Dean Cornwell's artistic vision of John Sevier

   In my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I examine how historians, storytellers, aging Revolutionary War veterans, and Sevier descendants remembered John Sevier and his accomplishments. Artists are another group mentioned in my book. Charles Willson Peale's enduring portrait of John Sevier, for example, served as inspiration for the cover of my book and showed how an artist's patriotic vision helped bring Sevier's reputation as "Tennessee's First Hero" into visual focus.

   Illustrator Dean Cornwell also helped shape the public memory of Tennessee's early history and John Sevier's role in it. A prolific artist of the early twentieth century, Cornwell illustrated several works for a wide variety of magazines and advertisers and painted more than twenty murals for various public institutions. In the process, Cornwell became one of the nation's most popular and famous muralists.

   In Tennessee, Cornwell painted several extraordinary murals during the Great Depression. In 1937 Cornwell painted an Art Deco style mural for the Davidson County Courthouse which one scholar described as one of the "most important Public Works of Art projects in Tennessee." For that work, Cornwell chose a scheme of four allegorical figures in heroic poses to represent themes of Agriculture, Industry, Commerce, and Statesmanship -- a consistent artistic theme that carried over into two of his later works located within the John Sevier State Office Building in downtown Nashville.

In this allegorical depiction of early Tennessee history, John Sevier is the central figure in Dean Cornwell's colorful mural, The Discovery of Tennessee. Author Photo.

   In 1941, Cornwell painted The Discovery of Tennessee and The Development of Tennessee in the grand entrance to this New Deal era structure. The murals, located on opposing walls of the building's grand entrance, depict two distinct phases of Tennessee history. On one mural Cornwell's artistic vision of early Tennessee history surrounds John Sevier dressed in full Revolutionary War uniform and flanked by a patriotic thirteen-star American flag. Cornwell positioned Andrew Jackson at the center of the mural located on the opposite wall surrounded by similar depictions of Tennessee history from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

   Known for his extensive research into the history and geography of his subjects, Cornwell took great pains to present his artistic vision of Tennessee's past as historically accurate as possible. The detail found in Cornwell's artwork is striking, right down to the stitches in the clothing painted on the walls of this vast mural. Cornwell's work evokes feelings of power and nostalgia for a patriotic past, something America needed in this particular time of economic uncertainty.

One half of Dean Cornwell's mural located in the lobby of the John Sevier State Office Building in Nashville, Tennessee. On the left, Cornwell poses for a photograph with his artistic vision of Andrew Jackson and Tennessee History in this image from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, Record Group 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

   The fact that these two murals face one another seems somewhat ironic considering the personal animosity that existed between Sevier and Jackson. Yet upon reflection, I think Cornwell's positioning of these historic icons accurately portrayed public sentiment toward these two towering figures of the "Volunteer State." The writer E. E. Miller once said of Tennesseans, "We have had no real State hero since the pioneer days. The list began with John Sevier and ended with Andrew Jackson." I think Cornwell would likely agree with Miller's statement and perhaps sought some sort of artistic validation for Miller's words in the creation of this historic mural.

   The John Sevier State Office Building stands as a historic reminder of the New Deal era architecture that brought stability to a chaotic world mired in a Great Depression. Sadly, the architectural legacy left behind by this building, and the mural within it, have been long forgotten by those who prefer the modern efficiencies of the twenty-first century workplace. Those of us who appreciate Tennessee's historic buildings, on the other hand, certainly hope and pray that this building, and others like it, survive society's inevitable move toward modernity.

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.


"A century of progress: twentieth century painting in Tennessee." Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 2002, Volume LXI, Number 1. pp. 25-26.

Walt Reed. The Illustrator in America, 1880-1980: A Century of Illustration. New York: Published for the Society of Illustrators by Madison Square Press, 1984, p. 119.

"Dean Cornwell." Retrieved July 12, 2014, from the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.

"Dean Cornwell: American Imagist." Retrieved July 8, 2014, from the National Museum of American Illustration.

Gentleman, scholar, mentor, hero, and friend. My personal tribute to John Seigenthaler...

