Old Tales Retold...

   Women's History Month traditionally draws our attention to the important contributions women have made to our shared history. This month, I would like to take this opportunity to focus on a female writer who contributed to how John Sevier, "Tennessee's First Hero," is often remembered in the narrative of early Tennessee history.

"Mrs. Octavia Zollicoffer Bond,
Gifted as Author and Lecturer"
Image credit: Find A Grave
   Born in 1846 into one of Tennessee's first families, Octavia Zollicoffer Bond carried the weight of history upon her shoulders. As the eighth child of Confederate Brigadier General and United States Congressman Felix Zollicoffer and as the great-grandchild of Revolutionary War Captain George Zollicoffer, young Octavia surely heard stories told of her ancestors' heroism on the field of battle. In addition to his military and political background, her father Felix also served as the editor of the Nashville Republican Banner and later purchased an interest in the newspaper, and so it only seemed natural that Octavia would become destined for a career in writing.

   During her literary career, Octavia Bond published a series of articles entitled, "Letters of Yesteryear," and edited a page in the monthly Southern Woman's Magazine. Bond published her most famous work in 1906 entitled, Old Tales Retold, which consisted of a selection of short stories on Southern history and legend. Inspired by the historical writings of John Haywood, J.G.M. Ramsey and other well-known Tennessee antiquarians and influenced by the literary works of Theodore Roosevelt and James Roberts Gilmore, Bond's publication focused on tales of Tennessee folklore.

   In the preface of her book, Bond wrote, "The aim of this little book is to cause inquiry into the facts which it relates." [5] Bond's haigographic writing and nostalgic prose embellished these "facts" with a poetic license that made historical figures, like John Sevier, leap from the pages of history.

   Bond placed the early explorers of Tennessee's Overmountain region at the vanguard of our nation's republic, and, like Lyman Draper before her, Bond believed that the Battle of King's Mountain held a particular place of importance as the "turning point" of the American Revolution. One example of this writing style can be found within her description of the Overmountain men who fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain. In Old Tales Retold, Bond wrote:

   “Firmly resolved never to be ruled by prince or king or royal governor, they determined to defend their over-mountain land against the British army to the last. Though the revolutionary cause seemed to be lost, General Washington himself having lately said, ‘I have almost ceased to hope,’ they made up their minds to remain unconquered. With the spirit which afterwards gained for their land the title of the ‘Young Switzerland of America,’ the resolute leaders agreed that, though New England and all the other colonies might be forced to yield to the tyranny of England, they would keep one spot in America free, or die in the attempt." [94-95]

   In her narrative, Bond took particular notice of John Sevier’s actions in the conflict. In the moments before the battle, she observed that the Overmountain men felt assured of their success with Captain Sevier in command. Bond contended, “the British feared him as they would a human hornet, and called the borderland through which he ranged the ‘Hornets’ Nest.’” [94] 

   Without citing her sources, Bond imagined several conversations John Sevier might have had among the soldiers under his command. At the gathering of Overmountain men at Sycamore Shoals, she quoted Sevier as having said with wild-eyed determination, “Go tell my men to come and help me thrash Ferguson.” In a scene reminiscent of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Bond noted:

   “Without delay each trusty courier sprang to the saddle and sped away to rally the patriots of the frontier country. There was not a cove or valley which they did not penetrate with the message. Nor was there a mountain height on which a cabin might be perched where they did not tell the news. ‘The Redcoats are coming!’ they shouted aloud; ‘rally for Chucky Jack and freedom!’ And on they went through all the thinly settled region, only pausing long enough at each ‘clearing’ to cry: ‘Ferguson is not far off, making his boasts that he will come and burn out our hornets’ nest and hang our leaders. Rally for Chucky Jack! The Redcoats are coming!’” [95-96]

   Bond also contrived a conversation between Sevier’s wife, “Bonny Kate,” and a woman named Nancy Dyke, whose “worthless husband, a despised Tory, had left her and her small children in their hut in the forest the year before.” The women in John Sevier's life are all too often overlooked in the narrative of his life, yet to her credit, Bond placed "Bonny Kate" in a position of importance within her own narrative.

