"That distinguished fellow citizen, statesman, and patriot." The death of John Sevier...

   In recognition of the upcoming 200th anniversary of John Sevier's death, I offer the following edited excerpt from my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero...

   September 24, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of John Sevier's death. Sevier passed away following a brief illness suffered during a journey to survey Creek territory. Following Andrew Jackson’s conquest of the Creeks and the resulting Treaty of Fort Jackson which effectively ended the Creek War, President James Madison appointed Sevier as a commissioner to run the boundary line of the new Creek Nation. The terms of the treaty ceded more than 20 million acres of Creek territory in southern Georgia and central Alabama to their 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 mission.

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.

   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 9, he observed that one of his traveling companions, a man named Dicky Brown, 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.

   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 re-elected 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.”

June 17, 1889, a plum tree shadows the grave site of John Sevier near Decatur, Alabama.
Tennessee Historical Society Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

   Following this month-long period of mourning, Sevier’s remains lay buried beneath that charred oak stump for several decades before any effort commenced to resurrect his memory from the Alabama soil. Years of weathering and decay removed most outward signs of Sevier’s final resting place. By the summer of 1834, a man who helped bury Sevier’s body, Captain William Walker, returned with his nephew, John Harbinson, to locate the grave. In a letter penned on December 5, 1874, a native Tennessean living in Alabama named Littleberry Strange recalled Capt. Walker’s visit:

We went to the place where [Harbinson] stated Gov. Sevier was buried ; we commenced and continued digging until we struck a hard substance in the surface.

We dug up the substance, and found it to be the charred end of a post oak log or stump, some two or two and a half feet long. Mr. Harbinson identified that as the place where lay the remains of Gov. Sevier.

Capt. Walker took a light wood knot, some two feet long, placed it in the hole from which we had taken the charred end of the post oak log and said that there he intended to place a marble slab.

In 1836 Capt. Walker went with Gen’l Jessup to Florida, to the Seminole War, where he died without carrying out his noble purpose of placing the marble slab at the head of the grave of John Sevier.

Capt. Walker was a noble man; he was a patriot; he loved his country; he loved the noble dead, and for these qualities I esteem him.

And that his noble purpose might be carried out — he and Harbinson both being dead — I — for the purpose of carrying out his intention, and for the further purpose of assuring posterity of the location of the last resting place of a noble man — I, in 1841, procured marble slab and stone and placed them at the head and foot of the grave of Gov. John Sevier, and I have no doubt that these stones mark the true spot.

   The small white marble headstone that Littleberry Strange placed on that site measured two feet wide by two inches thick and bore the simple inscription:

“J. Sevier. died Sept. 24th 1815.”

John Sevier's original tombstone, now located on the facade of the Old Knox County Courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Author photo.

   Posterity neither erected a statue in his honor nor embellished his epitaph with details. Years later, Sevier’s grandson, George Washington Sevier, grieved, “That arm that so often drew the sword in defense of his country has long mouldered in the soil of a sister State and Tennessee does not now know where the mortal remains of Gen. John Sevier lies.” While no monument yet stood in Sevier’s memory, in his Annals of Tennessee, J. G. M. Ramsey delivered a poetic tribute which offered mourners some solace:

How died that hero In the field, with banners o’er him thrown
With trumpets in his falling ear by charging squadrons blown
With scattered foemen flying fast and fearfully before him
With shouts of triumph swelling round, and brave men bending o’er him
He died not thus ; no war note round him rang ;

No warriors underneath his eyes in harness’d squadrons sprang ;
Alone he perished in the land he sav’d,
And where in war the victor stood, in peace he found a grave.
Ah, let the tear flow freely now, it will not awake the sleeper.
And higher as ye pile his tomb, his slumber shall be deeper.

Freemen may sound the solemn dirge — the funeral chant be spoken ;
The quiet of the dead is not by idle mockeries broken !
Yet, let Tennessee’s banner droop above the fallen chief.
And let the mountaineer’s dark eye be dim with earnest grief ;
For who will stand as he has stood, with willing heart and hand,
To wrestle well with freedom’s foes,— defender of his land !