   I have been blessed to have had many great bosses throughout my career, but without question, one of the most inspiring leaders I've ever followed was my former boss, mentor and friend, John Seigenthaler.

   I worked for John Seigenthaler as the Library Manager for the First Amendment Center for nine years before moving on to my current position as Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Moving on wasn't easy. I loved my job, and I loved working for Mr. Seigenthaler. Serving John Seigenthaler at the First Amendment Center Library was one of the greatest honors of my professional life.

   John Seigenthaler died on Friday at the age of 86. He lived a full life of purpose and consequence. As a champion of Civil Rights he showed bravery in the face of hate and fear in his defense of the Freedom Riders and became a fierce advocate for diversity in the newsroom. As editor of The Tennessean and USA TODAY he wrote eloquently in defense of journalistic integrity and the free flow of ideas. John Seigenthaler valued truth and accuracy in reporting, and he guarded the cause of free speech and freedom of the press like a sentinel. Throughout his life and as founder of the First Amendment Center he was an unwavering defender of the 45 words of the First Amendment for everyone, not just the privileged few.

   John Seigenthaler had a commanding presence, yet was humble, approachable and friendly. He treated everyone with whom he had contact as equals, and still, when you met John Seigenthaler you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Mr. Seigenthaler will be missed by all who knew him, including me, a young researcher with a passion for history who he frequently sought out as an "expert" whenever he needed to find some obscure fact, quote or statistic. I cherished each and every opportunity to serve him during my days at the First Amendment Center because I knew I was serving the greater good of freedom through his work.

In April 2012, John Seigenthaler invited us to the set of Nashville Public Television's "A Word on Words" for an interview about our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War.

   John Seigenthaler was incredibly generous with his time and had a sincere affection for those who he called a friend. I'll share two moments of reflection as examples of his generous spirit. In 2003, Mr. Seigenthaler delivered the commencement address to my graduating class at MTSU. During his speech, he encouraged us graduates to embrace open mindedness and the diversity of our culture even in the most challenging of times. Following his inspiring words, as I walked the aisle to pick up my graduate degree, he greeted me with an embrace, and proudly shook my hand as if he had known me forever, even though I had only known him for a few short months. A few years later, I had the privilege of introducing him as the keynote speaker during the Society of Tennessee Archivists annual meeting in 2011. He generously shared his life story with our group, and thanked all of us archivists for the work that we do to help preserve the rich history of our collective past. I think he enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed his, and I remain forever grateful for the time he took to share his life story with us.

   One of the last conversations I had with Mr. Seigenthaler was on April 11th, exactly three months prior to the day of his death. I stopped by the First Amendment Center for a visit, and I had the opportunity to chat with him about our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. Mr. Seigenthaler had a keen passion for Tennessee history, something we both shared, so it was such a pleasure to get to talk to him about "Tennessee's First Hero." In 2004, he published a biography of James K. Polk, and was actively researching the life of suffragist Alice Paul for another book project. Most recently, he took on the task of editing the Encyclopedia of Nashville, and was excited to talk to me about his research into the life of former Nashville Mayor Hilary House for a planned entry in the Encyclopedia.

   A few years earlier, my wife and I had the great honor to be interviewed by Mr. Seigenthaler for his television program, "A Word on Words," shortly after the publication of our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers. During our informal chat in April, Mr. Seigenthaler and I talked about scheduling a return trip to the Nashville Public Television studios to record another interview to help spread the word about our latest book about John Sevier, but my conversation with him in his office -- just the two of us -- I wouldn't trade those moments for any camera time in the world.

   I will cherish my memories of John Seigenthaler, and I pray that his family and many friends find solace in the fact that his life touched so many people in a positive way. He was a gentleman, scholar, mentor, hero, and friend to so many people, including me. I will miss him deeply. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

July brings two more opportunities to celebrate...

