John Sevier and slavery on the frontier...

The institution of slavery was once something that scholars only acknowledged along the margins of history, but never fully examined as a pervasive fact of life in early America. Only within recent years have historians opened the wound of slavery for all to see -- a wound that needed to bleed for us to have a more complete picture of our nation's history.

Scholars have provided a rich written history about the slave system that existed on the vast plantations of the antebellum South, yet relatively little has been written about slavery on the frontier. A number of factors contributed to this lack of scholarship. The total slave population on the Tennessee frontier during the late-18th century was small, and slaveholders did not constitute more than ten percent of the population. In East Tennessee, the soil and terrain could not sustain a significant supply of cotton, tobacco, or other cash crops to justify the expense of owning slaves to tend the fields. Most overmountain men of the region did not have the financial means to own slaves. While a few small farmers on the frontier gradually acquired slaves as their economic conditions improved, most did not have any need for slaves to maintain their subsistence-level crops. They merely needed enough labor to survive.

John Sevier's Marble Springs Plantation Home as it exists today, near Knoxville, Tennessee. Author photo.

Among the few wealthy landowners who did own slaves on the Tennessee frontier was John Sevier. On his Marble Springs plantation home, located just outside the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, house servants kept the Sevier family living quarters clean, and provided most of the cooking for family and guests. John Sevier's second wife, "Bonny Kate" directed the house servants on their plantation while other slaves tended the fields and livestock, including Governor Sevier's prized stable of horses.

Slaves were barely present in the narrative of John Sevier's extraordinary life story. Those few mentions of slaves by antiquarians and biographers of the 19th century cast them in the background in ways that reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time. However, if you take the time to dig deeper into the past, by examining the original letters written in Sevier's own hand, you'll discover that John Sevier was quite concerned about slaves on the frontier.

In John Sevier's lifetime, slaves were considered property and were valued as a commodity rather than as human beings. You see this view of slavery quite clearly in John Sevier's governor's papers where you can find letters recording instances when slaves escaped their masters and fled into Indian territory.

The Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment) guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Fugitive Slave Act, first passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Washington in 1793, created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished. The Fugitive Slave Act was explicit in its instruction that escaped slaves could be seized in any state, brought before a magistrate, and returned to their masters. Governor Sevier had a legal mandate from the federal government to aid in the return of any slave who escaped their master in search for freedom. In every recorded instance, Governor Sevier followed the letter of the law, regarded slaves as property, and demanded their return to servitude.

In one letter, Governor Sevier writes to Benjamin Hawkins, a lawyer and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, requesting action concerning the theft of two slaves and some horses...

Knoxville 17th February 1797


Sometime past two negro fellows belonging to Capt. James Richardson of this County ran away and went into the Cherokee Nation, from thence to the Creeks, where they were taken by a half-breed by some called Fise and by others Sastly. He pretends to hold them until he is made whole for some horses stolen from him by the Cherokees.

I beg of you to exert your influence to keep the Indians within bounds, and have both the negroes and horses returned as soon as possible, otherwise we need not expect to support peace and tranquility much longer. The negroes belong to a person in moderate circumstances, and the loss is very sensibly felt by him and his family.

I hope for the pleasure of seeing you in the spring at this place, in the meantime request that you will communicate with me everything that may be interesting to our frontiers or the state.

I have the honor to be, etc.,

(signed) John Sevier

Benjamin Hawkins, Esq.,
Superintendent of Indian Affairs

John Sevier's letter to Benjamin Hawkins, dated 17 February 1797, requesting action concerning the theft of two slaves and some horses. The John Sevier Governor's Papers. GP-2 Box 1 Folder 3. Tennessee State Library and Archives (Scan from Microfilm).

Slaves were also stolen in raids by Cherokees and other Native American tribes of the region. In a letter dated October 22, 1796, Governor Sevier writes to the Cherokee Nation to warn them that stolen property would be recovered, and that he expected the Cherokee Nation's aid in locating slaves that were seized in a raid on Zeigler's Station...

Knoxville 22nd October 1796.

Brothers and Warriors of the Cherokee Nation:

Mr. Henry Morris is going into your nation in search of a negro woman named Mary and two of her children. She was taken from Zeigler's Station at Cumberland. I shall expect you to assist him to get the negroes, that they may be brought back to their own people, and in so doing you will oblige your friend and brother,

(signed) John Sevier

John Sevier's letter to the Cherokee Nation, 22 October 1796. The John Sevier Governor's Papers. GP-2 Box 1 Folder 2. Tennessee State Library & Archives (Scan from Microfilm)

In yet another letter dated August 25, 1796, Governor Sevier writes to the Cherokee Chief, Little Turkey, in an effort to convince him to release slaves stolen from the Chickasaw Nation. In this letter, Sevier made a statement that today would certainly be considered despicable, but in Sevier's time was all to common a comparison [Emphasis mine]:

Knoxville 25th August 1796.


The Chickasaw people have complained to me that there is a negro man , a negro woman and child, belonging to George Colbert in your nation. They say that they were to have been sent to this place some time ago, but as they have not yet come, I am requested to write you about them, and have sent Joseph Sevier on purpose to get the negroes and bring them to this place, and desire that you will deliver them up to him. If the Chickasaws owes your people anything, they say they will pay you. You know it is wrong to stop people for horses, for negroes is not horses though they are black. I shall expect and hope you will send the negroes accordingly. I wish you and the Chickasaws to live as brothers and good neighbors, but you can't expect this to be the case, if you keep their people from them.

Your friend and brother,

(signed) John Sevier.

The Little Turkey.

John Sevier's letter to Cherokee Chief Little Turkey, dated 25 August 1796. The John Sevier Governor's Papers. GP-2 Box 1 Folder 2. Tennessee State Library and Archives (Scan from Microfilm).

In stark contrast to the John Sevier that is remembered by many as a key figure in the Revolutionary War -- a war fought for freedom and liberty -- it is largely forgotten that John Sevier, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many of his contemporaries, considered slaves as property with as little right to freedom and liberty as the horses on his Marble Springs plantation.

While it is important to remember the heroic triumphs of our shared history, we also have a duty to acknowledge the abhorrent realities of the past in order to have a more complete understanding of the world in which our ancestors lived, "warts and all."

Selected Sources:

  • Governor John Sevier Papers, 1796-1801 (GP 2), Tennessee State Library and Archives.
  • Edward Michael McCormack. Slavery on the Tennessee Frontier. Nashville: Tennessee American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, 1977.

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.