Polygamy on the Early Tennessee Frontier

Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to Cumberland University professor Dr. Natalie Inman as she delivered a thought-provoking lecture to members of the Tennessee Historical Society at the Fort Negley Visitor's Center. Her presentation, "Polygamy in the Early Republic: The Case of Indian Agent Joseph Martin," not only covered Martin's wildly fascinating married life -- he had 23 children with four different wives, white and Cherokee -- but also examined the polygamist culture that existed on the Tennessee frontier.

According to Dr. Inman, intermarriage between white settlers and Native Americans became a necessary survival tactic on America's new frontier. Inman argued that white men needed Cherokee wives to conduct business on the frontier as a means of cross-cultural cooperation. Cherokee culture embraced a maternally-focused family structure, unlike Euro-American cultures which were inherently paternalistic. Within the Cherokee family structure women held far more power than men. Recognizing this, white men often married Cherokee wives not for love, but rather in order to acquire land or negotiate trade routes. Inman argued that Indian Agents, like Martin, used marriage as a negotiating tactic in diplomatic relations, and though frowned upon in America's Euro-centric culture, both intermarriage and adultery were accepted norms on America's early frontier.

The acquisition of land was a frequent ambition of white settlers of "THE CHEROKEE COUNTRY," and white men often relinquished control to women in the maternalistic Cherokee culture in order to obtain land rights and diplomatic leverage in trade negotiations. 
Image credit: The Project Gutenberg eBook of Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney, 1900.

Inman also discussed the rivalry that existed between Martin and John Sevier, a topic I briefly explored on The Posterity Project a few months ago. Martin's position as an agent and superintendent of Cherokee Indian affairs put him squarely at odds with Sevier, who saw the Cherokees as a threat to establishing sovereignty for his fragile State of Franklin movement. During her talk, Inman described Martin as a "warrior" who protected his Cherokee family against Sevier's unnecessary aggression, while he simultaneously sought protection for his white family during the State of Franklin conflict. According to Inman, hard times created more complex household structures, and on the American frontier, complex families, like Martin's, were more common than one might expect.

Questions about John Sevier's own married past...

As a public historian, I make my living, in part, by seeking the truth about our collective past. In my ongoing blog series about John Sevier, and in my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I have frequently challenged long-held traditions and beliefs in search for the truth. Sometimes, this quest for truth leads me down elusive paths.

One of the unanswered questions that I occasionally receive from readers concerns Sevier's descendants -- more specifically his relationship with the indigenous Cherokee population of Tennessee, and rumors of an alleged affair Sevier had with an unknown Cherokee woman. Whispers of this rumor can be found on various online publications and genealogy forums, but finding credible primary and secondary published sources to back up those online claims has proved challenging.

One article published online and shared widely among family history researchers asserted, "several families claim a lineage to John Sevier and an unknown Cherokee Indian woman. Their daughter, Winney Alice Sevier, was left by her mother in Russell County, Virginia, at the Henry Campbell farm. Winney later fell in love with Campbell’s son, Abraham, whom she married and lived with in a home on the adjacent farm." The article, no longer available online, borrowed liberally from previously published narratives of Sevier's life without attribution, and so I hesitate to give much weight to this assertion.

A more credible source shared by a reader of this blog recalled the story of "Ann Eliza Carter." Anna Eliza was born Nov. 17, 1825, the daughter of William Carter and Lucindia Sevier. In her book, Notable Southern Families, Volume IV: The Sevier Family, buried in a reference to Lucindia Sevier's lineage, Zella Armstrong wrote that as a young girl Ann Eliza recalled that "she knew very little of her ancestry, but was told she was a grand-daughter of Governor John Sevier." Armstrong chronicled young Ann Eliza's memories of her family history stating, "She remembers that in her childhood, an old lady lived at her home who was called Aunt Winnie Sevier. She does not know whether this was her deceased mother's sister or aunt." No mention of Cherokee ancestry here, but with only vague recollections about Winnie(ey) Sevier's lineage the speculation persists.

Another name recently surfaced in my email correspondence with Sevier descendants. Obedience Hillard Sevier is a name cited on genealogy message boards as someone with a familial connection to Sevier. Some allege that Sevier fathered Obedience with a Cherokee mistress, while others state that Obedience was an indentured servant to the Sevier family who took on her master's name. Still others claim there was likely no relation to Sevier whatsoever, and the connection is based purely on myth and misinformation. The latter claim seems more plausible to me, but after hearing Dr. Inman's lecture, I do wonder... Did Sevier engage in his own "diplomatic" relations with the Cherokees in the same ways as his enemy, Joseph Martin? It's not an unreasonable question given the long history of this practice on the early frontier, but a lack of definitive historical evidence in this case makes proving the connection difficult, if not impossible. It's a question we may never fully answer.

A thought-provoking question...

I want to clearly state that I am not a professional genealogist, and my book is not a genealogy of the Sevier family. John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero examines Sevier's life within the context of history and memory. It is not a Sevier family history. Still, I have extensively researched Sevier's life, with particular attention to his military campaigns against the Cherokees.

I have yet to encounter a credible source that definitively proves a familial link to Sevier and the mysterious Cherokee children sharing his surname, and I certainly cannot project the actions of those like Martin onto Sevier. Yet questions about Sevier's alleged affair with a Cherokee mistress remain unanswered. This is a topic that I'm sure some will find provoking, but one that I hope will challenge us all to examine the past, "warts and all."


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.