historical narratives, ignored an important actor on the stage of this amphitheater of isolation and beauty. An indigenous population stood watch on the other side of that valley and their view starkly contrasted with those of the white explorers and settlers.

While this territory, rich in wild game and fertile soil, was new to the white man, the Native Americans who hunted the region knew it all too well. The Delaware Indians called this land Kentucke, meaning “Place of the Meadows” in their native tongue. The Mohawk word, Kentucke, carried similar meaning, “Among the Meadows.” The Wyandots and Shawnee who frequently came south of the Ohio River to hunt or to travel the Warriors Path shared similar descriptions of this “Land of Tomorrow” and named this country Kah-ten-tah-the, or Kain-tuck-ee.

The land south of this meadow oasis held its own fascination to both the white man and to the Indian. Spanish explorers were among the first to record the name of a Cherokee village called Tanasqui. Subsequent maps, letters, and journals referred to “the land of the Tannassy” with various spellings. The Cherokee town of Tanasi inspired other white settlers to claim the name “Tennessee” as their own. Other indigenous tribes laid claim to this hunting ground, including the Chickasaw, Creek, Shawnee, and Yuchi.

Native Americans did not watch this drama as mere spectators. In fact, many tribes began trade with the white explorers, acquiring guns and supplies in exchange for access to the land. And while they tolerated the white man’s intrusions into their native hunting grounds, over time they grew increasingly concerned by the unrestrained killing and wholesale slaughter of buffalo and deer. They looked on with anger and despair as the long hunters killed wild game indiscriminately.

During one particular hunt in the fall of 1771, Anthony and Isaac Bledsoe, along with another twenty-two long hunters, killed so many deer that many of the skins ruined before the hunters could return them back to Virginia. Isaac Bledsoe carved a record of the loss on a fallen poplar tree which had lost its bark, “2,300 Deer Skins lost; Ruination by God.”

The Cherokees and other tribes issued a warning to the long hunters: kill it and go home.” This warning, however, fell on deaf ears. While the indigenous tribes considered this land shared hunting ground, the long hunters declared the land as theirs alone. “Name it and take it” served as their guiding maxim. Creeks, mountains, valleys, salt licks, even the trails carved out by the footsteps of natives, were soon known by the names of their white explorers. In his Annals of Tennessee, the historian, J.G.M. Ramsey declared, “Each hunter made a discovery, and time has signalized it with the discoverer’s name, thus, Drake’s Pond, Drake’s Lick, Bledsoe’s Lick, Mansco’s Lick, etc…”

As game grew scarce in the winter months, the long hunters traveled further west and southwest. They continued their unrestrained killing and wholesale slaughter of buffalo and deer. According to one writer, “A steady stream of long hunters crossed the mountains. Land hungry backwoodsmen saw visions of new homes, free from the restrictions of older settlements. Speculators, in imagination, counted fabulous profits.” These land speculators followed the long hunters into the territory, employing many of these skilled frontiersmen as guides and surveyors, carving imaginary boundary lines across vast swaths of territory.

"Colonial Surveyor"
Image credit: Digital Library of Georgia

As settlers, surveyors and speculators poured into the watersheds of the Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee rivers, Native American warriors offered some resistance, burning cabins and killing settlers. The settlers retaliated by burning cornfields, destroying villages, and killing Native Americans. One action followed another in “continuous rounds of retaliation.”

Meanwhile, Kaiyah-tahee, the regional chief of the Overhill Cherokee—known to the white settlers as Old Tassel—struggled to find a peaceful coexistence with the settlers and sought a different path toward resistance. Old Tassel witnessed with dismay the loss of land and lives suffered at the hands of the white man. He recalled how the long hunters had laid waste to the land and its wild game. He had befriended them, shared his people’s resources in good faith, and yet he felt the white man had betrayed a promise of peaceful coexistence.

In treaty negotiations with the settlers and land speculators, Old Tassel's words resonated with one translator present during the talks who remarked that his speech “was bereaved of much of its native beauty by the defects of interpretation, for the manly and dignified expression of the Indian orator loses nearly all its energy and force in translation.” Old Tassel, a “stout, mild, and decided man, never known to stoop to a falsehood,” proclaimed:

"We wish, however, to be at peace with you, and to do as we would be done by. We do not quarrel with you for the killing of an occasional buffalo or deer on our lands, but your people go much farther. They hunt to gain a livelihood. They kill all our game; but it is very criminal in our young men if they chance to kill a cow or hog for their sustenance when they happen to be in your lands."
"The Great Spirit has placed us in different situations. He has given you many advantages, but he has not created us to be your slaves. We are a separate people! He has stocked your lands with cows, ours with buffalo; yours with hogs, ours with bears; yours with sheep, ours with deer. He has given you the advantage that your animals are tame, while ours are wild and demand not only a larger space for range, but art to hunt and kill them. They are, nevertheless, as much our property as other animals are yours, and ought not to be taken from us without our consent, or for something of equal value."

