Chapter 16 reviews John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero

I wanted to publish a brief note of thanks to Humanities Tennessee and the Chapter 16 publication for their thoughtful and thought-provoking review of our book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. The review was posted ahead of our scheduled book signings in Johnson City and Knoxville. Look for details about these two events here on The Posterity Project.

One quote from the review stood out in my mind and perfectly captured what we tried to convey in John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero as a work of historiographical scholarship:

"...history is anything but a recitation of the documented facts. Nor is it immutable. It always reflects the motives of the people generating it..."

Read Chapter 16's entire review of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero at the following link:

http://www.chapter16.org/content/gordon-belt-and-traci-nichols-belt-examine-how-history-has-treated-tennessee-founding-father

Chapter 16 pays for their content in part with federal grants to Humanities Tennessee, and provides it without charge to newspapers as a service to the writers and readers of the state. If you enjoyed the review and our book, I hope you'll show your support for Chapter 16 by sharing their post and citing Chapter16.org as the source.

  
Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.

The last casualty of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend...

Last week, historians and scholars observed the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the bloody culmination of a violent phase of the War of 1812 known as the Creek War. My colleague Myers Brown wrote an excellent piece on the battle for the Tennessee State Library and Archives blog featuring some unique archival items related to the battle. I highly encourage you to read Myers' article on the TSLA Blog to learn more about this important moment in Tennessee history and the history of our nation. To supplement this story, I thought I would share an edited excerpt from my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which addresses a little-known outcome of the battle.

Andrew Jackson's defeat of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend proved devastating for the Creek Indians, and led to the eventual demise of one of Jackson's most bitter rivals, John Sevier. Sevier and Jackson were bitter enemies, yet they stood united in their mutual disdain for the British and their Native American allies. On June 4, 1812, Sevier joined seventy-eight of his congressional colleagues and voted for a formal declaration of war against Great Britain. In a letter written to Tennessee governor Willie Blount following the vote, Sevier conveyed his feelings on the matter. He declared, "We have at length passed the Ribicon. War is finally declared against Britain and her dependencies." Sevier's letter burned with hatred toward the enemy, especially the Creek Indians, whom he believed the British supported. "Fire and sword must be carried into that country before those wretches will be reduced to reason or become peaceable neighbors," Sevier raged. He continued, "There can be no reliance or trust placed in them. No doubt British emissaries are among them." Anti-British sentiment ran high in Tennessee, and rumors of a growing Creek presence along Tennessee's borders armed with British weaponry only served to fan the flames of war even higher.
 
Creek chief William "Red Eagle" Weatherford surrenders to Andrew Jackson on August 9, 1814, ending the Creek War. Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives


Jackson's militia laid waste to the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and following the victory and Creek surrender, President James Madison appointed Sevier as a commissioner to run the boundary line of the new Creek Nation. In agreeing to the terms of the treaty, the Creeks ceded more than 20 million acres of territory in southern Georgia and central Alabama to their nation's conquerors. Despite his lingering bitterness toward Jackson over their previous encounters, Sevier accepted the appointment and departed his plantation home near Knoxville on June 10, 1815, to begin what would be his final expedition.

Sevier made several entries in his diary following his departure. Although these consisted mostly of mundane observations about the weather and provisions, by August, the summer heat and the arduous journey began to take its toll on his aged body. On August 26, 1815, Sevier noted, "Some unwell with pain in my back." By September 9th, he observed that one of his traveling companions became "very sick." In the days that followed, Sevier himself contracted a fever. A few days later, he breathed his last breath. On September 24, 1815, Sevier died in his tent on the Creek boundary, ironically as duty called him to survey territory conquered by his most bitter rival, Andrew Jackson.