Independence Day is an obvious occasion to celebrate during the month of July, but on a personal note, I'd also like to take this opportunity to celebrate the outpouring of support our book projects have received by readers. In 2011, Traci and I published our first book, Onward Southern Soldiers: Religion and the Army of Tennessee in the Civil War, and this year, we've enjoyed touring the state to promote our latest History Press title, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. We're truly honored and blessed to live in a country that affords us the opportunity to pursue our publishing dreams, and we'd like to take this opportunity to celebrate the 4th of July by thanking all our readers for your interest and support!

This month brings two more opportunities to celebrate with us!

On Friday, July 4th, we travel to Smithville, Tennessee to attend the Fiddler's Jamboree. From 1-5 pm we will be on hand to sign copies of John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero at a meet-and-greet book signing at the F. Z. Webb & Sons Pharmacy and Gift Shop. The gift shop is centrally located on the town square at 400 W. Public Square, in Smithville, so if you're in the area for the Fiddler's Jamboree, stop by to see us!

On Tuesday, July 15th, we visit Greenbrier, Tennessee to deliver a lecture and book signing at the Greenbrier Historical Society Annual Meeting. The meeting will take place at 7pm at the First Baptist Church – Fellowship Hall on Hwy 41-N., in Greenbrier. Please visit the society's Facebook page for more information. We hope to see you there!

"The stillness of death prevailed."

While the 1785 Treaty of New Hopewell officially ended fighting with the Cherokees, a rogue band of warriors led by the Chickamauga chiefs Doublehead and Dragging Canoe continued their resistance against the white settlement of land they considered native soil.

In the terms of that treaty, the Cherokees gave up land south of the Cumberland River in return for protection of other tribal lands, but the Chickamauga Cherokees would have none of it. For these warriors, the battle continued.

Many historians consider the Battle of Rock Island an important turning point in the Indian Wars of Tennessee. This small but brutal engagement on the banks of the Caney Fork River was the final armed conflict of the Indian Wars before the Cherokees signed the Treaty of Tellico, effectively ending hostilities between the two factions.

Years later, surviving veterans of this engagement recalled their participation in the battle in accounts recorded by Lyman Draper, the nineteenth-century antiquarian who made it his mission to "rescue from oblivion the memory of its early pioneers and to obtain and preserve narratives of their exploits."‎

Other writers published recollections of the battle, including the Reverend James Gwin, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who also fought against the Cherokees at Caney Fork and Nickajack. On March 21, 1834, the Western Methodist newspaper published Reverend Gwin's account of his participation in the Battle of Rock Island. This is his story...

"Lieutenant Snoddie's Battle With The Indians," written by the Rev. James Gwin for the [Nashville] Western Methodist, March 21, 1834

   This battle was fought in the Horse Shoe Bend of the Caney Fork river, in November, 1792. At that time the people of this country were generally shut up in stations and block houses; and we did not at any time or place feel that we were safe from Indian violence. The plough-man had to be guarded in his field while tending his crop. The sentinel was generally placed outside of the field at those points where the foes would most likely make their approach, or seek to be in ambush. The time of the greatest danger was in going out in the morning to our work, for at such times we did not know at what moment we would hear the yells of savages and the report of the Indian’s gun. They would lie in close concealment, and the first discovery we would make of them, would be by the blaze of their rifles and so frequently was the laborer arrested and killed on his way to his work that we adopted the following method: early in the morning, before any person would venture out to his farm or field, we would take our rifles and mount some of our swiftest horses and set out our hunting or bear dogs and pass round the field or place of labor, and scour the woods; then guard the laborer as above noticed.

The Battle of Rock Island occurred on the Horseshoe Bend of the Caney Fork River.
Image credit: Rock Island State Park.

   We had to keep guard at night in our block houses, for we were often attacked in the night. The enemy would come sometimes with torches of hickory bark and attempt to set our station on fire. About this time a large body of Indians attacked Greenfield station. It was early in the morning before any person had left the station. The enemy advanced within a short distance of the station before they were discovered, and with an awful yell the savages shouted to the attack. The station was feeble in point of numbers, for there were but few men in it—but by the efforts of a few brave fellows, led on by the gallant William Hall, now General Hall of Sumner county, the station was saved. This brave youth, not then more than 18 years old, under a shower of arrows and rifle balls threw open the gate, and followed by the few men that he had, rushed upon the foe, drove them from their coverts, and by a well directed fire which was sent among them, brought several of their leaders to the ground; at which they gathered up their dead and fled to the wilderness.

