John Sevier comes home...

Following up on a recent post about John Sevier and the lack of appreciation Sevier has today in comparison to other heroes of the frontier era, here's an interesting account from the June 20, 1889 edition of The Knoxville Journal which describes the scene when John Sevier's remains were returned to Tennessee.

Grave markers of John Sevier and Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sevier, embedded in the brick facade of the Old Knox County Courthouse, Knoxville, Tennessee. Author photo.

John Sevier died on September 24, 1815 while on a mission to the Alabama territory where he had gone to survey the boundary between the state of Georgia and the Creek Nation. He was buried on the eastern bank of the Tallapoosa River near Fort Decatur, but by 1889 his body was reinterred on the courthouse lawn in Knoxville. According to this account, John Sevier's popularity in Tennessee was still quite strong nearly three-quarters of a century after his death...

At Last! Sevier’s remains at rest

Excerpted from The Knoxville Journal, June 20, 1889

How little or how much of the common clay it matters not. Tennessee has at last discharged a duty incumbent upon her citizens for three quarters of a century.

Knoxville has been greatly honored in being the final resting place of the first governor of Tennessee. All that is mortal of John Sevier lies beneath the sod in the court house square.

The city was thronged with visitors from different parts of the state as well it might have been. Descendants of “Nolichucky Jack” were here, military companies paraded the streets, bands discoursed sweet music suitable to the occasion; the sturdy yeomanry, all classes of citizens of East Tennessee and other parts of the great state braved the storms and honored themselves in honoring the memory of John Sevier.

John Sevier's casket and unidentified crowd, with soldiers standing behind the crowd ready to start back to Tennessee. Image courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives.

It was Sevier day.

At 9:45 yesterday morning a heavy train pulled out of the Union depot at Chattanooga. Two cars were set apart for the committee appointed to disinter the remains of Sevier, the governor and his staff and descendants of the Sevier family. These two cars were draped in black and white and the national colors. Another car contained detachments from the three military companies of Chattanooga, acting as a guard of honor.

As the train swept along through Cleveland, Charleston, Athens and other towns along the route, hundreds of people stood in silent reverence and in many instances with uncovered heads. The funeral drapery that hung limp and wet on the sides of the cars attracted the attention of the curious and made a sign to the knowing ones that the revered dust of John Sevier was speeding to its final resting place.

The train was pulled into the Union depot at 1:15. A large crowd was gathered in the vicinity. The members of the committees to receive the descendants of the illustrious and distinguished dead were present and carried out their part of the program with befitting dignity and exceeding great courtesy.

The detachment of Chattanooga soldiers who had acted as guard of honor on the way up were relieved by a detachment of the Greeneville rifles who were in turn relieved by detachments of other visiting military organizations. The casket was removed from the train and the soldier boys stood guard in the waiting room until it was placed on the catafalque, nearly two hours later.

Thousands of people, estimated by some at thirty thousand, thronged the streets. Thousands of flags fluttered in the cooling breezes, though considerably drabbled by the terrific rainstorm. Every train poured its hundreds into the city. The special train from Chattanooga brought in hundreds from below. But for the threatening aspect of the weather hundreds more would have come to pay homage to John Sevier.

By 2 o’clock the streets were alive with soldiers and civilians in carriages, on horseback and afoot. There was hurrying to places assigned for the different sections of the great parade.

About three o’clock the pageant was ready to move. The elegant casket had been wrapped in a silken banner loaned by Rev. J.H. Frazee. The Knoxville Turn Verein had placed at the head a magnificent wreath of flowers with the letters T.V. worked in colors. The Ladies’ Memorial association had placed a basket of magnolias at the side of the casket. On the center lay a wreath of immortals with the figures of a sword and tomahawk worked in small dark flowers. This was brought from Montgomery on the top of the casket, and was presented by Mrs. R. M. Barry, formerly of Tennessee. Captain Allison, of the Knoxville rifles, had placed a large floral cross at the foot of the casket. Mrs. B.L. Wyman, of Montgomery, contributed flowers.

With all these floral offerings the casket was borne to the catafalque by the regularly chosen pallbearers. The catafalque had been wreathed with magnolias and the choicest flowers of the conservatory, and when the flower-laden casket had been placed in position the order was given to move.

From a window halfway down Gay street the pageant could be seen at its best. It was magnificent in every respect. The street was teeming with thousands of sight-seers. Every window and other point of vantage was occupied.

The procession extended from the corner of Depot and Gay to Gay and Main.

Nothing could better show the love of the people for their first governor.

When the head of the monster procession arrived at the court house, the military companies preceding the catafalque marched past the east gate and allowed the carriage of the dead to be drawn up to the sidewalk. Gov. Taylor’s staff dismounted from their horses, and took their place at the head of the funeral cortege. As soon as the handsome case was removed from the catafalque, the procession moved toward the stage erected for the speakers. There the casket was deposited, and the burial exercises begun.

Fully ten thousand people were in attendance—so many in fact that it was impossible for those on the outskirts of the assemblage to hear a sentence that was pronounced by any of the speakers. As far as eye could reach it was one human mass. The big platform erected immediately in front of the east steps of the court-house was jammed with people. Event the roof over the east court-house porch was covered, and many occupied seats on the parapet of the same.

Ceremonies at Knoxville. Knox County Courthouse visible in the center, as well as the grave site of John Sevier, before the arrival of the procession. Image courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives.

On the speakers’ platform, besides many citizens, were the Sevier committee, Governor Taylor and staff, the speaker of the day and the great grandchildren of the famous hero to whose memory the day was being observed, occupied several scores of chairs. It was a big crowd and it had been waiting such a length of time that many of them were becoming impatient, and even after the exercises commenced were noisy, and it was quite a long time before quiet reigned.
Hon. Joshua W. Caldwell acted as chairman and introduced, as the first speaker, His Excellency Robert L. Taylor, governor of Tennessee. The governor was received with applause. In his true, statesmanlike manner he delivered the address in which he turned over to the Sevier committee all that was mortal of ex-Governor John Sevier.

The concluding exercises were conducted at the grave by Rev. James Park, D.D., pastor of the First Presbyterian church. The services were quite solemn and impressive. After the casket had been lowered into its windowless palace, and the huge marble slab placed over the top of the sepulcher, it was magnificently decorated with beautiful flowers by the ladies of Rebecca, degree lodge I.O.O.F. Many handsome floral tributes were from descendants of the dead hero who were thus given an opportunity to do honor to one held in memory.

Click here to read more of this fascinating story.

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.