On March 29, 1889, years after his death, the Daily Picayune newspaper of New Orleans printed the legend that emerged from that dark day:

There is a pretty story still told around the firesides in this country of how Governor Sevier came to his death. He was attending a feast of the Indians known as the "Green Corn Dance," and although nearly 72 years of age, was there participating in the festivities of the evening. The next day, while on his return to Fort Decatur, he was taken suddenly sick, and while being carried across the Tallapoosa river, and feeling that he was dying, he said to his attendants that if they would carry him to a big spring about a mile away and let him get a drink of the water he thought he would get well. But he died while crossing the river, and his body was buried on top of the hill overlooking the big spring to which he had referred, and whose waters still sing a constant requiem near his grave.

Sevier's companions buried him with military honors on a spot of land not far from where he fell ill, on the east bank of the Tallapoosa River near Fort Decatur, Alabama. A simple two-foot-long oak stump charred at its end marked his grave. Unaware of Sevier's illness, Tennesseans had reelected him to Congress without opposition a few weeks prior. News of his death, however, quickly spread to the state capitol where members of the Tennessee General Assembly mourned their fallen hero. On October 26, 1815, state senator Adam R. Huntsman offered a resolution that each member of the legislature wear a crepe on the left arm for thirty days "in honor to the memory of that distinguished fellow citizen, statesman, and patriot."



 
Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.

“They concluded that we came out of the clouds”

In 1834, a debate raged in Congress over whether or not to extend pension benefits to veterans of the Indian Wars. Newspapers published impassioned speeches by elected representatives holding strong opinions on both sides of the issue. False claims for Revolutionary War benefits led to calls for reform and a hesitancy to extend benefits to those who fought in the Indian Wars of the far reaches of America's first frontier.

For those in favor of granting pensions to veterans of the Indian Wars, the rhetoric in these debates often cast these men as heroes. Members of Congress from southern states, in particular, argued that these soldiers valiantly defended their homes and families against brutal Indian attacks, and had earned the right to claim pension benefits in their later years in their defense of the Old Southwest. In response to criticism by a fellow Congressman who labeled the early settlers as "plunderers and savage murderers," Tennessee Rep. Balie Peyton declared:

   I, sir, am proud to trace my origin to that race of men... I value the reputation of that band of patriots as dearer than gold... They were no "plunderers." No, sir, they were soldiers, true and pure; and a soldier never stains his hand with "plunder." The brave are always tender and humane. They "plunderers!" What temptation was there in the frowning forest of the West to invite to "plunder." None, sir, none.

Nashville's Western Methodist newspaper published many of these debates, and after reading one of the articles a Methodist minister named James Gwin responded by writing to the editor of the newspaper to recall his own participation in the Indian Wars of Tennessee.

A native North Carolinian, Reverend Gwin and his brothers served in the Revolutionary War, and in 1790 he removed his family to Tennessee, settling in the border region between Kentucky and Tennessee, later participating in battles with Indians at Caney Fork and Nickajack. On September 12, 1794, an army of about 500 men from Middle Tennessee, East Tennessee and Kentucky attacked Nickajack in retaliation for the Chickamaugas continued assaults on the white settlements. Gwin was among the early settlers of this region to participate in this battle. This is Reverend Gwin's story as recorded in the April 11, 1834 edition of the Western Methodist newspaper:

   In reading over in your paper two or three weeks since the remarks made in Congress by the Hon. Mr. Peyton, of Tennessee, on the Nickajack expedition, it brought afresh to my mind events long since past by. I called to mind the forms of my old companions in arms, with whom I suffered in those times of tribulation which tried men’s souls; but alas! There are few now living who bore a part in our earlier Indian wars. I concluded I would write a brief sketch of the events of that expedition for insertion in your very interesting paper.

   The Indian town called Nickajack was settled by an amalgamation of different tribes of Indians, called by the general name of Chickamaugas. It was situated in what is now Indian territory, on the south bank of the Tennessee river, at the base of the Look-Out mountain, between two creeks that disgorged their sluggish waters into the Tennessee. This town or Indian fort was called by the Indians the “Yellow Jackets, nest.” It was the rendezvous of all the southern as well as northern hostile warriors; here they formed their plans of attack on the white settlements. They considered their situation impregnable, and boasted of being able to raise three thousand warriors in one day from the adjacent towns and forests (as we were informed by Fenelstone, a half-breed, who deserted from them, gave us information of their intended attack on Nashville, and was our guide when we assaulted Nickajack.) Proud and haughty in their independent security, they paid no attention to treaties. At length they became so troublesome that no alternative was to be chosen between breaking them up or leaving the country.