Old Tassel used the tools of the surveyor as a metaphor for peace and cooperation. “When I opened the doors of peace and brightened the chain of friendship between us and our elder brothers,” he remarked, “the dead men were buried so deep that large trees had grown out of their graves.” Old Tassel and his Virginia counterpart, Evan Shelby, “stretched the chain of friendship from Virginia to Chota.” He continued stating, “that if any rust should get thereon, they and the beloved men from Chota might brighten it so that as their children came to any knowledge of things it might be a guide to them and had in remembrance for ages yet to come.”

The Virginians echoed Old Tassel’s conciliatory tone, drawing upon “the great chain of friendship” expressed by the Cherokee leader. Still, the Cherokee chief’s plea failed to move these surveyors and speculators. They ignored Old Tassel’s plea for supplies, and urged him to adopt the ways of the settlers:

"Now brothers we beg of you to listen well to what we are going to say. You told us the other day that our living was at our doors, but you had far to go and slave hard to support your people. We would recommend it to you to live as we do and only hunt for meat and skins to make you moccasins, raise corn and cattle horses and hogs and sell them to clothe your wives and children which you will find much surer and easier than your present manner of life."

The Virginians blamed the Chickamauga separatists—a group of Cherokee warriors who had refused to negotiate with the white settlers for their land—for the lack of supplies. “We are sorry to see and hear your people are so naked,” they said, promising Old Tassel that the long awaited supplies were on their way to them. We are sorry the goods are not here to give you some clothes to return to your towns,” they insisted, “but the fault is in your enemies.” The Chickamauga and Chickasaws had refused to allow them passage.

They also claimed that they never had any intention of taking the Cherokee’s land, and promised that they would “hold fast the chain of friendship and never let it slip out of their hands.” Once peace was secured, they promised, “then we shall be able to give you a plentiful trade.” As a token of their benevolence and good will, the surveyors offered Old Tassel a string of wampum in hopes that he would accept it without further conflict.

Wampum belts were used for a variety of purposes. They represented family or clan history or an authority to enter into war, and were used as promissory notes, forms of correspondence, and as a peace offering in diplomatic negotiations.
Image credit: Smithsonian Digital Library


Following a series of treaty negotiations, the inevitable inrush of white settlers commenced. Old Tassel acknowledged the hopeless plight of his people. “We have held several treaties with the Americans when bounds were fixed, he wrote, and fair promises made that the white people would not come over, but we always find that after a treaty they settle much faster than before. Truth is, if we had no land we should have fewer enemies.”

In the years that followed, Old Tassel continued to hold out hope for a peaceful coexistence with the white population. He struggled to hold his people together amid the rapid settlement of his people's native hunting ground. Old Tassel ultimately died in that struggle. He was murdered under a flag of truce while seeking peace. An account recorded by John Brown in his book, Old Frontiers, chronicled the Cherokee chief's demise:

"At Chota, [Major] Hubbard requested Chief Old Tassel to accompany him to Chilhowie for a talk; the unsuspecting chief readily complied. Chilhowie was situated on the north side of Little Tennessee River, and when he had arrived opposite the town, Hubbard raised a flag of truce. After they had been ferried across, they gathered at Abram’s house for a ‘talk.’ As soon as all the prominent Indians present were inside, Hubbard closed the door and posted guards at the windows. Giving John Kirk, Junior, a tomahawk, he said, ‘Take vengeance to which you are entitled.’ Kirk needed no second command."
"Realizing the fate that was in store for himself and his companions, Old Tassel met it with fortitude. He bowed his head and received the death blow. The others, taking their cue from him, offered no resistance and were slaughtered, one at a time, unarmed, peaceful, and under a flag of truce. No more shameful deed is recorded in American history."

There, at Chota, "the great chain of friendship" broke, its links scattered upon the amphitheater.


SELECTED SOURCES:

John P. Brown. Old Frontiers: The story of the Cherokee Indians from earliest times to the date of their removal to the West, 1838. Kingsport, Tenn: Southern Publishers, Inc., 1938.

Walter T. Durham, The Great Leap Westward: A History of Sumner County, Tennessee from Its Beginnings to 1805. Sumner County Public Library Board; First Edition edition, 1969.

John Haywood. The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from its earliest settlement up to the year 1796, including the boundaries of the state. Nashville, Printed by G. Wilson, 1823.

J. G. M. Ramsey. The Annals of Tennessee: To the end of the eighteenth century. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1860.

Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.: P. M. Hale, Printer to the State, 1886. Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007.



 

Gordon Belt is a public historian and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

The road less traveled. A return to the blog ten years later...

Author photo


Today marks the tenth anniversary of my first post on The Posterity Project. In historical terms, a decade isn't a long time, but on social media it's an eternity.

I first published this blog in 2008 following an informative session on blogging held at a Special Libraries Association conference. The presenters encouraged special collections librarians and archivists to establish their own professional footprint online as a way to communicate and to share information and expertise while also building an online presence. The advice I gained from this session during that informative week certainly set me on a different path. This blog has helped me engage with interested readers and connect with my fellow public history professionals. It has also steered my career in ways I could have never imagined.

Since that time, my focus on The Posterity Project has shifted from that of an archivist and public historian to that of an author and writer of early Tennessee history. Social media habits have also shifted. Not long ago, so-called social media "experts" and "gurus" declared blogging dead. Many people, including myself, listened to this dreadful advice and took to other online social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to chronicle their musings.

Over the years my posts on The Posterity Project waned as I've explored these new social media platforms. The brevity and ease with which one can post and comment on these sites made blogging seemingly obsolete. But invasions of privacy, online addiction and distraction, and political vitriol, snark, and negativity have now consumed much of social media. In this environment, I think the long-neglected blog deserves a second look, not for nostalgic reasons, but rather, for clarity and control of one's message. A return to long form writing and nuanced dialogue is also something sorely lacking from the current social media landscape. Blogs seem to me to be ideally suited for this revival.

And so, on this tenth anniversary of my first post on The Posterity Project, I've decided to return to my blog as a primary vehicle of online expression. I'll still maintain a footprint on other social platforms, but this blog will be my base camp with a writing focus on topics centered around early Tennessee history. You may also see other changes in the near future, including a site redesign and a shift to my own hosted site.

I'm grateful for your continued interest and I'm looking forward to exploring this new path with you.


Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost



 

Gordon Belt is a public historian and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.




John Sevier and the Road to Statehood...

On June 1, 1796, Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state, the first state created from territory that had been under federal jurisdiction. The road to statehood was marked with many obstacles, and our state's first governor, John Sevier, played a significant role in navigating each one of them. You cannot travel this road, historically speaking, without encountering John Sevier.

On June 2nd on this 222nd anniversary of Tennessee's statehood, I had the high honor of presenting a lecture at my workplace for our annual Statehood Day celebration, this year focusing on Tennessee’s first governor John Sevier. I discussed how Tennessee became a state and the prominent role Sevier played in Tennessee's early history.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share this story. I received a warm reception, a kind and generous introduction by the president of our "Friends of the Library" group, and lots of interesting questions and positive feedback from the audience following my presentation.

Here are a few images from the day, some courtesy of the Friends of the Library organization, including a peek at all three of Tennessee's State Constitutions, which were on display to the public together for only the third time in our state's history. It was truly a historic occasion, and I was honored to have a part in it.









If you're interested in scheduling a lecture or book signing with us, we'd love to hear from you. Please visit the "Events & Appearances" section of this blog for more information.


 

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

Sevierville's "First Hero"...

In January, The High Road Agency approached me requesting permission to use some of my writing describing the life of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero for a new exhibit at the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Center. That exhibit is now on display and open to the public. I'm eager to see it in person.

I've accepted an invitation to a book signing at the Visitor's Center on Friday, April 27, 2018. The event will take place from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm ET. Visitor's Center is located at 3099 Winfield Dunn Parkway, Kodak, Tennessee. Be on the lookout for details about that event published in local media outlets. I hope to see you there!

In the meantime, Carroll McMahan, Sevier County Historian and member of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce, graciously shared the following photograph of the exhibit with me. I'm grateful to Carroll for permitting me to publish this image here...

Image courtesy of Carroll McMahan, Sevierville Chamber of Commerce


I'm glad that my book helped to inform and inspire this exhibit. One of my goals in writing a book about John Sevier was to draw public attention to a long-neglected historical figure I've devoted several years of my professional life to studying. I hope that this exhibit also accomplishes that goal. I'm also pleased to learn that historical artifacts from Marble Springs, John Sevier's plantation home, are currently on loan to the Visitor's Center and on display.

The exhibit will remain open through 2018, so if you find yourself traveling near Sevierville, I encourage you to visit this display and learn something new about "Tennessee's First Hero."


UPDATE:


I'm grateful for the opportunity to visit Sevierville, namesake town of “Tennessee’s First Hero,” John Sevier. Here are a few photos from my April 27th book signing. Thanks to Carroll McMahan and the staff at the Sevierville Visitor's Center for their gracious hospitality, and many thanks to those who turned out to purchase a signed copy of my book on this special occasion...


