Tag Archives: Tennessee frontier

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

Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Tennessee History

Name recognition on the trans-Appalachian frontier

I spent about a year living in central Kentucky, and one of the things that always interested me was the fact that the Bluegrass State has really embraced its frontier period.  The sites of the old eighteenth-century stations and settlements are state parks, and their special events are big hits with people living in the area.  Most bookstores carry Allan Eckert’s “Winning of America” narratives, in which Kentucky heroes like  Daniel Boone (seen at right in a portrait by Chester Harding)  and Simon Kenton figure prominently.  Signs along the driveway of Frankfort Cemetery direct curious visitors to Boone’s grave, and each and every time I visited the spot, other people were there to take pictures.  (I’m assuming, of course, that Frankfort really is Boone’s final resting place.  There’s an ongoing feud between Kentucky and Missouri over that very question.)

Traces of the frontier in my home state of Tennessee are harder to find.  While state parks mark a few important sites (Sycamore Shoals, for instance), many of the locations that figured prominently in Tennessee’s frontier era are indistinguishable from their modern surroundings, or are now underwater as a result of TVA activity.

If Boone is the leading man of Kentucky’s frontier story, then the hero of early Tennessee history is probably John Sevier, seen here in a portrait by Charles Wilson Peale.  He commanded overmountain riflemen in an impressive series of victories against Indians and Tories during the Revolution (he was an architect of the King’s Mountain expedition), was the only governor of the short-lived Franklin movement and first governor of the Volunteer State, and represented Tennessee in the House of Representatives.  He’s buried on the lawn of the Knox County Courthouse in downtown Knoxville.  I’ve been to his grave countless times, and I’ve invariably had it to myself.  Every Kentuckian knows Boone, and so do most Americans, but if I had a nickel for every time I’ve met a Tennessean who’d never heard of Sevier, I could retire now.

This contrast between commemoration in Kentucky and neglect in Tennessee isn’t just a matter of popular memory.  It’s reflected in historiography, too.  Meredith Mason Brown’s life of Boone hit the shelves a few months ago, only a year after the release of Robert Morgan’s Boone biography.  Both of these works follow John Mack Faragher’s excellent Boone study by just about a decade and a half.  The bibliography of the Tennessee frontier, however, is sparse indeed.

So why is Kentucky’s frontier era the stuff of legend, while Tennessee’s founding remains neglected?  I think Boone himself has a lot to do with it.  For one thing, he had a healthyhead start.  Boone became the popular archetype of the typical frontiersman during his own lifetime, thanks to contemporary publicists and myth-makers.

Furthermore, Boone fit the frontier mold.  He looked and acted the way we want frontiersmen to look and act; he was a hunter, a trailblazer, and a resltess and solitary soul who wasn’t really happy unless he was in the wilderness.  Sevier also bore many of the stereotypical frontier characteristics—he built a remarkable record as an Indian fighter, respected by his fellow settlers as a dynamic man of action.  But he also became a statesman and speculator, occupations which connote a taming and organization of the frontier, rather than a state of living in idyllic harmony with it.

The archetypal frontiersman, and the one who embodied what Americans want to believe about their frontier experience and its enduring legacy, remains forever associated with Kentucky, while Tennessee’s central frontier figure reminds us of the undeniable, recurring fact of the American frontier—it eventually ceased to exist.  Maybe that helps to explain the distinction between the popularity of the frontier in Kentucky and its relative obscurity in Tennessee.

It’s unfortunate, both because the late eighteenth century was Tennessee’s formative period and because there is much in that period that is captivating.  Sevier’s defense of Ft. Caswell rivals the siege of Ft. Boonesborough for drama; the tragic voyage of the Donelson party to the Cumberland settlements surpasses any trek up the Wilderness Road.  There are more than enough highlights in the records of Tennessee’s founding era to weave a mythology that equals any state’s.

(Images of the Boone and Sevier portraits obtained from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History