Quote, unquote...

Spurious quotes are the bane of every historian's existence. We confront them almost on a daily basis, especially on social media and on the Internet. The onslaught of misinformation circulating online is overwhelming, and debunking these quotes can seem like a losing battle in the face of acceptance by the so called "wisdom of the crowd."

As a writer and public historian, I'm am often called upon to research the validity and accuracy of quotes attributed to historic figures. At times, this can present a challenge, particularly when researching quotations from the men who made their mark on America's first frontier in Tennessee.

I found this problem particularly challenging while researching my latest book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero. Direct quotes from the patriots and pioneers of the "Old Southwest" are rare since many did not bother to commit their thoughts to paper at the moment of their individual experiences. These men and their families were more interested in survival than posterity.

Letter addressed to the warriors and chiefs
of the Cherokee Nation, written by
Tennessee Gov. John Sevier on March 28, 1797.
Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Digitized by the Digital Library of Georgia.
Fortunately, a few records of this important time and place in Tennessee history do exist. Prominent men in positions of authority, men like John Sevier, wrote letters as part of their military and governmental duties. Years later, antiquarians like John Haywood, J.G.M. Ramsey, and Lyman Draper "rescued from oblivion" the papers and manuscripts of these frontiersmen and sought recollections from the aging pioneers and their descendants. Additionally, long after the Revolutionary War, when the veterans of the patriot cause sought pension benefits, a record of the thoughts and actions of the common soldier finally came to light through vividly descriptive pension applications.

There are, however, many gaps in the historical record, and over the years writers and storytellers eagerly filled the void with literary embellishments. Some quotes attributed to Sevier and his contemporaries were manufactured from the memories of the elderly veterans who once served under his command, or from these veterans' descendants who remembered stories told to them by their ancestors and recalled them for the antiquarians of the period. Writers of the mid- to late-nineteenth century attempted to reconstruct the narrative of their lives from these recollections, and their memories were not always accurate.

During my research, I occasionally encountered a quote attributed to Sevier and wondered to myself, "Did he really say that?" One particularly troubling and disturbing quote continues to vex me to this day.
In Grace Steele Woodward's 1963 book, The Cherokees, Woodward stated that Sevier once referred to the children of the Cherokees as "nits that make lice," and while conducting military raids against the Cherokees, Woodward claimed that Sevier instructed his men to kill the Cherokee children along with their elders in their assault upon the villages. Woodward asserted that Sevier's men understood this order to mean that Cherokee children (nits) would eventually grow up to be adults (lice) and thus represented a threat that must be exterminated.

This is a terribly derogatory quote and brutal characterization of Sevier's attitude towards the Cherokees. Further, to my knowledge, no direct reference to Sevier ever having said this exists. Tracing the origins of this quote, I tried in vain to find a letter or diary entry that could confirm Sevier actually made these remarks. Woodward failed to cite her source in her book, yet, I have seen more than one secondary source place these very words in Sevier's mouth, citing Woodward's quote as if it were the documented truth.

Frontiersmen apparently made frequent use of this cruel expression. According to a footnote cited in John P. Brown's Old Frontiers, the phrase "was adopted by the Americans from a remark made by Henry Hamilton," who in the Spring of 1782 addressing a council of Indians at Detroit, "instructed his red allies that King George expected them to take up the hatchet and 'Kill all the Long Knife (Americans), and that supplies would be withheld from those who failed to heed his command.'" According to Brown, when the Delaware Chief Half King questioned the command, asking, "Father, only men in arms--not women and children?" Hamilton replied "All, all, kill all! Nits make lice!" While Brown noted that "Even the Indians revolted at such tactics," this attitude permeated both sides of the conflict between the frontiersmen and the Indians, making the warfare between the two especially brutal.

Both Brown and another Cherokee scholar named E. Raymond Evans actually credited one of Sevier's militiamen, a man named Thomas Christian, with making the remark. In June of 1788, Sevier led an assault on Cherokee towns located on the banks of the Hiwassee River. According to Evans, militiamen killed five Cherokees and captured one young boy in the surprise attack. "Sevier burned the town and pursued the Cherokees to the mouth of the Valley River, where several of his men narrowly escaped an ambush," Evans wrote. He continued, "The delay caused by the ambush gave the Cherokees enough time to reach safety, but during the excitement the little boy who had been captured by the whites was brutally murdered by one of Sevier's men, Thomas Christian, who made the callous remark, 'Nits make lice.'"

A three-dimensional visualization of a typical Cherokee village.
Image courtesy of the Virtual Hampson Museum.
Brown and Evans cited the Draper Manuscripts as their source for the quote credited to Thomas Christian. Between 1841 and 1844, Lyman Draper interviewed many of the principal participants of Sevier's campaigns against the Cherokees and took copious notes of his conversations. Draper also corresponded with Sevier's son, George Washington Sevier, who according to Brown, supplied the antiquarian with the quote during an interview in February of 1844. There's just one problem... My own careful examination of Draper's handwritten account of this interview yielded no reference to the offending quote.

In fact, George Washington Sevier told Draper that his father "always regretted" any harm that came against the Cherokee women and children "by way of retaliation for their late depredations among his people." However, General Sevier showed little mercy for the remainder of the Cherokee tribe. During Draper's interview, George Washington Sevier further added that if the Cherokee warriors fired upon his father's men, Sevier "would return and destroy every town in the Nation." As a distant voice called out to the general to ask if he really intended to burn their villages, according to Sevier's own son the general replied, "Yes, I'll be damned if I don't!"

Further complicating matters, Evans cited a letter from George Washington Sevier to Lyman Draper dated February 16, 1844 as the source of the now infamous "nits make lice" quote. Again, turning to the Draper Manuscripts, I found no reference to the offending quote attributed to either Sevier or Christian. Is this a case of one scholar repeating the mistakes of another and thus creating a truth that never really existed?

Needless to say, I did not use this particular quote in my book because I could not confirm Sevier actually said this, but I did locate plenty of evidence from writings in Sevier's own hand and within the Draper Manuscripts to give one a compelling view of Sevier's attitude towards the Cherokees. Still, Sevier's deeply complicated relationship with the Cherokees has remained wrapped up in folklore and patriotic rhetoric for generations. It is a subject that I wrote about at length in a previous blog post on The Posterity Project, and it continues to be a topic that elicits emotional reactions from a few of Sevier's most ardent admirers.

While it is entirely fair to analyze Sevier's motives based on historical evidence and scholarship, we cannot fully measure Sevier's character based purely on second-hand information, undocumented quotes, and the hagiographic narratives written by Sevier's admirers. One must look at Sevier's actions throughout the course of his life through well-documented evidence to gain a proper historical perspective. It is impossible to ignore history's painful past, "warts and all," but we must be careful in passing judgement on a man of the past based on present-day values and sensibilities. A true measure of Sevier's character, especially where it concerns the Native Americans, has eluded antiquarians, scholars and historians for decades, and by my estimation, still does so to this day.

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.


John P. Brown. Old Frontiers. Kingsport, Tennessee: Southern Publishers, Inc., 1938.

Draper Manuscripts, Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Available on microfilm at the Tennessee State Library and Archives).

E. Raymond Evans. "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Bob Benge." Journal of Cherokee Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1976).

Grace Steele Woodward. The Cherokees. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.