   At length the Indians became so troublesome that we had to form scouting parties and surprise them at their camps, and so scout the country. Lieutenant Snoddie was ordered out on a tour of this kind. He started with thirty four mounted men, with rifles or muskets—crossed Cumberland river and ranged up Caney Fork river. We had travelled about thirty miles through the wilderness, when we discovered a large Indian camp, which we fired upon, and found in it but one Indian—and he made his escape; all the rest being out hunting as we supposed. From packages and other things, we were convinced that there could not be belonging to the camp less than fifty or sixty warriors. We took all their plunder, ammunition and implements of war which they had left at the camp. It was now near sun set and we determined to encamp within a short distance of them, and to pursue them in the morning. We made choice of a high bluff on the river, where there was an ancient stone wall, but now fallen down and lying in ruins. We laid off our encampment in a semicircle, with each wing reaching to the Bluff, and our horses and packages brought into the centre. The ground was broken and the timber small, we prepared ourselves in the best way we could for an attack, if the Indians should have courage enough to make one, all but the sentinels lay down to rest, but not to sleep. It was not long however, before the Indians began to collect their forces, and this they accomplished in perfect character with their wild and savage nature. They would imitate the wolf in his howl, screams like the panther—and then they would bark like a fox, while others hooted like an owl; and indeed the notes of almost all kinds of wild animals were heard during the night. At length a most horrid yell, supposed to be made by the chief, designated the place where all were to meet. The night was dark and rainy, and in the darkness of the night they examined the ground we occupied and held intercourse with each other by wild and savage notes. These movements produced sensations of mind more awful and terrific than even the rush of battle. 

"The Passage" - Cherokee Indian statue in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Author photo.

   A little before day, all was hushed; the stillness of death prevailed, except the pattering of the falling rain. During this silence, the Indians crept up within forty steps of us, and the first discovery we had of them was the snapping of their guns. In consequence of the rain that fell during the night, there priming had become damp, and but few of their guns went off; this was much in our favor—for our arms were well secured, and this gave us a decided advantage over them. As soon as the attempt was made to fire, the yell for blood was heard almost all round our line; for they had well nigh surrounded us. Our men also shouted to the battle and poured in a shower of rifle balls among them. It was now day-light, and the Indians brought all their force to bear upon the centre of our ranks, and the contest became close and desperate. At the first fire, four of our men broke, left us and made the best of their way home. This left but thirty to contend with sixty warriors, led on by a Shawnee chief. The enemy drew up within twenty five steps and fought bravely; but they had to contend with a Spartan band who seldom threw away a shot. 

   James Madell, a cool and skillful marksman, had taken his stand in the centre of the line; the courageous Lattimore and Seaberry stood behind him.—They kept up a constant fire until Lattimore and Seaberry had both fallen to rise no more. Madell still stood at his post, shooting from the right side of his tree, but which his body was protected. After having shot down 2 or 3 Indians, he discovered the chief lying all along on the ground loading his gun. Madell had but two balls in his gun; he reserved his fire and waited on the chief till he would rise to shoot, at length he raised his head above the grass to fire, and received the two balls of Madell’s gun down his throat, which dropped him dead upon his arms. As soon as the chief had fallen, the war-whoop ceased, and the Indians determined to carry their dead chief with them off the field, which was contrary to the wishes of our men,--so for a few moments the battle raged anew around the body of the fallen chief, until H. Shoddar, a Dutchman, who had a large British musket, put seven rifle balls in it and fired in the midst of them—at which they broke and left their chief behind, though they carried off the rest of their dead and wounded into a thick canebrake just below on the river.

   Thus ended our little battle. We learned afterwards that 13 Indians were killed and several wounded, who died soon after. We had 2 killed and 3 wounded; one of the wounded we had to bring in on a horse litter. We lost also several of our horses in the engagement; but, truly the victory was on our side.

