Remembering and forgetting John Sevier

If you’re in the Knoxville area, come out to Marble Springs State Historic Site this Saturday at 1:00 P.M.  Fellow history blogger Gordon Belt will talk about his new book John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Heroan examination of the ways we’ve remembered, misremembered, and failed to remember the man who probably did more than anyone else to create the Volunteer State.  

The cool thing about this book is that it offers an accessible introduction to Sevier’s life as well as a thoroughly researched examination of his place in tradition and memory. It traces the development of the Sevier legend across the three major phases of his life as a pioneer, a soldier, and a statesman, stopping along the way to address some of the more popular stories about him, such as the dramatic rescue of his future wife at Ft. Watauga, his involvement in the Franklin movement, and his public feud with Andrew Jackson.

I eagerly awaited the publication of Gordon’s book, not just because it fits my personal research interests to a T but also because I think it will help address a troubling bit of historical amnesia we have here in Tennessee.

I think I first realized the extent of the problem the day I went to UT’s library to borrow a book about Sevier.  It was Carl Driver’s 1932 biography, and I needed it for my master’s thesis on memory and the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The guy behind the counter looked at the title and said, “Oh, the highway guy.”

The highway guy?  And then it hit me: Gov. John Sevier Highway loops around the southern and eastern sides of Knoxville.

He was the state’s first governor, a member of Congress, a state senator, the only governor of the Lost State of Franklin, an officer in one of the Revolutionary War’s pivotal battles, commander of the state militia, defender of the frontier and the scourge of the Cherokees.  If we don’t remember his stellar résumé, we should at least remember his name, because it’s all over East Tennessee: Sevierville, Sevier County, Gov. John Sevier Animal Clinic, John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, John Sevier Elementary School.  Along with his nemesis Old Hickory, he’s one of two Tennessee heroes in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.  Even his wife has an elementary school named in her honor.

But to the kid behind the library desk, he was “the highway guy.”

The notion that a Tennessean of any era would be unfamiliar with the exploits of “Nolichucky Jack” would have come as quite a shock to his contemporaries.  From the time of the American Revolution until his death in 1815, Sevier was one of the most popular men in his corner of the world.

But by the late 1800s, there was already a sense among antiquarians, regional authors, and amateur historians that Sevier and the other heroes of the old frontier had not received their historical due.  These men were determined to rectify the problem, but they overcompensated.  In the work of writers like James Gilmore and Francis M. Turner, Sevier became a frontier demigod.  The hero-worshipping writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries obscured the flesh-and-blood man behind a haze of tradition and sentimental prose.

There were other, later attempts to understand and commemorate Sevier and his times in the twentieth century.  Some of the most interesting were on the stage, as the early settlement of Tennessee became the subject of outdoor dramas.  On the printed page, regional historians like Samuel Cole Williams and Pat Alderman picked up where the antiquarians of the 1800s had left off.  But separating the man from the myth remained a problem.  Although Driver’s biography is the most thorough cradle-to-grave treatment of Sevier, it dates back to the Great Depression.

Gordon’s book is just the sort of fresh take we need to kickstart another revival of interest in one of the frontier’s most important figures.  Visit Marble Springs this weekend to hear him discuss it.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory, Tennessee History

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