The following blog post is an edited excerpt from my 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.
John Sevier's successful military campaigns against the Cherokees secured his standing for posterity as an idol of the frontier. Sevier's chroniclers eagerly cast him in the role of hero and savior of the white settlers and described him in almost reverential terms. The venerable Tennessee historian John Haywood observed that Sevier "was endowed by nature with those rare qualities which make the possessor in all places and with all people an object of attention and a depository of their confidence." Sevier's biographer Carl Driver concluded, "No other Tennessean contributed as much to the peace and safety of the old southwestern frontiers as 'Chucky Jack,' the Cherokee nemesis."
In 1889, Theodore Roosevelt provided one notable exception to this expression of universal adoration with the publication of his multivolume work, The Winning of the West. Part narrative history and part tribute to Manifest Destiny, The Winning of the West celebrated the spread of western civilization. "During the past three centuries," Roosevelt wrote, "the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces has been not only the most striking feature in the world's history, but also the event of all others most far-reaching in its importance."
Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris described The Winning of the West as "muscular" in its "bellicose expansionism." In his book, Roosevelt called the early settlers of the land west of the Appalachians "a sturdy race, enterprising and intelligent, fond of the strong excitement inherent in the adventurous frontier life." He evidently saw within them a kindred spirit. He wrote, "Their untamed and turbulent passions, and the lawless freedom of their lives, made them a population very productive of wild, headstrong characters." Roosevelt especially admired and identified with Sevier and his fellow frontier leaders. In a letter to Judge John M. Lea, president of the Tennessee Historical Society, Roosevelt wrote:
"I am very nearly as much of a Dakota man as New Yorker; I like pioneer life and the part of our history for which I most care is that dealing with the expansion of our frontier and the building up of the nation. Sevier, Shelby, Clarke, Boone, Crockett, Houston, are all figures that excite my interest and sympathy far more than do the Eastern leaders of the same time--proud though I am of some of the latter."
While he admired Sevier and his compatriots, Roosevelt believed these men should be held to a higher standard. Roosevelt cast a particularly critical eye toward Sevier's military tactics and evoked the founding fathers in his narrative to scorn Sevier's treatment of Native American prisoners. In The Winning of the West, Roosevelt documented an incident that occurred in 1788 during Sevier's campaign against the Overhill Cherokee, when militiamen took the Cherokee chiefs Old Abraham and Old Tassel prisoner. Sevier assigned John Kirk, a man whose family had been slaughtered by the Cherokees in an earlier skirmish, to guard the prisoners.
|A prolific author, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) wrote twenty-six books, over one thousand magazine articles and thousands of speeches and letters.|
Image credit: Library of Congress
According to Roosevelt's account, Sevier put the captured Cherokees in a hut and then left the scene. Roosevelt asserted that Sevier knew that Kirk and the rest of the troops stood eager to take justice into their own hands. Kirk entered the hut and attacked the Cherokee chiefs with a tomahawk while his comrades looked on without interfering. Roosevelt called this incident "a horrible deed of infamy" and said it constituted "criminal negligence" on Sevier's part for leaving his prisoners to the mercy of the "blood lust of his followers." The incident led to calls of condemnation from the Continental Congress and even diminished Sevier's reputation with President George Washington, who later claimed that Sevier "never was celebrated for anything except the murder of Indians." Roosevelt forcefully argued that Sevier "must be judged by a higher standard. He was a member of the Cincinnati, a correspondent of Franklin, a follower of Washington. He sinned against the light, and must be condemned accordingly."
Though not a trained historian, Roosevelt always carefully documented his sources. While researching The Winning of the West, he traveled throughout the country in a meticulous quest to chronicle "the great deeds of the border people." Of his visits to Tennessee, Roosevelt wrote, "At Nashville, Tennessee, I had access to a mass of original matter in the shape of files of old newspapers, of unpublished letters, diaries, reports, and other manuscripts. I was given every opportunity to examine these at my leisure, and indeed to take such as were most valuable to my own home." Roosevelt eagerly scoured the archives of the Tennessee Historical Society for documentary evidence. In his preface, Roosevelt graciously acknowledged Judge Lea, to whom he felt indebted for "the unfailing courtesy" shown to him.
Roosevelt's book garnered high praise from frontier scholars such as Frederick Jackson Turner, who called The Winning of the West "a wonderful story, most entertainingly told." Turner commended Roosevelt for his "breadth of view, capacity for studying local history in the light of world history, and in knowledge of the critical use of material." Roosevelt, however, encountered critics. Dr. William Frederick Poole, a librarian and scholar who served as the president of the American Library Association and the American Historical Association in the mid-1880s, praised Roosevelt for his prose. He nonetheless challenged him to devote more of his time and energy to examining the original source material at his disposal.
Another critic, James Roberts Gilmore--a novelist and author of a popular trilogy of books chronicling the history of the trans-Appalachian frontier--went further, accusing Roosevelt of fraud and plagiarism. Evidently, Roosevelt provoked Gilmore with a footnote within his text challenging Gilmore's account of Sevier's life. In his criticism of Gilmore's 1887 book, John Sevier as a Commonwealth Builder, Roosevelt referenced Gilmore's use of "traditions gathered a century and a quarter after the event" as evidence that his accounts consisted of "mere fable." Roosevelt accused Gilmore of embellishing Sevier's battles with the Indian tribes of the region and added:
"Sevier was neither leader nor participant in any such marvelous feats as Mr. Gilmore describes; on the contrary, the skirmishes in which he may have been engaged were of such small importance that no record remains concerning them. Had Sevier done any such deeds all the colonies would have rung with his exploits, instead of their remaining utterly unknown for a hundred and twenty-five years. It is extraordinary that any author should be willing to put his name to such reckless misstatements, in what purports to be a history and not a book of fiction."
Roosevelt challenged Gilmore's charge of plagiarism, offering $1,000 to anyone who could prove that he had not written The Winning of the West himself and dared Gilmore to confront him directly with his accusations. Roosevelt branded Gilmore as a coward and dismissed his claims, stating, "It makes one almost ashamed to be in a controversy with him. There is a half-pleasurable excitement in facing an equal foe; but there is none whatever in trampling on a weakling."
Despite Gilmore's criticism, Roosevelt's The Winning of the West quickly became a bestseller. The first edition of his book sold out in little more than a month and helped establish Roosevelt as a literary man and scholar, placing him on a path toward future greatness. Although Theodore Roosevelt earned fame as a politician and adventurer, his literary achievements also created a lasting legacy and his book, The Winning of the West, brought John Sevier's life and accomplishments, ever so briefly, to the forefront of the nation's collective memory.
Theodore Roosevelt. The Winning of the West. G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1889.
Edmund Morris. Colonel Roosevelt and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York : Random House, 2010.
James R. Gilmore. John Sevier as a Commonwealth Builder. New York : D. Appleton and Co., 1887.
"Preserving Archives of the State: Robert Thomas Quarles, State Archivist." John Trotwood Moore Papers. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
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.