Tag Archives: Tennessee frontier

Agency doesn’t always look the way we want it to

I’m really enjoying the seminar I’m taking on Native American history.  Last week we had a lively discussion about Nancy Ward, a prominent Cherokee woman of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries whose name has come up here on the blog before.  One of my most pleasant surprises as a history buff was the day I was on a short road trip with my mom; our route unexpectedly took us right by Nancy Ward’s gravesite, so I got to step out and take a look at it.

She made a name for herself when she was still a teenager in the 1750s, taking up her mortally wounded husband’s gun during a battle with the Creeks.  Shortly thereafter she married an English trader and became one of those cross-cultural mediators that popped up from time to time in the history of the American borderlands.

Nancy Ward’s grave, along with the graves of her son and brother, in Polk County, TN. Photo by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1776, as Cherokee warriors prepared to launch attacks on settlements along the southern frontier, word of the impending assault made its way to the whites.  Nancy Ward was one of those responsible for sending the warning.  When the attacks fell in July, the settlers were hunkered down behind the wooden palisades of their forts.  Warriors did manage to capture Lydia Bean, wife of one of the first settlers in present-day Tennessee.  As Beloved Woman, Ward had authority over the fate of prisoners and saved Bean from the stake, reportedly keeping the captive in her home to make butter and cheese until she could return home.  It wasn’t the only occasion Ward would use her influence to prevent the shedding of white blood.

The reason our discussion in class got lively was because Nancy Ward is a controversial subject for many modern Cherokees.  My professor noted that some members of the tribe still consider Ward a traitor because of her affinity for the settlers and her tendency to intervene on their behalf, and one of my classmates (who does preservation work for the Eastern Band) cringed when her name came up.  And by modern standards, it’s hard to argue with the “traitor” label.  What else would you call someone who sent word to the opposing side that her own people were about to launch an invasion?

But, as my professor pointed out, it’s not quite that simple.  For one thing, Ward’s status as Beloved Woman gave her a certain amount of authority in matters of war and peace.  In her excellent book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, Theda Perdue discusses how women sought to maintain their prerogatives when it came to the disposition of captives, treaty negotiations, and other important business during the tumultuous eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Maybe Ward’s actions had as much to do with the preservation of female power as it did with saving whites’ lives.

More importantly, judging Ward reduces our ability to see their activity for what it was, namely a form of agency.  “Agency” is a term we’ve been discussing a lot in that class.  When you’re dealing with marginalized and often voiceless historical groups—groups such as Indians, women, slaves, or the poor—it’s important to remember that their circumstances didn’t reduce them to passive blobs of matter.  They remained human beings who confronted, resisted, and adapted to the forces around them.  Historians spend a lot of time trying to recover the agency of marginalized people, and when they do, they usually identify agency with some form of resistance.  Resistance can come in many forms besides open rebellion.  Workers who protested harsh factory conditions, slaves who broke farming tools—these are the sorts of activities historians generally have in mind when people refer to “agency.”  Just because oppressed people weren’t taking up pitchforks and raising hell doesn’t mean they weren’t holding on to their humanity.  An act as simple as doing one’s work a little bit more slowly than expected could be a form of resistance.

But maybe agency doesn’t have to equal resistance at all.  Any time some historical figure faced a choice and made a decision, they were exercising agency.  Perhaps Nancy Ward’s decision to forewarn the settlers was an act of agency, too.  In fact, it was a pretty striking one; she chose to act in a way that seems counter to the interests of many of her own people.

Why did she do it?  Maybe she thought a war with the whites would just bring down even harsher retribution, which is what indeed happened, and she wanted to minimize its effects.  Maybe, as I suggested above, she felt the councils had failed to take into account her opinion and that of other leading women in the discussions that led up to the decision to launch the assaults.  Maybe her marriage to a white trader had given her a soft spot for the settlers.  I don’t know.  But whatever her motives, she decided to act as she did, even though she didn’t act the way we might expect a woman in her position “should” act.

As a Native American woman (albeit a very influential and prominent one), Nancy Ward was the kind of person whose decisions usually didn’t make it into the history books.  But in her case, we get the opportunity to observe an Indian woman choosing to act, and doing so.  Her choice might look odd to us, but it was still her choice.  Nancy Ward made her choices and shaped her own circumstances, as surely as did the Indians who fought white encroachment to the last bullet and resisted acculturation to the last breath.  As my professor put it, people want their historical Indians to behave like Geronimo, but not all of them did.

Sometimes historical figures acted in ways that seem nonsensical or even immoral to us.  Our job is to figure out why they acted as they did, and what their choices can reveal about larger patterns of behavior and about the societies that produced them.  We can’t choose for them; nor can we judge their choices.  The choices were ultimately theirs.

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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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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