"Genuine History"

A brief article republished in the March 2014 issue of The Nashville Retrospect caught my eye late last week. The article, "The History of Tennessee," originally published in the March 1, 1820 edition of the Nashville Whig, perfectly captures the feelings of patriotic duty the early chroniclers of Tennessee history felt towards publishing what remained of the memories of Tennessee's first settlers.

During the nineteenth century, John Haywood, J.G.M. Ramsey, Lyman Draper, and others, saw it as their calling to preserve for posterity the experiences of the earliest frontiersmen. Their romanticized accounts and reminiscences of Tennessee's aging pioneers and soldiers helped to shape public memory of America's first frontier. Through these writers' narratives, life and legend intertwined.

This painting by Peggy Harvill depicts a flatboat voyage of the Donelson party to Nashville, 1780.
Image credit: Tennessee Blue Book.

Ironically, the romanticism of the past is exactly what the editors of the Nashville Whig sought to avoid in this call to preserve the memory of Tennessee's first frontiersmen. Here's an excerpt of the article, featured in this month's edition of The Nashville Retrospect:


Nashville Whig, March 1, 1820

     The period must soon be here, when it will be impossible to do justice, to this all important subject, the early history of Tennessee. Those who are intimately acquainted with the interesting events and minute circumstances involved in it, are, one by one, leaving the stage--and, in a few years more, nothing will remain of its details, but mutilated fragments, amounting to little more than traditional romance.

     If the events, attending the infancy of States and Nations, could be seized, before the lapse of time could shed around them the gloom of obscurity--and, if those events could obtain a faithful record, for the contemplation of posterity, poems would not so frequently obtain the character of history, nor would future generations want those lessons of truth, which the genuine history of their predecessors alone can afford. But, it is needless to add anything more, on a subject which must be familiar to every citizen.

     The Editors of this paper have assurances, by a company of gentlemen who are willing to devote some time to it, that if those Elders, who are well acquainted with different parts of this subject, will each transmit his own narrative of the early history of the State of Tennessee to this office, no matter how carelessly written as to penmanship, &c. due attention will be given, to throw them into a historical form, in as short a period as is really required for the performance of such an undertaking.

To honor this early call for "genuine history," in forthcoming blog posts on The Posterity Project I plan to share more excerpts and reminiscences by the pioneers and soldiers of Tennessee as part of a larger research project connected to my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. This project will focus on the Indian Wars of the region, and ties in very closely with one of the driving themes of this blog--history and memory in early Tennessee. I hope you'll stay tuned to The Posterity Project for future blog posts on this subject.

In the meantime, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of The Nashville Retrospect. Each month, the newspaper publishes excerpts from stories published long ago along with a mix of original articles and scholarship by local authors and historians. Visit The Nashville Retrospect website for further information.

Newspaper source and credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives. Originally published in the Nashville Whig, March 1, 1820. Republished in The Nashville Retrospect, March 2014 edition.

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.