   As time passed and memories grew distant, John Sevier’s body remained buried in the Alabama soil. Over time, his humble grave deteriorated as the legend of “Nolichucky Jack” faded. His frontier exploits vanished from the public consciousness. An editorial published in the Nashville True Whig lamented, "History has been strangely neglectful of the memory of this, one of the most distinguished pioneers of our State." Not until the end of Reconstruction following the Civil War did Sevier’s remains and memory finally receive honor in a manner fitting of “Tennessee’s First Hero.”


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.

"History is never true."

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

   History is never true. At no moment in the course of historical recording are all the facts known. The documents come to light serially, sporadically; all of them are never available at the same time. Centuries may elapse before the story of the World War is adequately told. A century, two centuries may pass before even a single movement or episode in a nation's history is understood.

   Nor is it easy to arrive at the truth, even when all the essential factors in the historical problem or situation are ready to hand. For all history, as the great Italian critic, Benedetto Croce, has brilliantly pointed out, is contemporaneous. The writer, in dealing with times remote, interprets ideas, movements and events in the light of his own personal knowledge, experience and temperament. He cannot step off his own shadow. Even when he is writing of his own age and is strictly contemporaneous, he suffers the handicap of writing with insufficient data. History, written by a contemporary, is likely to be less accurate, less truthful than the history of the past written by someone living in the present.

   If history is always contemporaneous and never true, there would seem to be no reason for its existence. The best excuse for the historical writer is that it is his function to correct the most glaring errors, to fill in the most yawning lacunae, in the writings of his predecessors. In so doing, he is giving a "new slant" to interpretation, or furnishing a new platform from which his successors may enter new fields of research.

-- Remarks by Archibald Henderson, "The Transylvania Company and the Founding of Henderson, K.Y.," delivered at the unveiling of six historical tablets at the Henderson Courthouse, October 11, 1929.


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.

"Your most obedient humble servant." Salutations from America's first frontier

   John Sevier often ended his letters with the following valediction:

"Your most obedient humble servant."

   During the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, men of Sevier's social and political stature used some version of this phrase so frequently that I thought it appropriate to use it myself during book signing events for John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. The gesture evokes feelings of loyalty and humility, and projects a statesmanlike quality that I find admirable.

   The expression of good manners found in this polite farewell greeting was once considered a hallmark of a gentleman. With modern society's current obsession with social media soundbites and hashtags, however, I feel that we have lost the simple civility expressed in these kind words. When was the last time you received a hand-written letter, much less a "Sincerely Yours" that was, in fact, sincere?

   In my ongoing effort to root myself more deeply in the time-honored traditions of the past, I wanted to learn more about the letter writing practices of this earlier time. So, I've compiled a brief list of books I'm planning to read on this subject. I share them with you today as "Your most obedient humble servant."

Sincerely Yours,

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.

Recollections of Watauga...

   The month of July marks an important anniversary in the history of my home state of Tennessee. In July of 1776, settlers of the Holston, Watauga, and Nolichucky river valleys came under attack by Native American warriors led by the Cherokee Chief Old Abraham (or "Abram") of Chilhowee. Repulsed in the initial attack, the Cherokees besieged Fort Caswell on the Watauga (known also as Fort Watauga) for two weeks. John Sevier's defense of the fort, and the legends that followed, helped forge his reputation as a military leader and political force in the region. Following up on my earlier blog entry about William Tatham as an eyewitness to the Siege of Fort Watauga, I'd like to share a few more recollections of this important event in early Tennessee history...

   Few contemporary accounts of the Siege of Fort Watauga survive. They do exist, however, for those who wish to find them. They remain buried deep within the manuscripts collected by the nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper, documented in Revolutionary War pension applications, and printed in the pages of early newspaper accounts. Tennessee's collective memory of the siege, however, rests firmly in the nostalgic prose of Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey's 1853 book, Annals of Tennessee. In his seminal work chronicling Tennessee's early history, Ramsey wistfully recalled his research visit to view the remnants of Fort Watauga. He wrote...

