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John Sevier in History and Memory

The predominant focus of my writing on The Posterity Project has focused on the convergence of history and memory on the early American frontier. More specifically, I have devoted much of my time to exploring how Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, is remembered in history and literature. It is the subject of my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, published by The History Press.

The following selection of blog posts explores this relationship between John Sevier and historical memory in greater detail. They are meant to supplement material published in my book, and to serve as an online resource for scholars and researchers.

If you are interested in reposting or reprinting one of my blog posts, please be courteous and seek my permission first before republishing any original content created here. Substantive use of written or visual material published here or in my book without my prior consent or proper attribution may be viewed as plagiarism and would violate the terms of my copyright and my contract with my book publisher.

  • John Sevier, "warts and all." - To understand the cultural and generational shifts of the present, we sometimes reach into the past for answers from America’s heroes. In the process, we often place these heroes on an unreachable pedestal where they no longer resemble one of us. They become nothing short of gods to be worshiped, honored and revered. This blog post serves as a personal manifesto for writing history and a response to those who view history through rose-colored glasses. Faithful history demands, like Cromwell of his artist, "Paint me as I am, warts and all."

  • William Tatham, Wataugan - The siege at Fort Caswell on the Watauga in 1776 is an episode of Tennessee history wrapped in myth and memory. In the years that followed, oral traditions, repeated by succeeding generations and validated by the published accounts of late-nineteenth century antiquarians and storytellers, embellished the details of this engagement with each telling. Few firsthand accounts exist, save for the recollections of one of the fort's original defenders, William Tatham.

  • Sowing the Seeds of War: The Yellow Creek Massacre and the Battle of Point Pleasant - Part 3 of a series examining the Battle of Point Pleasant and its aftermath in history and memory. In this blog post, I document the reminiscences of Judge Henry Jolly, who in 1849 recalled the brutal assault on Chief John Logan's family at Yellow Creek, an incident that fueled a period of retaliation and sparked the Battle of Point Pleasant, forever influencing how John Sevier engaged his own enemies in the years that followed.

  • "You may judge that we had a very hard day" -- Isaac Shelby and the Battle of Point Pleasant - Part 2 of a series examining the Battle of Point Pleasant and its aftermath in history and memory. Historians of the battle credited Lieutenant Isaac Shelby with leading the charge toward victory with a flanking maneuver that ultimately turned the tide of the battle in the Virginian's favor, and helped shape John Sevier's philosophy of offensive guerrilla warfare for years to come. Shelby chronicled his experience as a witness and participant in the Battle of Point Pleasant in a letter to his uncle, John Shelby, written just six days after the battle on October 16, 1774.

  • The Battle of Point Pleasant and Virgil Lewis' fight against "Manufactured History" - Part 1 of a series examining the Battle of Point Pleasant and its aftermath in history and memory. As West Virginia's first archivist and chief historian of the Battle of Point Pleasant, Virgil Lewis sought to correct the glorified narrative of the battle, and in the process placed figures who fought in it -- like John Sevier -- in proper historical context.

  • Old Tales Retold - Women's History Month traditionally draws our attention to the important contributions women have made to our shared history. During this annual observance, I took the opportunity remember Octavia Zollicoffer Bond, a female writer who contributed to how John Sevier, "Tennessee's First Hero," is often remembered in the narrative of early Tennessee history.

  • "It is handed down by our forefathers..." John Sevier and the Melungeon mystery - Melungeons occupy a mysterious and often misunderstood place in Tennessee history. In this blog post, I examine the origins of the Melungeon people through John Sevier's eyes. Sevier's 1810 letter to Major Amos Stoddard perpetuated legends and stories concerning the origins of the Melungeon people for generations. For some Melungeon scholars, the letter also fueled a burning hatred for Sevier and his military campaigns against Native Americans.

  • Joseph Martin versus John Sevier - As a longrifleman, frontiersman, soldier, Indian agent, and legislator, Joseph Martin occupied an important role in the settlement of the Trans-Appalachian West. While Martin respected John Sevier and sought his friendship, the two men remained bitter rivals, loyal to two opposing causes.

