Sarah Hawkins Sevier: Tennessee's "forgotten heroine"

The early chroniclers of Sevier's life wrote of his fondness of the wilderness and of his love for adventure. During his formative years, John Sevier set his sights on building a life on the western edges of civilization. The border country captured Sevier's imagination, but a young lady named Sarah Hawkins captured his heart. Their union helped to establish Sevier as a frontier hero in the pages of history and set him on a path to future greatness.

Born in 1746 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Sarah Hawkins was John Sevier's first wife and "the first love of his youth." It has been said of Sarah Hawkins that she had a "great strength of character," and was a "wise, capable, understanding wife and mother who commanded her husband's post in his absences."

She married John Sevier at the age of fifteen, and in 1773 she joined her husband on the arduous journey from the Shenandoah Valley of her birth, to the wilderness of the Southwest Territory, in the region known today as East Tennessee. During John and Sarah's life together, she was the mother of ten children, which in and of itself is a feat of strength, particularly given the challenges of living in the eighteenth century American frontier.

"Daily Life on the Tennessee Frontier." Image credit: Tennessee State Museum.

According to one family biographer, Sarah Hawkins "was for the nineteen creative, formative years of his [John Sevier's] life the greatest single factor in his spectacular early rise to fame and fortune," yet memory of Sarah Hawkins has faded over time. Her lasting imprint on John Sevier's life has been largely overshadowed by the woman who would ultimately become his most famous spouse following Sarah Hawkins' untimely death during an Indian uprising in 1780.*

Sarah Hawkins' grave has never been found**, and over time historians have neglected her presence in John Sevier's life. Perhaps she died too soon for history to record the important contributions that she made to her famous spouse? John Sevier's stature within the region was only beginning to take shape when Sarah Hawkins died in 1780. When he remarried, Catherine "Bonny Kate" Sherrill became John Sevier's "First Lady" in the minds of many. "Bonny Kate" was also present in John Sevier's life at a time when his notoriety was at its peak -- as governor of the State of Franklin and the state of Tennessee. History would eventually record their lives together in vivid detail -- a story that was sometimes embellished around the margins -- yet Sarah Hawkins' story somehow got lost in the narrative of John Sevier's life.

Historians had failed to adequately chronicle Sarah Hawkins' life, so the mission of remembrance fell to her descendants, and most notably to the Daughters of the American Revolution. In a brief biographical sketch entitled, Sarah Hawkins: The Forgotten Heroine, written in June 1934 by Jennie Prather Hyde, Rec. Secty. Old Glory Chapter D.A.R., Franklin, Tennessee, Sarah Hawkins is described as "a tender, delicate young lady, and her delicacy and pure modesty constituted the youth's ideal." Mrs. Hyde added, "Time has wrought many changes as we look at the type of young womanhood of today."

In her biography of Sarah Hawkins, Mrs. Hyde emphasized the hardships of life on the frontier, and Sarah's steadfast loyalty to her husband. She asks:

"It has always been a subject of speculation as to why Sevier removed to these extreme frontier settlements. In all this restlessness of his life are we losing sight of the dangers and sufferings of Sarah and her little family? A heroine indeed was she and we honor and respect her for her courage during those frontier times, for men and women had to have physical courage, facing the many dangers and hardships. Disasters which break down the spirit of a man, seem to call forth all the energies of the softer sex and give to them courage and fortitude; this can be truly said of Sarah Hawkins."

This fascinating account not only details the efforts to memorialize a "forgotten heroine," but it also speaks to how society, and more specifically how the DAR, viewed women's roles during the early to mid-twentieth century. It was during this time that resurrecting Sarah Hawkins from the forgotten realm of history became a civic duty and source of feminist pride to the ladies of the DAR.

In 1945, near the end of World War II, Sarah Hawkins' descendants began an effort to memorialize her as a tribute not only to her, but also by extension to women throughout our nation's history. Another Daughter of the American Revolution, Mary Hoss Headman, led one such effort. On January 1, 1945, Knoxville News-Sentinel reported:

"Mrs. Mary Hoss Headman, great-great-granddaughter of Tennessee's historic John Sevier, came prepared to request the court's permission to erect a new monument on the Court House lawn.

'The monument would be in honor of Sarah Hawkins Sevier,' Mrs. Headman told a reporter. 'She was John Sevier's first wife and mother of his 10 children, three of whom were born in Tennessee.'

'Sarah Hawkins Sevier inspired Sevier, helped him to become great and stood by him against Indian attack in East Tennessee. His first wife, who is not remembered by Tennesseans, is the one whose money, influence and loyalty carried John Sevier to fame.'"

Mrs. Headman saw it as her duty to correct this historical oversight and the perceived slight of her ancestor. She took special note to emphasize that the famous rescue of "Bonny Kate" occurred before Sarah Hawkins died in 1780, and that John Sevier's first wife actually deserved more credit for helping to establish her husband as a pivotal figure in Tennessee history. She further added:

"Sevier married Bonny Kate later, and he already was established in state affairs at that time. Five of Sarah Hawkins Sevier's children by Sevier fought in the Revolution. So I say again it was Sarah Hawkins Sevier who did the most for Tennessee's early history."