   "The spot is easily identified by a few graves and the large locust tree standing conspicuously on the right of the road leading to Elizabethton. Let it ever be a sacrilege to cut down that old locust tree – growing, as it does, near the ruins of the Watauga fort which sheltered the pioneer and protected his family."

   Ramsey considered his research visits to Elizabethton a pilgrimage. Watauga had captured Ramsey's imagination "with intense curiosity and almost with veneration." In his Annals of Tennessee, Ramsey declared Watauga "the abode and resting place of enterprise, virtue, hardihood, patriotism—the ancestral monument of real worth and genuine greatness." [Ramsey, 140-141]

Watauga Fort Marker
Image credit: The Historical Marker Database

   Few recollections from the actual defenders of Fort Watauga eclipsed Ramsey's romantic narrative, yet two reports that surfaced less than one month after the attack echoed his patriotic sentiment.

   An "Account of the Attack of Watauga Fort by the Cherokees," published in August of 1776, and widely circulated among newspapers of the period, revealed the following:

Williamsburgh, Virginia, August 10, 1776.

   A correspondent has favoured us with extracts of letters from officers of rank in Fincastle, from which we learn, that on Sunday, the 21st of July, a large party of Indians attacked the Watauga Fort, in which were one hundred and fifty men. They fired on a great number of women, who went out at daybreak to milk their cows, and chased them into the fort, but providentially did not kill one of them.

   They fired briskly on the fort till eight o' clock, but without effect, and then retired, with considerable loss, as was supposed from the quantity of blood found; but they returned to the attack, and were besieging the fort six days after, as a messenger, who was slipped out, informed our men on Holstein. A detachment was sent to relieve the fort, and it was expected they would do so on Monday, the 29th. A party of one hundred men of the Militia fell in with a party of forty Cherokees, who were fifty miles on this side the Island, at one of the deserted plantations, and killed five, took one prisoner, and twenty guns.

   It is worthy of our observation, that in these several skirmishes with the Indians, in all of which we did more execution than in some of the principal actions of the last war, we lost not a man. No one can reflect on this, and many other circumstances which have attended the present war with the British tyrant, without acknowledging that he sees evident proofs of the Divine interposition in our favour. [LINK]

The Fort Watauga reconstruction at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The original fort was built in the mid-1770s to protect the Watauga settlers from Cherokee attacks. The fort was reconstructed in the 1970s based on archaeological evidence and the design of contemporary Appalachian frontier forts.
Image and caption credit: Wikimedia Commons.

   Further, "Intelligence from Williamsburgh, Virginia," published on August 16, 1776, detailed the depredations endured by the settlers prior to the Siege of Fort Watauga, and placed the Indian Wars in regional context, less than one month after the siege...

Williamsburgh, August 16, 1776.

   On Tuesday, the 13th instant, the First Virginia Regiment in the Continental service marched from this city for New York. From undoubted authority we can assure the publick that fifteen thousand weight of pure lead have been got from our mines in the back country, which, after being cast into bullets, we hope will be unerringly directed against our enemies.

   The last advices from the back country are, that the Cherokee and Creek Indians, to the number of between six and seven hundred, are encamped in Carter's valley, from whence they send out parties against the settlements, some of which had penetrated near one hundred miles on this side of the Big Island, carrying destruction wherever they come, by burning houses, fences, fields of wheat and other grain, and turning droves of horses into the corn-fields. Upwards of one thousand head of horses have been driven off, and a great number of cattle; the sheep and hogs they shoot down. They have killed and scalped eighteen men, one or two women, and several children; some of the people were most barbarously murdered, too shocking to relate.