Thankful for Carroll McMahan’s kind invitation. He is the Sevier County historian and host for this event.

Copies of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero on display.

These panels feature some of my scholarship, excerpted from our book, John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero.

I had to do a double take looking at this portrait. It looks a lot like William Blount, but it’s actually John Sevier, another depiction painted by Charles Willson Peale.

John Sevier’s walking stick alongside a bust of his image, on loan from Marble Springs Plantation.

This small trunk, also on loan from Marble Springs, is engraved with Sevier’s name. It’s made from wood and covered in deer skin. For three months in 1796, it held the treasury for the newly formed state of Tennessee.


 

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

Fort Nashborough reopens to visitors

On July 13, 2017, I had the opportunity to attend a "ribbon hacking" ceremony (a clever historical spin on the traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony) for the reopening of Nashville's Fort Nashborough historic fort.

Nashville's Mayor and selected dignitaries gather to hear opening remarks to the assembled crowd before the ribbon cutting ceremony at Fort Nashborough.
Author photo

According to The Tennessean...

"The new Fort Nashborough, which is the third replica of the original Nashville settlers' fort on the Cumberland River, reopens with a ribbon cutting and dedication and an invitation to the entire community to explore the new fort grounds.
Metro Parks Assistant Director Tim Netsch explained that this week's opening of the $1.7 million phase one of the riverfront fort in downtown Nashville will give visitors a more comprehensive look at the lives of the early settlers than previous fort replicas offered.
The new fort and interpretive center, which will be free to visit and will be operated by Metro Parks, showcase how the settlers lived and worked, and allow people to see the exterior of the fort's log cabins and block houses that were built with historically accurate construction...
...One important addition is an interpretive plaza area on the south end that focuses on Nashville's Native American history and includes an 8-foot-tall feather sculpture as well as interpretive signage detailing the various tribes and their roles in early Nashville history."


On January 1, 1780, James Robertson founded Nashville when he led his group of pioneers across the frozen Cumberland river to a place called The Cedar Bluffs. These men built a fort called Nashborough, which is replicated here.

I'm happy to see this important period of early Tennessee history back on display in a prominent location in Nashville's growing skyline. I'm particularly pleased to see that the story of Nashville's Native American settlers--here long before Robertson and Donelson--have a place of honor in this plaza. Hopefully, with the opening of this new interpretive center, more people will learn about the deep and diverse history of Nashville.



The eagle feather honors the heritage of Nashville's indigenous peoples.
Author photo

"The First Peoples" interpretive panel at Fort Nashborough.
Author photo

Fort Nashborough History Center is now open to visitors.
Author photo


I took a few more photographs of the fort and the ceremonies and posted them on Twitter. I invite you to click the preceding link for a sampling.


 

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.

A fond look back, and the road ahead...

On April 12, 2014, Traci and I celebrated the official launch of our book tour in support of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero...



Since that time, reader interest in our book remains strong, even as John Sevier enters its second printing and third year in publication. Along the way, we've had the opportunity to visit individuals, bookstores, heritage and lineage societies, colleges and universities, and historic sites to speak about the book. During our book tour, we've met a lot of interesting folks who share our passion for history. We're grateful for each opportunity, and we look forward to continuing our book tour in the days to come. If you're interested in hosting us for a lecture at your next gathering, please visit the "Events" page of this blog to learn more. We'd be honored to receive your invitation.

While we continue to schedule speaking engagements, our primary focus now is setting our sights on research and writing for our third book. Traci and I intend to explore several stories chronicled by Tennessee's earliest explorers and their encounters with those who actually came before them, drawing on letters, diaries, journals, legends, and folktales to tell the story of what I call "America's First Frontier." In the coming months, posts to The Posterity Project will be far and few between as we begin exploring this topic in greater detail through our research. However, I am looking forward to sharing a few of these stories with you from time to time as this next book project begins to take shape, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I want to express how grateful we are for the support we've received for our books, including our first publication, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. To learn more about both titles, and to order author-signed copies of each, visit the "Books" page for more information.



Gordon Belt and Traci Nichols-Belt are a husband and wife team of authors and public historians. Together, they have collaborated on two books. Traci Nichols-Belt is the author of Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War. Her book explores the significant impact of religion on the Army of Tennessee, C.S.A., on every rank, from generals to chaplains to common soldiers. Gordon Belt is the author of John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero, which focuses on the life and legend of Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier. Both books are published by The History Press, an award-winning publisher of local and regional history titles from coast to coast. Gordon and Traci’s writings focus specifically on stories from their home state of Tennessee.