Mrs. Headman said she would ask the Knox County Court for permission to erect a monument to Sarah Hawkins Sevier. Such a marker would be on the same grounds as the monuments to Sevier himself and his second wife, Bonny Kate Sevier, on the courthouse lawn in Knoxville, Tennessee.

"We hope to raise the money from the state, but if we don't then the Daughters of the American Revolution will subscribe the amount. Perhaps the county will want to help." Mrs. Headman said, adding, "We will raise the money in 1945 and will dedicate the monument in 1946, the 200th anniversary of Sarah Sevier's birth."

A little more than two weeks later, the Knox County Commission approved Mrs. Headman's plan. According to the January 17, 1945 edition of the Johnson City Chronicle:

"The Knox County Commission today approved erection of a memorial to Sarah Hawkins Sevier, first wife of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, on the courthouse lawn here.

Backing the movement has been Mrs. Mary Hoss Headman, great-great-granddaughter of the first Mrs. Sevier.

The East Tennessee Historical Society also has approved the plan, which calls for erection of a monument alongside those now honoring Sevier and his second wife, Catherine Sherrill (Bonny Kate).

Erection ceremonies probably will be sometime next year, sesquicentennial of Tennessee's admission to the Union."

By the summer of that same year, the goal of dedicating a monument to the memory of Sarah Hawkins became a reality. On June 3, 1946, on Tennessee's sesquicentennial anniversary, the city of Knoxville observed "Sarah Hawkins Sevier Memorial Day." Newspaper accounts of the dedication ceremony stated that Mrs. Mary Hoss Headman had the high honor of unveiling the monument in her great-great-grandmother's honor. Other DAR officials were also on hand for the dedication, including the state DAR chaplain, and the national vice-president of the DAR, who had a speaking role at the ceremony. Several other dignitaries were on hand as well, including Tennessee Governor Jim McCord, and State Senator E. E. Patton, who spoke these memorable words on this occasion:

"A philosopher has said that 'back of the success of every man lies the heart of a woman.' It may be a sainted mother; it may have been a sister who sacrificed that she might send her brother to college; it may have been a wife who would brave the dangers of a living in hell in order to contribute to her husband's success and happiness.

Such a woman I regard Sarah Hawkins Sevier to have been, and in order that you may have a full picture and realization of what a companion to Sevier she proved herself to be, I now quote from the inscription on the monument which we have come to unveil and dedicate today:

'The love of his youth, the inspiration of his manhood, a gallant, courageous Colonial and Revolutionary patriot. Her descendants number many notable leaders of men; Tennessee's first five-star mother.'"

A monument dedicated to the memory of Sarah Hawkins, first wife of Gov. John Sevier, located on the lawn of the Knox County Courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee (Author photo).

For the DAR, Sarah Hawkins' personal story embodied femininity on the frontier -- a strong, courageous woman who was loyal to her husband, and devoted to her family. During World War II, these were qualities to which the ladies of the DAR also aspired. The DAR's influence on creating a lasting memorial and memory of Sarah Hawkins Sevier -- and a vision of womanhood in the mid-twentieth century -- cannot be overstated. They were largely responsible for resurrecting Sarah Hawkins' reputation from the grave of memory, and without the DAR's efforts, John Sevier's first wife may have truly been a "forgotten heroine."

The reverse side of the Sarah Hawkins monument, erected by the Sarah Hawkins Chapter D.A.R., Tennessee Historical Commission, and Sevier Descendants (Author photo).

Selected Sources:

Jennie Prather Hyde. Sarah Hawkins: The Forgotten Heroine. Old Glory Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, Franklin, Tenn. June 1934.

"Sarah Hawkins Sevier Memorial Day," Tennessee Historical Quarterly. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society, Vol. 5 No. 4 (1946).

Newspaper Sources (Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives):

  • Johnson City Chronicle
  • Kingsport Times
  • Knoxville News Sentinel

*According to published family history, Sarah Hawkins had just given birth to their tenth child when news of an imminent Indian attack reached Sevier's settlement. Although Sevier ushered his family to the safety of a fort located on the banks of the Nolichucky River, in her weakened state Sarah did not survive the journey. As midnight approached and anticipating an attack at dawn, several men slipped out of the fort into a nearby forest and dug Sarah's grave. "Amid flashes of lightning and claps of thunder," family historians wrote, "John Sevier laid to eternal rest Sarah Hawkins."

**In May 2018, at least one claim surfaced on social media of having located Sarah Hawkins' grave using a technique known as dowsing, sometimes used to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, oil, or lost grave sites. Although this divining technique has its followers who swear by its accuracy, scientists and archaeologists have largely debunked dowsing as pseudoscience no more effective than random chance. And despite these most recent claims of discovery, at this writing it appears that no actual remains have been found. 

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.