  • "This effectually unmans me" - In 1803, Governor John Sevier authorized a Presbyterian minister named Gideon Blackburn to set up a school for Native Americans. Blackburn's attempt to convert the Cherokees to civilization and Christianity through education so moved Sevier that it has been said the governor was moved to tears by the effort.

  • "See The Harvest" through John Sevier's eyes In 1956, Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement used "a novel narration technique" to deliver his administration's progress report to the state's citizens, conjuring up the ghost of John Sevier in the process to explain his accomplishments.

  • An "Admirer of Patriotism and Merit Unequaled." - This blog post is an edited excerpt from my article published in the October 2014 edition of The Nashville Retrospect. Aggrieved to discover that no monument to Sevier existed in Tennessee’s capital city, Albigence Waldo Putnam vowed to correct posterity’s oversight. For nearly four decades, the monument Putnam erected at Nashville’s City Cemetery stood as the only memorial tribute to John Sevier on Tennessee soil.

  • Dean Cornwell's artistic vision of John Sevier - During the New Deal era, illustrator Dean Cornwell helped shape the public memory of Tennessee's early history and John Sevier's role in it through his impressive murals The Discovery of Tennessee and The Development of Tennessee located within the John Sevier State Office Building in downtown Nashville.

  • Quote, unquote - Spurious quotes are the bane of every historian's existence, and verifying direct quotes from the patriots and pioneers of the "Old Southwest" can be challenging since many did not bother to commit their thoughts to paper. During my research for my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, 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.

  • A "picturesque" escape - Various writers and storytellers have embellished the pages of history with sensational details about Sevier's capture and arrest on charges of treason, and his eventual release, which has been described as a dramatic courthouse rescue in various newspaper articles and local color writers' accounts. There is little proof, however, that Sevier's "rescue" ever happened in such theatrical fashion.

  • The last casualty of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend - Andrew Jackson's defeat of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend proved devastating for the Creek Indians, yet few also realize that Jackson's victory also led to the eventual demise of one of Jackson's most bitter rivals, John Sevier.

  • "King's Mountain Day" remembered - On October 7, 1780, the Battle of King's Mountain pitted a Patriot militia, led by William Campbell, John Sevier, Isaac Shelby, and other notable figures, against Loyalist forces, commanded by British Major Patrick Ferguson. The Patriot's victory at King's Mountain on that day has been described as the "turning point" in the Revolutionary War, and the battle forged John Sevier's identity as "Tennessee's First Hero." Years later, Judge John Allison recalled this great battle in a speech delivered during Tennessee's Centennial Exposition Celebration. Judge Allison not only spoke for the battle's participants, but also for those descendants who sought remembrance for their ancestors.

  • Leadership Lessons from John Sevier - Deliberate attempts on the part of the early writers of Tennessee history to draw similarities between John Sevier's leadership qualities and those of George Washington are striking and dramatic. Admiration for Sevier often exceeded mere mortal expectations. Yet, through these aspirational characterizations we can learn a great deal about the leadership qualities that inspired men to follow "Nolichucky Jack" into the wilderness of Watauga, on the slopes of King's Mountain, into the uncertainty of the State of Franklin, and eventually into the halls of government in the State of Tennessee.

  • The tall tale of the King's Mountain Messenger - Joseph Greer was most famously known as the Revolutionary War soldier dispatched by John Sevier to carry the message of victory over British loyalists at the Battle of King's Mountain to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress gathered to govern our new nation. A towering man, standing at least 6-feet 7-inches tall, Greer's legend, and height, grew to epic proportions as news of his harrowing journey through hostile territory became known to the nation, earning him the nickname of the "Kings Mountain Messenger."

  • Sarah Hawkins Sevier: Tennessee's Forgotten Heroine -  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." Yet, memory of Sarah's life with John Sevier faded following her death. Descendants sought remembrance through monuments and memorial tributes, and the Daughters of the American Revolution played a key role in reviving Sarah's legacy.

