"This effectually unmans me"

As John Sevier governed his state of Tennessee, he struggled to maintain peaceful relations with the Native American tribes living within the newly created borders of the state. Tennessee's territorial boundaries stretched from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River, and around two-thirds of that territory remained under the control of the Native American population. Managing diplomatic relations and negotiating territorial disputes between white settlers and the tribes of the region consumed much of Sevier's time and attention during his first series of administrations as governor. Congress also demanded that Sevier's citizens honor the federal government's own treaties with Native Americans, which proved challenging as land speculators and settlers extended their reach westward. Native Americans sought to defend their land and their way of life from the overmountain onslaught with frequent raids and violent assaults on established settlements. Tales of "savage" depredations against the white settlers reached every corner of the state and did nothing to help further the cause of peace.

"A map of the Tennessee government, formerly part of North Carolina taken chiefly from surveys by Genel. D. Smith and others. J.T. Scott, sculptor. American Edition of Guthrie's Geographical."
Image credit: Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA), Tennessee State Library and Archives

In July of 1796, Sevier revealed his discontent with the violence that characterized life on America's first frontier when he declared:

"I shall always be desirous of preserving and supporting peace between the frontiers and our Indian neighbors, by restraining, as much as possible, the former from intrusion and encroachments of every kind; at the same time hope the latter will be suffered to pass off with impunity, for any violences and depredations they may unprovokedly and wantonly commit. It is a well known fact and shamefully obvious, that all the erratic tribes are accustomed and habituated to licentiousness; and educated to a vagrant, lawless, debauched and immoral life, and nothing but a sufficient conviction of being chastised will ever deter those itinerant nations from their common desperate and rapacious practices."

By the following year, Sevier's frustration with the federal government's insistence on restraint increased. In a November 26, 1797 letter to Tennessee's Congressional delegation, Sevier lamented, "Will the American Congress cramp and refuse to the Western Americans the great natural advantages Providence has designated for, and placed before them?" With this public proclamation, Sevier revealed a personal belief held by many of his fellow pioneers, that God's mighty hand had delivered the Trans-Appalachian West to its settlers and granted them dominion over all the Indian tribes who may reside within it.

By the close of the eighteenth century, government officials looked to men of faith to quell the violence. Leading up to this moment, an effort to "civilize" the Native populations began in 1791 following the signing of the Treaty of Holston which called for the Cherokee nation to "be led to a greater degree of civilization" in order "to become herdsmen and cultivators, instead of remaining in a state of hunters." In succeeding years, the federal government embraced attempts to educate and civilize the Native American population. In 1797, President John Adams appointed an agent to the Cherokees with orders to instruct them in various methods of farming and domesticating animals. By the time Thomas Jefferson held the presidential office, his administration publicly endorsed religious missionaries in their efforts to educate and instruct the Cherokees.

Within the state of Tennessee, Governor Sevier followed President Jefferson's determined lead. In 1803, with the cooperation of several Indian chiefs, Sevier authorized a Presbyterian minister named Gideon Blackburn to set up a school at Tellico Blockhouse, an early American outpost now part of the Fort Loudoun State Historical Area located along the Little Tennessee River in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee.

In his book, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans, Anthony F.C. Wallace described Blackburn's ambition "to convert the Cherokees to civilization and Christianity by educating their children. In 1804 he constructed a boarding school and in 1805 proudly presented his first class at a kind of graduation ceremony, where little Cherokees, dressed in white clothing, demonstrated their ability to read from books and sing hymns in English."

In 1804, the Reverend Gideon Blackburn opened a Presbyterian school for the Cherokee near the village of Sale Creek. In March 1817, he established a school that became known as the Brainerd Mission. More missions like this were founded throughout the region. The Brainerd Mission was a multi-acre mission school situated on Chickamauga Creek near present-day Chattanooga. It was the largest institution of its type among the Eastern Cherokees.
Image credit: Penelope Johnson Allen Papers, Special Collections, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

In his own account of the ceremony, Blackburn recalled Governor Sevier's emotional reaction to what he had just witnessed. In a December 14, 1807 letter written to a fellow clergyman named Rev. Dr. Morse, Blackburn remarked:

"...Few of the spectators were unmoved, and many shed tears plentifully. The Governor, a hardy veteran, who had often braved the dangers of war in the same forest, said to me, 'I have often stood unmoved amidst showers of bullets from the Indian rifles; but this effectually unmans me. I see civilization taking the ground of barbarism, and the praises of Jesus succeeding to the war whoop of the savage.' All this time the tears were stealing down his manly cheek."

Gideon Blackburn
Image credit: PCA Historical Center

Similar civilization programs like Blackburn's continued throughout the American frontier. Over time, however, the federal government's experiments in cultural assimilation and religious education ultimately gave way to a national policy of forced relocation after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In the course of a single generation, Governor Sevier's tears of joy flowed into an ignominious "Trail of Tears" that came to symbolize our national government's callous treatment of Native Americans for generations to follow.


The Panoplist, Or, The Christian's Armory, Volume 3. "Religious Intelligence" Letter IV. Maryville, Dec. 14, 1807.

Bernard W. Sheehan. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian philanthropy and the American Indian. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973.

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

Anthony F.C. Wallace. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

John Sevier to Andrew Jackson, et al; Nov. 26, 1797, Williams, ed., "Journal of Sevier," East Tennessee Historical Society Publications, No. 3 (1931), 161.

Samuel C. Williams, ed., "Executive Journal of Gov. John Sevier," East Tennessee Historical Society Publications, No. 1 (1929), 113.


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.