   The ruined settlers had collected themselves together at different places, and forted themselves, four hundred and upwards at Major Shelby' s, about the same number at Captain Campbell's, and a considerable number at Amos Eaton' s. The fort at Watauga, which was besieged by four hundred savages, are now relieved, the Indians having abandoned their enterprise upon the approach of Colonel Russell, with about three hundred men. In all the skirmishes with the Indians our people have continually worsted them, and, in the whole, have killed and scalped twenty-seven, and badly wounded many others, as was discovered by the tracks of blood. A man from the frontiers of Georgia had arrived in Fincastle, who declared upon oath, that he saw upwards of one hundred people buried in one day, who were killed by the Creek Indians.

   By an express from Colonel Russell, of Fincastle, we learn, that on his approaching the Watauga Fort with the men under his command, the Indians retired precipitately; however, not without losing one man, and having two wounded, by a party that pursued them. The fort was thus fortunately relieved after a fortnight's close siege, during the greater part of which time our people lived on parched corn. There were supposed to be five hundred women and children in this little fort, who fled there for shelter on hearing that the Indians were marching into that part of the country. We lost not a man in this long affair, except four or five who ventured out to drive in some cows; these were found scalped.

   The number of Indians concerned in the different ravages lately committed in Fincastle amount to six or seven hundred, some say eight hundred; and yet, sudden as their attack was, they murdered in all their butchering parties but eighteen persons, and wounded six, whilst our men killed in the skirmishes with them twenty-six on the spot, (as many were carried off dead,) took one prisoner, and wounded at least as many as they killed. As the Cherokees have been so completely checked in their career, and we understand from Fort Pitt that the Northern Indians are not disposed to attack us in that quarter, and have only engaged not to suffer us to march through their country against Detroit, we may hope that there is not much to be dreaded from the terrible combination of Indians we have been threatened with by our enemies. [LINK]

   It is curious to note that not one of these reports specifically mention John Sevier's heroic defense of Fort Watauga, or Bonny Kate's dramatic rescue from her Cherokee pursuers in the moments preceding the siege. Yet, those stories endure in oral narratives and secondary accounts published years after the fact as key episodes in the drama of the Siege of Fort Watauga. In this season of independence, I offer these contemporary accounts as an act of remembrance of the Siege of Fort Watauga.


  • American Archives, ed., Peter Force. Available online, courtesy of Northern Illinois University Library, http://amarch.lib.niu.edu/.


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.

Who's your daddy, Tennessee?

   Over on the Tennessee State Library and Archives blog, for Father's Day, I penned a brief, lighthearted post inviting reader comments on who best deserves the moniker of "Father of Tennessee." Is it James Robertson, founder of Nashville, or John Sevier, "Tennessee's First Hero" and first governor of Tennessee?

   Many chroniclers of early Tennessee history have proclaimed James Robertson as the “Father of Tennessee.” As a leader of both the Watauga and Cumberland settlements, Robertson is credited with establishing the first frontier settlements in what would later become the state of Tennessee. Together with John Donelson, he co-founded Fort Nashborough, which later became the city of Nashville.

   Other writers, however, contend that John Sevier is our state’s founding father and deserves recognition as the “Father of Tennessee.” Sevier stood alone as a towering figure in early Tennessee politics as a celebrated frontiersman, a revered military leader of the Revolutionary War, a respected and feared Indian fighter, and Tennessee’s first governor.

   My opinion is somewhat biased on the matter, so I invite readers to visit the TSLA Blog and Facebook page to make their own opinions known. You can read the entire article online HERE on the TSLA Blog.

Happy Father's Day, everyone!

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.

Polygamy on the Early Tennessee Frontier

   Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to Cumberland University professor Dr. Natalie Inman as she delivered a thought-provoking lecture to members of the Tennessee Historical Society at the Fort Negley Visitor's Center. Her presentation, "Polygamy in the Early Republic: The Case of Indian Agent Joseph Martin," not only covered Martin's wildly fascinating married life -- he had 23 children with four different wives, white and Cherokee -- but also examined the polygamist culture that existed on the Tennessee frontier.