  • John Sevier and slavery on the frontier - The institution of slavery was once something that scholars only acknowledged along the margins of history, but never fully examined as a pervasive fact of life in early America. Only within recent years have historians opened the wound of slavery for all to see -- a wound that needed to bleed for us to have a more complete picture of our nation's history. In stark contrast to the John Sevier that is remembered by many as a key figure in the Revolutionary War -- a war fought for freedom and liberty -- it is largely forgotten that Sevier, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and many of his contemporaries, owned slaves and considered them as property with as little right to freedom and liberty as the horses on his Marble Springs plantation.

  • "Thus ended the war of 1782" - Described by writers and historians of the 19th century as the "Last Battle of the American Revolution," fought on on the slopes of Lookout Mountain nearly one year after Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, Sevier's participation in the Battle of Lookout Mountain was a product of legend, and remains shrouded in myth and mystery to this day.

  • "The idol of the frontier people" -  In 1886, James Roberts Gilmore published The Rear Guard of the Revolution, an account of the early settlement of Tennessee, and later published two companion volumes entitled, John Sevier as a Commonwealth-Builder (1887), and The Advance-Guard of Western Civilization (1888). Gilmore's trilogy sought to cover John Sevier's important role in what the author perceived as "a neglected period of American history."

  • John Sevier: Pioneer Boy and Son of Tennessee - While John Sevier's exploits on the frontier, on the field of battle, and in the halls of government are legendary, the historical facts concerning his early years are a relative mystery. The lines between truth and legend begin to blur as you read early accounts of Sevier's childhood and adolescence, leaving fertile ground for fiction writers and novelists to fill the void of scholarship.

  • The hero of Watauga: John Sevier's dramatic rescue of "Bonny Kate" Sherrill - Among the many stories that further mythologized John Sevier's image as a frontier hero in the public memory of Tennesseans was his chance encounter and heroic rescue of a young woman who became his second wife, Catherine Sherrill -- a woman fondly remembered in many historical accounts as "Bonny Kate."

  • 35 Battles, 35 Victories - To this day, John Sevier's relationship with the Native American tribes of the Overmountain region remains a remarkably complex topic clouded in hagiography and embellishment. As a well-known Indian fighter with "35 Battles and 35 Victories" to his credit, Sevier led a tenacious assault upon the Cherokees, rapidly moving from village to village destroying everything in sight. Sevier's relationship with these noble warriors, however, could never be characterized simply as a fight between adversaries. Sevier had a deeply complicated military and diplomatic relationship with the Cherokees and other Native American tribes of the region -- a relationship that has eluded scholarly examination in most of the narratives of Sevier's life.

  • Dueling Personalities - Nolichucky Jack versus Old Hickory -  Echoing E. E. Miller's observation about Tennessee's frontier roots, Carl S. Driver noted in his biography, John Sevier: Pioneer of the Old Southwest, that Tennessee has had "no real state hero since the pioneer days. The list began with John Sevier and ended with Andrew Jackson." Indeed, the Volunteer State has had no larger political figures in its history than Sevier and Jackson. The interaction between these two men has been the subject of considerable inquiry by historians, and the personal rivalry between Sevier and Jackson fueled a political divide that exists to this day.

  • Sevier Amnesia: The Forgotten Grave of Tennessee's Founding Father - Towering over the east lawn of the Knox County Courthouse in Knoxville, Tennessee is a monument honoring the Volunteer State's first governor, John Sevier. Inscribed in stone on the base of this grand obelisk are the words, "Pioneer, Soldier, Statesman" -- A fitting tribute to a man who helped forge a path for the territory west of the Appalachian mountains to eventually become the state of Tennessee. But this lasting tribute to Tennessee's founding father was not the first stone marking John Sevier's place in history. Nearly 240 miles away in a cotton field in Alabama, a more humble reminder John Sevier's legacy stood for more than seven decades after his death.

Updated 2/9/2018