   Tennessee, at that time, could not boast of men enough to ensure success to the expedition, and at the same time leave enough at home to guard and protect the women and children. Gen. Robertson, therefore, sent to Kentucky for help; it was granted. The brave Col. Whitley (who fell in the last Indian war at the battle of the Thames) soon appeared at Nashville with 180 brave Kentuckians, well armed and appointed; our men were all ready; we were joined by Major Ore of East Tennessee, the commander of the rangers, who had been on an expedition searching for the Indians on the Cumberland mountain; having heard of our expedition, he hastened and joined us with 80 men just as we were ready to start. We now numbered in all 600 men; we took the wilderness with Fenelstone for our guide. Passing on in good order, we reached the Tennessee river on the fourth day of our march about midnight. It was in the month of August, about the year 1798—warm and sultry. We commenced making a few boats with frames of sticks, on which were stretched raw hides that we had packed up and brought along for that purpose. While the boats were getting ready two men swam across the river and kindled up a fire on the opposite shore so as to direct us across, and the men soon commenced crossing. The boats carried the guns and those soldiers who could not swim; others swam across, so that before eight o’clock in the morning, 272 men had crossed over safely.

   We were then four miles below Nickajack and three miles above Crow town; and the morning was so far advanced we could not safely wait for any more to get over for fear of being discovered. We resolved to make the attack even with this small number. Col. Montgomery had got over and took command of the Tennessee troops, and Col. Whitley of the Kentuckians. As the lower creek cut off our direct approach to the town, we had to take a circuit of seven miles and cross over a spur of the mountain so as to descend upon the town in the rear. We would run with all our speed a few moments and then lie down flat on the ground until we took breath and then would run again. We thus soon reached the mountain undiscovered, and sat down and rested on the cliffs quite overlooking the town. We sat there in gloomy silence nearly half an hour—then slid down the rocks unperceived and formed in the underwood in the rear of the town. Whitley commanded the right wing, Montgomery the centre, and Ore the left. We advanced and found the Indians at breakfast. They knew nothing of us until they saw the flash and heard the rifles speak; and then so much were they deceived that the warriors near the bank of the river when they heard our guns came running with drums and shouting for joy, supposing that some of their own people had returned from a successful excursion against the whites, and were firing off their guns in triumph.

   Many of the Indians were shot down on the spot, and the remainder made for the river; and as many as could getting into their canoes, and others swimming with their heads the most of the time under water; yet when they rose to take a breath, the unerring rifle would send them down again, while a red gush of blood boiling up to the surface of the river showed too plainly that they would never rise again. Those in the canoes could not lift a hand to use their paddles; they lay stupefied in the bottoms of their frail barks, while the rifle ball would search them out like an inevitable death warrant.

   During the space of forty-five minutes, we killed 143 Indians, took all the women and children whom we could find as prisoners, and brought them off with us. In this affair we had only two men slightly wounded.

   Long Town lay on the river 2 or 3 miles above.—The troops hastened on to attack it. The path lay along the river bank and close under the ridge of the mountain. When about half way between the two towns, the Indians made a furious attack upon us from the mountain above. The firing was quite sharp for a few minutes—but as their chief lifted his head over a rock to fire, he was shot through the skull and came rolling down the mountain like a huge lump of shapeless flesh. The Indians immediately fled. The brave Thomas, of Nashville, here got his death wound.—The savages firing from above shot him in the bosom, and the ball came out behind quite low down his back. We brought him off alive on a horse litter, but he died soon after our return.