   According to Dr. Inman, intermarriage between white settlers and Native Americans became a necessary survival tactic on America's new frontier. Inman argued that white men needed Cherokee wives to conduct business on the frontier as a means of cross-cultural cooperation. Cherokee culture embraced a maternally-focused family structure, unlike Euro-American cultures which were inherently paternalistic. Within the Cherokee family structure women held far more power than men. Recognizing this, white men often married Cherokee wives not for love, but rather in order to acquire land or negotiate trade routes. Inman argued that Indian Agents, like Martin, used marriage as a negotiating tactic in diplomatic relations, and though frowned upon in America's Euro-centric culture, both intermarriage and adultery were accepted norms on America's early frontier.

The acquisition of land was a frequent ambition of white settlers of "THE CHEROKEE COUNTRY," and white men often relinquished control to women in the maternalistic Cherokee culture in order to obtain land rights and diplomatic leverage in trade negotiations. 
Image credit: The Project Gutenberg eBook of Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney, 1900.

   Inman also discussed the rivalry that existed between Martin and John Sevier, a topic I briefly explored here on The Posterity Project a few months ago. Martin's position as an agent and superintendent of Cherokee Indian affairs put him squarely at odds with Sevier, who saw the Cherokees as a threat to establishing sovereignty for his fragile State of Franklin movement. During her talk, Inman described Martin as a "warrior" who protected his Cherokee family against Sevier's unnecessary aggression, while he simultaneously sought protection for his white family during the State of Franklin conflict. According to Inman, hard times created more complex household structures, and on the American frontier, complex families, like Martin's, were more common than one might expect.

Questions about John Sevier's own married past...

   As a public historian, I make my living, in part, by seeking the truth about our collective past. In my ongoing blog series about John Sevier, and in my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I have frequently challenged long-held traditions and beliefs in search for the truth. Sometimes, this quest for truth leads me down elusive paths.

   One of the unanswered questions that I occasionally receive from readers concerns Sevier's descendants -- more specifically his relationship with the indigenous Cherokee population of Tennessee, and rumors of an alleged affair Sevier had with an unknown Cherokee woman. Whispers of this rumor can be found on various online publications and genealogy forums, but finding credible primary and secondary published sources to back up those online claims has proved challenging.

   One recently published online article asserts, "several families claim a lineage to John Sevier and an unknown Cherokee Indian woman. Their daughter, Winney Alice Sevier, was left by her mother in Russell County, Virginia, at the Henry Campbell farm. Winney later fell in love with Campbell’s son, Abraham, whom she married and lived with in a home on the adjacent farm." The article borrows liberally from previously published narratives of Sevier's life without attribution, and so I hesitate to give much weight to this assertion.

   Another name recently surfaced in my email correspondence with Sevier descendants. Obedience Hillard Sevier is a name cited on genealogy message boards as someone with a familial connection to Sevier. Some allege that Sevier fathered Obedience with a Cherokee mistress, while others state that Obedience was an indentured servant to the Sevier family who took on her master's name. Still others claim there was likely no relation to Sevier whatsoever, and the connection is based purely on myth and misinformation. The latter claim seems more plausible to me, but after hearing Dr. Inman's lecture, I do wonder... Did Sevier engage in his own "diplomatic" relations with the Cherokees in the same ways as his enemy, Joseph Martin?

A thought-provoking question...

   I want to clearly state that I am not a professional genealogist, and my book is not a genealogy of the Sevier family. John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero examines Sevier's life within the context of history and memory. It is not a Sevier family history. Still, I have extensively researched Sevier's life, with particular attention to his military campaigns against the Cherokees.

   I have yet to encounter a credible source that definitively proves a familial link to Sevier and the mysterious Cherokee children sharing his surname, and I certainly cannot project the actions of those like Martin onto Sevier. Yet, the question about Sevier's alleged affair with a Cherokee mistress persists. This is a question that I'm sure some will find provoking, but one that I hope will challenge us all to examine the past, "warts and all."

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.