   According to Bond, Nancy Dyke visited regularly for a “measure of meal and a flitch of bacon,” and “but for Mrs. Sevier’s charity, they would have starved.” In setting the scene of this encounter, Bond created a narrative that placed “Bonny Kate” Sevier in the role of benevolent caretaker and Nancy Dyke in the role of informant. Feeling a certain loyalty to Mrs. Sevier for her kindness, Nancy Dyke reported that she overheard her husband talking with British loyalists in the night plotting to kill John Sevier in his sleep. She wrote:

   “‘Why, ma’am, he’s come back to me, Dyke has. Last night there were some bad ‘king’s men’ talking with him outside the door. I heard them through the chink say: ‘Nolichucky Jack does not bar his doors at night. It will be easy work while he sleeps to rid the country of him and do the king a service.’ They mean to kill Captain Sevier this very night.’ Then, frightened at what she had said, Nancy began to beg for mercy for her husband. ‘Don’t let him be hurt,’ she pleaded. ‘He was not always the ‘Traitor Bill Dyke’ they call him now. He used to treat me well.’” [97-98]

   According to Bond, Sevier’s Overmountain men “were excited to indignation when they heard of this Tory plot to take the life of their commander.” They captured Bill Dyke in the night, and rather than hanging him for treason, stripped him of his clothing and gave him a coat of tar and feathers. According to Bond, “the wretched man went flying across the mountain like an evil bird, as straight as he could go to Ferguson’s camp.” There Dyke told the Tories of the gathering at Sycamore Shoals, and offered to guide the British troops to Sevier’s men. [98] 

   As John Sevier surveyed his troops in the moments leading up to the battle, Bond described the scene with gallant pride. The Overmountain men, “dressed in homespun hunting shirts and leggings, with buck’s tails in their hats for plums… they were remarkable for height and strength of body; and each one of them was a sure marksman with his flintlock gun, as well as skillful in the use of the knife or tomahawk in his belt.” Her portrait of Sevier was equally vivid and heroic:

   “Sevier’s erect figure, wherever it appeared, was the signal for hearty cheers and greetings. Every man in the ranks was his devoted friend. He had something to say to each, with special, personal kindness. To all alike he said in the quiet, magnetic voice which made his lightest word a command: ‘We must whip Ferguson.’ The cry was caught up from man to man, spreading from rank to rank, and gathering force as it went, till the Watauga hills resounded with the shout: ‘We must whip Ferguson!’” [99-100]

   With that, Bond wrote, “The ardor of Sevier’s own spirit was ablaze in every heart.” Though John Sevier was one of several commanders leading the Overmountain men into battle, Bond’s narrative gives much of the credit to Sevier for the patriots’ victory. It was Sevier who “was moved to pity at the thought that their only hope, as well as the hope of all good Americans, lay in the success of the enterprise in hand.” It was Sevier who “felt sure that a decided triumph over the skilled Ferguson would serve to turn the tide of war in favor of the Americans.” And it was Sevier who “led the way, calling aloud, ‘Onward, men, onward!’” [103-105]

   Bond embraced the popular narrative espoused by James Roberts Gilmore placing Sevier in an elevated position above all others living in the region. In her book, Bond expressed dismay that Sevier had been arrested on charges of treason for his role in leading the State of Franklin rebellion against North Carolina. "What was his crime?" she wrote, answering that the "chivalrous" Sevier had only "loved too well the Overmountain land that afterwards came to be called Tennessee." [119] 

   Bond lived a long and productive life as an author and lecturer chronicling her romanticized and nostalgic version of Tennessee's past, but as her health declined, she spent the twilight of her life in a nursing home. She celebrated her 95th birthday in April of 1941 before passing away on the 2nd of October in that same year. Her remains are buried in the Zollicoffer family plot at the Old Nashville City Cemetery alongside her husband, Judge John Bryan Bond, a prominent Maury County attorney.

   Reprinted four times since its first publication in 1906, Old Tales Retold endured for generations long after Octavia Bond's death. Although heavily reliant upon oral traditions and earlier published works and sorely lacking in source citations, Bond's "little book" stands on its own merit as an avenue of discovery and imaginative storytelling. In the opening decade of the twentieth century, Old Tales Retold delivered Sevier's story to a new generation of readers and out from the shadows of obscurity.

Grave marker for Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, 1846 - 1941, and her husband, John Bryan Bond, 1845 - 1920.
Image courtesy of the Nashville City Cemetery Association.

Old Tales Retold by Octavia Zollicoffer Bond is available in most public or university libraries, and may be purchased through any number of used book stores or antiquarian book dealers.


  • Octavia Zollicoffer Bond. Old Tales Retold; or, Perils and Adventures of Tennessee Pioneers. Smith & Lamar Publishers, 1906.
  • "Mrs. J.B. Bond's Funeral Today: Daughter of General Felix Zollicoffer, Author, 95, Dies Here." [obituary] The Nashville Tennessean, October 3, 1941.


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.