   Our men advanced, burnt Long Town and some other smaller towns unopposed, as the Indians had all fled; we then returned and crossed over to our camp without any other loss than the three wounded (one mortally) mentioned before. We took about 20 canoes, on which we put the wounded, the prisoners, and the goods found in Nickajack—for the Spanish had a store in this fort, and no doubt many villainous Spaniards were killed in the battle, who had often stirred up the Indians against the early American settlers.

   After the canoes had started down the river a band of Indians on the other side of the river from Nickajack commenced an attack, but desisted when told by Fenelstone in the Indian language that if they fired another gun their women and children and prisoners should be instantly put to death. At this moment a squaw who had her infant lashed to her back sprung from one of the canoes and swam to the shore in sight of all our troops, and made her escape.

   Thus closed one of the days of severest fatigue ever experienced in the West. This day’s work closed the Indian wars which had raged for many years with great barbarity. Gen. Robertson left a written notice at his camp, informing the Indians, that if any more murders were committed on the whites, he would raise an army, destroy all their towns and burn their corn. They took the alarm; their strong hold was broken up: many of their chiefs killed, and they sued for peace. A treaty followed—and from that time until the last war they lived in peace.

   All their prisoners were returned to them. The squaws informed us that they had often advised their young men and warrior chiefs to quit killing the white people and stealing their horses or that we would come and kill them all—but their men would not mind them. When they saw us come suddenly upon them on the morning of the battle they concluded that we came out of the clouds.



 
Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.



SELECTED SOURCES

"Early Settlers of the West." Western Methodist (Nashville, Tenn.), March 14, 1834.

"The Battle of Nickajack by the Rev. James Gwin." Western Methodist (Nashville, Tenn.), April 11, 1834.

Image: The Tennessee River Gorge. Author photo.

Illustration: "Expedition against the Cherokee" courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum.

John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero has arrived!

The long wait is finally over! Our publisher, The History Press, just delivered our author copies of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. I can't tell you how excited I am to finally hold a copy of the book in my hand for the first time! Traci and I are both very happy with how it turned out, and we're looking forward to sharing this story with our readers.



For those who pre-ordered author-signed copies of the book from The Posterity Project, they are now on their way to you. We want to thank you for making a purchase and want to remind everyone that it is not too late to take advantage of our special pre-publication offer. Click HERE for details.

John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero is also available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers, as well as your local independent bookstores. Visit the "Books" section of our blog for more information.

As a reminder, we are also lining up several book signing events in this calendar year, so be sure to visit the "Speaking Events" page for details. The first book signing weekend is coming up on April 12-13 in Johnson City and Knoxville. We hope to see you there!


 
Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.

"We were waylaid by the Cherokees"

On March 19, 1839, David Haley of Roane County, Tennessee, wrote a letter to his son living in Madisonville, Mississippi, recounting his experiences in the Revolutionary War and in various military expeditions against the Cherokee and Creek Indians. Following his military service, Haley settled in Tennessee. In his unvarnished account, Haley recalled with matter-of-fact candor the brutal nature of warfare on America’s first frontier:

Dear Sir:

    It affords me great pleasure to give you a history of the part I took in the Revolution and Indian War.

    In the fall of 1776, I went from Virginia to South Carolina where there was volunteers making up to go under Gen’l. Williamson against the Over Hill and Valley Town Cherokee Indians. I volunteered, and I was in front of a battle against 2,000 Indians between the Middle Settlement and Valley Town’s at the head of the Tennessee and Savannah Rivers. There was 2,500 of us. We were waylaid by the Cherokees. We lost about 35 killed and about as many wounded. We drove them from their ambush and kept the field and mountains. We then marched over the Valley Towns and had no more fighting of consequence. Some little scrimmages, burnt several towns, etc. I then returned to Va. And in the Spring of 1777, I volunteered under Genl. Saml. Scott in a Light Horse Company and went against the Creek Indians. In Georgia we held a treaty with them at Golfen’s Cow-Pen on Ogeechee. After the treaty we were stationed on Long Creek in what was called the New Purchase of Georgia on that day. During our stay there the Creek Indians came in one night and stole 7 horses. The next day myself and 21 others went in pursuit of the Indians on foot. 2nd day found the horses, took possession of them and on our way back was waylaid by the Indians about 50 in number. Killed 6 of our men and wounded two badly, but got them back and they lived. In that fight Capt. Thomas Dooley was killed, and had his heel string shot off the first fire and could not run. This was in July 1777.