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.


"Lieutenant Snoddie's Battle With The Indians," Western Methodist, March 21, 1834.

"Reminiscences of Snoddy's Fight, November 1793" (From Capt. Wm. Reid, of Sumner Co., Tenn. about 79 in 1844.) Draper Manuscripts, 32S 490-493.

John Carr. Early Times in Middle Tennessee. Nashville, Tenn.: Parthenon Press, 1958, c1857.

John Haywood. Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee from Its Earliest Settlement Up To the Year 1796. New York: Arno Press, 1971, c1823.

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, pp. 362-363.

Rickey Butch Walker. Doublehead: Last Chickamauga Cherokee Chief. Heart of Dixie Publishing, 2012.

Albert V. Goodpasture. "Indian Wars and Warriors in Old Southwest." Tennessee Historical Magazine, Vol. 4, Nashville, 1915. [cited in Brown, 363n29]

A busy June includes a visit to Marble Springs...

In June, we are grateful to have three opportunities to discuss our latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero...

Barnes & Noble, Saturday, June 14th

First, to folks in Middle Tennessee, we invite you to join us on Saturday, June 14, 2014, when we visit the Barnes & Noble in Brentwood from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. (CT). The store is located at 1701 Mallory Lane, Brentwood, TN 37027. Be sure to mark your calendars for this meet-and-greet book signing. We hope to see you there!

Marble Springs, Saturday, June 21st

Marble Springs State Historic Site. Author photo.
On Saturday, June 21, 2014, we make a return trip to Knoxville where have the honor of presenting a lecture and book signing at the Marble Springs State Historic Site, John Sevier's plantation home. The Governor John Sevier Memorial Association hosts their Annual Meeting of the membership on this date, and Traci and I have the great pleasure of being the featured guest speakers for the Annual Meeting.

The Annual Meeting and luncheon for members is planned at Noon (ET), followed by our lecture and book signing at 1:00 p.m. (ET). While the lecture and book signing is open to the public, registration is required to attend the luncheon. Marble Springs State Historic Site is located at 1220 W. Gov. John Sevier Hwy., Knoxville, TN 37920. Contact 865-573-5508 for more information about this event.

If you've ever considered supporting Marble Springs, or if you plan to renew your membership to the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. The Governor John Sevier Memorial Association is a non-profit organization that operates and maintains the Marble Springs State Historic Site, and it is the only site that interprets the life of John Sevier. To become a member, we encourage you to visit the Marble Springs website for more information at:!support/ccbt. We're grateful to Marble Springs Executive Director Anna Schaad Chappelle and the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association for extending this invitation to us, and we look forward to sharing our story during the Annual Meeting. We hope you'll make plans to join us!

Society of Tennessee Archivists "Author's Roundtable," Saturday, June 28th

Last, but certainly not least, our third speaking engagement in June takes place at the Tennessee State Library and Archives where the Society of Tennessee Archivists will host an "Author's Roundtable" on Saturday, June 28th at 8:00 a.m. (CT). Members of the Society of Tennessee Archivists are encouraged to attend. I will discuss, of course, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, in one of the first presentations of the day, followed by other members of the society who have recently authored books, including Dr. Tom Kanon (Tennesseans at War, 1812-1815: Andrew Jackson, The Creek War, and the Battle of New Orleans), Linda Barnickel (Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory), Steven Cox (I Once Too Had Wings: The Journals of Emma Bell Miles), and Myers Brown (Tennessee's Union Cavalrymen). As past president of the society, I'm deeply grateful to current president, David Sowell, for inviting me to participate in this mid-year event, and I look forward to reconnecting with my fellow society members for this special occasion.


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.

John Sevier, "Page By Page"...

For those who missed my appearance at the Maury County Public Library last week, Adam Southern was kind enough to share the following video of my interview with him preceding the talk on "Page By Page."

"Page By Page" is a show dedicated to promoting literacy, authors, and their works and words airing locally in Maury County and online. I hope you enjoy this conversation about John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero...

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.
Related Posts