|Miniature portrait of Bonny Kate,|
or possibly John Sevier's daughter, Ruth.
Image: Tennessee Portrait Project
John Sevier's rescue of young Bonny Kate at Fort Caswell on the Watauga is so remarkable, one might think it originated in a Hollywood script or a romance novel. According to legend, on July 21, 1776 the fort was attacked by a large force of Cherokee Indians. By one account, up to 500 women and children were crowded inside the fort, protected by only forty or fifty men, though the exact number is a source of dispute in some history books. While these men were outnumbered, they were well-armed and under the command of Col. John Carter, Captain James Robertson, and our frontier legend, Lieutenant John Sevier.
At sunrise, Bonny Kate was outside the fort milking a cow when the surprise attack commenced. As the men made haste to secure the fort, Bonny Kate suddenly found herself locked outside the walls of the fort, and at the mercy of the Cherokee attackers. Theodore Roosevelt, our nation's 26th president, provided a vivid account of Bonny Kate's rescue in his book, The Winning of the West:
"Tradition relates that Sevier, now a young widower, fell in love with the woman he soon afterwards married during the siege. Her name was Kate Sherrill. She was a tall girl, brown-haired, comely, lithe and supple 'as a hickory sapling.' One day while without the fort she was almost surprised by some Indians. Running like a deer, she reached the stockade, sprang up so as to catch the top with her hands, and drawing herself over, was caught in Sevier's arms on the other side; through a loop-hole he had already shot the head-most of her pursuers." [p. 292]
Despite acknowledging in the Preface of his book that he "had access to a mass of original matter in the shape of files of old newspapers, of unpublished letters, diaries, reports, and other manuscripts" while conducting research for this volume in Nashville, Tennessee, Roosevelt incorrectly stated that Sevier was a widower. In fact, John Sevier's first wife, Sarah Hawkins, lived until 1779. Sevier married Catherine Sherrill seven months later in 1780 -- fully four years after her rescue. I wonder whether or not this was an honest mistake, whether he relied too heavily upon secondary sources, or was this an effort on Roosevelt's part to enhance the historical record with rhetorical flourish? This story certainly seems all the more romantic (and perhaps less scandalous) with Sevier in the role of a widower, rather than an already married man.
It is interesting to me how different versions of this story are depicted by Sevier's chroniclers. Take note of this account written by Samuel Cole Williams in his book, Tennessee During the Revolutionary War:
"The first approach and attack of the Indians was about daybreak and made stealthily. Some of the women and girls were up early and had gone out to milk cows. The first alarm to the defenders was the screaming of these women-folk in their flight to the fort, closely pursued by the savages. In this party of females was Miss Catherine ('Bonny Kate') Sherrill, a tall and athletic young woman. As the Indians blocked the direct path to the gate of the fort, she made a circuit to reach the enclosure on another side, resolved, as she afterwards said, to scale the palisades. 'The bullets and arrows came like hail. It was now leap or die, for I would not live a captive.' While she was scaling the stockade, the hand of a man reached down to aid her, and she fell into the arms of this man -- John Sevier -- whom she thus met for the first time. She was to become his second wife a little more than four years later." [p. 46]
This fascinating account actually quotes Bonny Kate, so we might assume it was more accurate than Roosevelt's version of events, but Samuel Cole Williams was a judge, not a trained historian, and his method of sourcing and note taking left him open to some criticism. In the Introduction to the 1974 edition of Williams' book, Frank B. Williams, Jr. writes:
"His forte was compiling, and like many untrained but energetic antiquarians and local historians -- buffs and amateurs they are -- he could not write well. 'It may be well ventured,' to borrow from the judge, that he had a cavalier attitude and would not take the trouble to master the scholarly minutiae of style and form. He could have afforded an editor, and he could have saved himself from many mistakes and criticisms. He, and his daughter said, liked dangling participles, and resented her calling them to his attention. Some footnotes bore no relation to the texts. He failed to cite sources for quotations on occasion, and at other times he cited the sources incorrectly. The judge did not always tell readers where he found original sources; to the contrary, he resorted to a form of literary cannibalism by often citing one of his own books which contained errors. As a result, students and scholars should be careful when they use his books. Surely he did not intend to be inaccurate or to mislead; he simply was too busy collecting and writing, too happy in his work, and too sure of himself to take the trouble to polish, to check, and to double-check." [p. xi]
Another account of this incident goes even further to paint a more heroic picture of Bonny Kate's rescue. Elizabeth Fries Ellet writes in her 1852 book, Pioneer Women of the West:
Ellet goes on to describe Bonny Kate's uniformed rescuer as "Capt. John Sevier." She writes:
"Miss Sherrill was already somewhat distinguished for nerve, action, and fleetness. It was said 'she could outrun or outleap any woman; walk more erect, and ride more gracefully and skilfully than any other female in all the mountains round about, or on the continent at large.' Although at other times she proved herself to know no fear, and could remain unmoved when danger threatened, yet on this occasion she admits that she did run, and 'run her best.' She was very tall and erect, and her whole appearance such as to attract the special notice and pursuit of the Indians; and as they intercepted the direct path to the gate of the fort, she made a circuit to reach the enclosure on another side, resolved, as she said, to scale the walls or palisades. In this effort, some person within the defences attempted to aid, but his foot slipped, or the object on which he was standing gave way, and both fell to the ground on opposite sides of the enclosure. The savages were coming with all speed, and firing and shooting arrows repeatedly. Indeed, she said, 'the bullets and arrows came like hail. It was now -- leap the wall or die! for I would not live a captive.' She recovered from the fall, and in a moment was over and within the defences, and 'by the side of one in uniform.'" [p. 31-32]
Fort Watauga's palisade, parapet, and north corner cabin
at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.
"This was the beginning of an acquaintance destined in a few years to ripen into a happy union, to endure in this life for near forty years. 'The way she run and jumped on that occasion was often the subject of remark, commendation, and laughter.' In after life she looked upon this introduction, and the manner of it, as a providential indication of their adaptation to each other -- that they were destined to be of mutual help in future dangers, and to overcome obstacles in time to come. And she always deemed herself safe when by his side. Many a time did she say: 'I could gladly undergo that peril and effort again to fall into his arms, and feel so out of danger. But then,' she would add, 'it was all of God's good providence.'" [p. 32]
By contrast, it is interesting to note that in his 1932 biography, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest, Carl Driver stated that only one of John Sevier's sons ever mentioned the rescue of Bonny Kate, and he failed to connect it at all with the marriage of his mother and father. Another son made no mention of the rescue in his recollections of his father's frontier exploits. What are we to make of this glaring omission?
While the core details of Bonny Kate's rescue are consistent -- she was trapped outside the fort gates, ran towards the palisades, scaled the wall, and landed in the arms of her rescuer -- the written accounts of this story were certainly embellished around the edges to such a degree that I wonder, how much is truth and how much is myth? In my mind, this story highlights the value of original records, and the importance of proper sourcing and citation, although it is difficult to rely upon original records when record keeping on the frontier was so sporadic. John Sevier's frontier exploits have been embellished on the pages of history, and repeated so many times by writers without any background in the history profession, that the world may never fully know what really happened on that day, when young "Bonny Kate" was rescued by her hero -- John Sevier.
- Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, Volume One: From the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, 1769-1776. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1889.
- Samuel Cole Williams, Tennessee During the Revolutionary War. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974 edition.
- Elizabeth Fries Ellet, Pioneer Women of the West. New York: Charles Scribner, 1852.
- Carl S. Driver, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932.
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.