http://tnsos.org/tsla/imagesearch/citation.php?ImageID=2038
Engraving entitled "Indians attacking a station." The battle depicted is unidentified.
Library Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

   I then returned to Virginia and joined the Va. Militia to reinforce Genl. Gates in South Carolina. We met Gen’l Gates at Hillsboro, August 20, 1780, running from Camden where he had been defeated by Cornwallis (the same battle in August 16, 1780 in which DeKalb was killed). In 1781, I joined Genl. Lawson’s Brigade and went against Lord Cornwallis at Little Yorkstown, Va., where we succeeded in capturing Cornwallis.

    In the fall of 1782, I came out in the country of French Broad and Holston, Tenn., now exploring the country and located some land and entered it at Hillsboro, N.C. in 1783 in Armstrong’s office. In the same year I married and moved straight to the country and settled 12 miles out of the settlement at the mouth of Richland Creek. In 1785, I moved to Richland Creek where I lived two years. The two years before I lived up the settlement. Pretty soon after I moved to Richland Creek the people began to settle in. In 1786 or 1787 I was elected Captain by the people and was commissioned by the Government of N. Carolina. After I had been there about two and one half years the Cherokee Indians broke out war against us and we had to fort nearly three years until the Territorial Government took place. I petitioned the Government of N. Carolina and got my men all under pay, those that had horses, under horseman’s pay and those that had none under foot pay. About this time Genl. Joseph Martin of Va. Came out and raised a company of 450 horsemen. I went with my company with him and we had a hard fight with the Indians. In the battle, Capt. Ballard and Capt. Hardin were killed. After this myself and 43 men went into nation at Hanging Moss Village and killed 12 fellows one morning before breakfast. I must conclude.

Your father,

David Haley

Written accounts from the opposite side of these battles, from the Native American perspective, are quite rare since the Indians of the American Southeast did not establish a written language until the 1820s. Consequently, most primary sources from this era were written from the perspective of the early white settlers. Still, posterity owes a debt of gratitude to Major David Haley for the foresight he had to pen this letter to his son 175 years ago today. Without this account, we would have never known of Haley's experiences during this important time in Tennessee's history. A few months after sending his letter, David Haley died on September 20, 1839, nearly one month shy of his 79th birthday.


 
Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.



SELECTED SOURCES

Letter by David Haley, Roane Co., Tenn., March 19, 1839. Revolutionary War Collection, Manuscript Section, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Tennessee Society Sons of the American Revolution Applications, 1899-1980, Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Chucky Jack's a comin' to East Tennessee!

Image courtesy of Union Avenue Books in Knoxville.
Today, I am pleased to announce that on Saturday, April 12th and Sunday, April 13th, I will travel to Johnson City and Knoxville to attend two book signings in support of our book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero.

The first book signing event is on Saturday, April 12, 2014, from 2pm to 4pm ET at the Barnes & Noble located at 3030 Franklin Terrace in Johnson City, Tennessee.

The next day, on Sunday, April 13, 2014, from 2pm to 4pm ET, I visit Union Avenue Books in Knoxville for a brief reading from the book and book signing. Union Avenue Books is located in The Daylight Building on 517 Union Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity to share John Sevier's story right in the middle of his old stomping grounds in East Tennessee. I hope to see you there!

I hope you'll also take a moment to visit the "Speaking Events" page on this blog where you'll find a list of our past and upcoming events, along with contact information for scheduling future book signings. Stay tuned for more updates on the book tour in future blog posts.
 

 
Gordon Belt is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee. His book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory.
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