Old Frontiers...

   In the course of research, whether browsing for source material at a library, archive, or online, my eyes sometimes wander towards rediscovery. John P. Brown's 1938 book, Old Frontiers: The Story of the Cherokee Indians from Earliest Times to the Date of Their Removal to the West, 1838, falls within that realm of remembrance. Old Frontiers is a book I've known about for quite some time, but only recently -- during the research phase for my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero -- did I have an opportunity to explore its pages with renewed awareness.

A resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for years
John P. Brown lectured in schools, civic clubs, and
women's organizations on the subject of Cherokee history.
Image credit: The Nashville Banner, Aug. 17, 1938.
   The book's subtitle reveals the scope of Brown's interest, and from the opening Preface of Old Frontiers, Brown reveals his desire to correct the narrative of Cherokee history -- a history that for a century "used the language of the United States Government" to chronicle the plight of the Cherokees. Brown blamed white settlers and their desire for land, along with the discovery of gold in Cherokee territory, for the swift nature of Indian removal. A "calm study of the facts," Brown wrote, "brings conviction that it was both inhumane and unnecessary." Brown cast a particularly critical eye towards Andrew Jackson in his Preface. "The one man responsible for Cherokee removal," Brown wrote, "was that strong character, Andrew Jackson."

   Brown, a Chattanooga native, wrote Old Frontiers in the midst of the Great Depression. That economic calamity and the societal pressures surrounding it surely influenced Brown's account of the Cherokee removal that occurred a century earlier. At the beginning of the twentieth century, scholars and historians, like Brown, attempted to debunk the myths and legends crafted by earlier chroniclers. Global war, economic chaos and what one contemporary scholar termed "the intrusive thrust of modernism" led many writers of the period to bring the past "down to non-heroic yet human proportions."

   In a review of Old Frontiers entitled, "The Cherokee Nation: A Careful Study of Unsavory History," published in the Nashville Tennessean, Sept. 18, 1938, writer Sam Carson made the following observation of Brown's work: "We gather, by preponderance of evidence, that the Cherokees were more loyal to whites than any other race, that is, in the South. They fought more for white men than against them. They were sold out time and again by bribed leaders. Their rebellions were inspired by constant encroachments. And only recently have we brought ourselves around to admit injustices to the original residents of North America."

   Despite Brown's effort to correct history's slight of the Cherokees, his narrative still deified many of the white settlers who he ultimately blamed for the Cherokee removal, including John Sevier, who Brown described as an "unselfish commander" whose "whole-hearted acceptance" by the "rough and ready frontiersmen" made him an indispensable leader on the frontier.

Old Frontiers by John P. Brown
   Brown devoted an entire chapter of his book to John Sevier entitled, "Nolichucky Jack Rides," in which he absolved Sevier of wrongdoing during his fiery campaign against the Cherokees and their settlements. According to Brown, Sevier "was one of the settlers, understood their attitude, and sympathized with them... Not a settler's cabin did Sevier pull down; he had in mind rather the destruction of other habitations, those of the red men. Yet Sevier had so impressed the Cherokees with his spirit of fairness that they were willing to rest their case in his hands: 'Send us Colonel Sevier, who is a good man.'"

   Brown also absolved the Cherokees from blame for their own depredations against the settlers of the Trans-Appalachian frontier, suggesting that they fought for the same cause as the white man. "If the Indian scalped his enemy, or burned at the stake the man who would take his country," Brown wrote, "it was nonetheless America for which he fought, with the only means at his command. Recognizing the faults of the red man, and balancing them against his treatment at our hands, the scales tip in his favor."

   Despite its tortured and paternalistic hagiography, Brown's Old Frontiers is an entertaining read, broad in scope, yet filled with individual tales of adventure. There is much that the frontier scholar and Early American historian can gain from reading this volume. Brown drew liberally from both primary and secondary sources, and provided readers with copious footnotes. These sources provide the reader with an opportunity to deeply explore this world from the perspective of the actors themselves and from the scholars who interpreted their actions. History and memory, themes explored frequently on this blog, are also present throughout Brown's work. The stories found within this volume are ripe for further analysis, making Old Frontiers a book worthy of rediscovery and scholarly interpretation.

Old Frontiers by John P. Brown, Southern Publishers, Inc., Kingsport, Tenn., 1938, is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.

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.