Tag Archives: Tennessee frontier

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