"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.

An indissoluble trinity...

   As a native Tennessean, I would like to take this opportunity, on Statehood Day, to share a timely salute to our most cherished state symbol... The official salute to the Flag of Tennessee (T.C.A. 4-1-329):

Three white stars on a field of blue

God keep them strong and ever true

It is with pride and love that we

Salute the Flag of Tennessee.

   The Tennessee Blue Book details the symbolism captured in the State Flag of Tennessee, affectionately known as the "tristar":

   "The three stars are of pure white, representing the three grand divisions of the state. They are bound together by the endless circle of the blue field, the symbol being three bound together in one—an indissoluble trinity. The large field is crimson. The final blue bar relieves the sameness of the crimson field and prevents the flag from showing too much crimson when hanging limp. The white edgings contrast more strongly the other colors."

   In 1905, Johnson City attorney and Tennessee National Guardsman LeRoy Reeves (1876-1960) designed the flag which the Tennessee General Assembly ultimately adopted as the official flag of the state of Tennessee on April 17, 1905. Reeves' elegantly bold and distinctive design has endured for more than a century, embraced by Tennesseans as a unified symbol of civic pride in the "Volunteer State's" history and culture. On this Statehood Day and for many years to come, may the tristar continue to wave "strong and ever true."

Statehood Day in Tennessee

   In a related post, my colleagues at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) have published a brief blog post on the creation of the 1796 Tennessee Constitution. Its enactment #OnThisDay has a fascinating history.

   Click HERE to read more from the TSLA Blog. You can also view a digitized copy of the constitution itself HERE at TSLA's Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).


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.

William Tatham, Wataugan

   As Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park prepares to celebrate its annual observance of the Siege of Fort Watauga (or more accurately, Fort Caswell), I thought the occasion offered an appropriate moment to reflect upon the recollections of one of the fort's original defenders, William Tatham.

   William Tatham (1752-1819), the eldest of five children born in England, emigrated to Virginia in 1769. Upon his arrival, he found employment as a clerk with the mercantile firm of Carter & Trent, merchants operating on the James River. Tatham spent many hours during his years of service with Carter & Trent listening to the wild and fascinating tales of the longhunters who frequented the Virginia wilderness. He sought the same sense of adventure for his own life, and by 1774, the lure of the frontier brought Tatham to Watauga. There he later witnessed the Cherokee siege of Fort Caswell in the summer of 1776.

   The Cherokees besieged the fort for two solid weeks leaving its inhabitants short on food and supplies. John Sevier, James Robertson, and their fellow defenders held off the Cherokee assault and awaited reinforcements, but by the time that they arrived, the Cherokees had already abandoned their attack.

   The siege at Fort Caswell on the Watauga is an episode of Tennessee history wrapped in myth and memory. In the years that followed, oral traditions, repeated by succeeding generations and validated by the published accounts of late-nineteenth century antiquarians and storytellers, embellished the details of this engagement with each telling. These authors recalled the tale of John Sevier's rescue of Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill at Fort Caswell, in particular, with literary flair.

   In his Annals of Tennessee, Dr. J. G. M. Ramsey chronicled Sevier's "determined bravery" in helping to defend the fort, and in his book, Rear-Guard of the Revolution, James Gilmore described how Sevier courageously faced down "two or three hundred savages" as a young "Bonny Kate" ran from her Cherokee pursuers and into the arms of her rescuer.

"Siege of Fort Watauga." An artist's sketch of Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill's escape from Cherokee pursuers.
Image credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

   Decades later, as the jurist and antiquarian Samuel Cole Williams began compiling research notes for a book about the Lost State of Franklin, he learned that Tatham had been a witness to the Siege of Fort Caswell. Inspired by this story, Williams published a thin biography in 1922 entitled, William Tatham, Wataugan. He later published a revised, though still brief, edition of his Tatham biography in 1947.

   According to Williams, Tatham was "the only defender of Fort Caswell who wrote reminiscences of occurrences during that early invasion." Despite his close proximity to the event itself, Tatham's account of the Siege at Fort Caswell revealed his own embellishments, and Tatham likely overstated his role in defending the fort. Nevertheless, Williams "made liberal use of Tatham's writings" in his own works, including History of the Lost State of Franklin, Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History, and Tennessee During the Revolutionary War, among numerous other titles.

   Tatham's full account of the Siege of Fort Caswell originally appeared in the April 6, 1793 edition of the Knoxville Gazette. Williams later published Tatham's account in his book, William Tatham, Wataugan. This is William Tatham's story:

   In January 1776 emigration had advanced over the Indian boundary as far as Big Creek on the north side of Holston and to Big Limestone Creek on the south side, but these settlers were under no legal or regular government.

   Added to this there were a number of people called Regulators, who had fled from North Carolina to the extreme frontier for safety after their battle against Governor Tryon at the Alamance and were actually about joining the Cherokees against the Americans. To make the matter still worse, while the Indians were on their invasion, the chief stock of powder was but six pounds in the hands of the settlers [on the Watauga].

   In this dilemma, the Virginia government gave orders for all men to retire within the line or they would be treated as outlaws. The people on the north side of the Holston obeyed the mandate; but through the influence, in a great degree, of William Cocke, Esq., they forted themselves at Amos Heaton’s [Eaton’s] now [1793] Sullivan Old Court House; and those on the Watauga and Nolichucky posted [at the latter] about thirty volunteers under Captain James Robertson, just above the mouth of Big Limestone, where Mr. Gillespie now lives.

   Shortly after this party took post and before they had finished their fort, called Fort Lee, four of the traders made their escape from the Cherokee nation and apprised them of the immediate march of about six hundred Cherokees and a few Creeks, who were destined against the settlements. The inhabitants immediately took the alarm, and instead of flocking to the frontier barrier on strong and open ground, thereby covering their country, those on the Nolachucky hastily fled, carrying off their livestock and provisions leaving about fifteen of the volunteers at the frontier to make the best shift in their power.

   The result of this precipitate retreat was this: The few who were determined to oppose the enemy in the defense of that quarter were joined by as many in the rear of the scamper as had not time to get safely off: and were thus compelled to fortify near the Sycamore Shoals of Watauga, on much weaker ground than that which they had evacuated: cut off from assistance and resources [from North Carolina] by the mountains and defiles which were at that day almost impenetrable; and from every possibility of information, save for their own vigilance.

   The party at Heaton’s fort were nearly in a similar situation; and these two posts, weak as new settlements could be, had to stand the brunt of the enemy whose numbers, prowess, resources and European patronage was at least equal to any danger that we now dread at this day. On the southern and western side of Donelson’s line we were obliged to rely upon the following numbers for defense against both southern and northern Indians, as near as I can recollect.

   At Watauga, men, boys and negroes fit to bear arms, but not well armed, under Captain James Robertson. Yet the country was well defended! And strange as it may appear this territory [Southwest] owes its present consequence to this handful of men; for in less than two years after, the Tennessee and Kentucky countries contained no less than fifty-seven forts. It is very probable that if this small party had given way, the people would have generally (if not all) fled to the eastern side of the Allegheny mountains.

A recreation of Fort Caswell (a.k.a. Fort Watauga). Image credit: Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

William Tatham, Wataugan by Samuel Cole Williams is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.


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.