A closer look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals painting

If you haven’t seen the special exhibit of Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society yet, I highly recommend it.  I’ve been twice, mostly to get a closer look at Branson’s masterpiece: his painting of the muster at Sycamore Shoals, on loan from the Tennessee State Museum.


Completed in 1915, it’s a landmark in the history of Tennessee art and an important example of Rev War memorialization.  Branson’s epitaph refers to this painting alone out of all his other works: “THE TENNESSEE ARTIST WHOSE GENIUS CREATED THE PICTURE ‘SYCAMORE SHOALS’ AND BY IT IMMORTALIZED THE TURNING POINT THAT EANT LASTING VICTORY IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION A.D. 1780.”

I’ve seen it before, of course—so have you, if you’ve ever taken a look at my blog’s header—but always in the King’s Mountain exhibit case at the State Museum.  Without that protective glass and dim lighting, it’s like looking at a whole new canvas.  The colors are much more vivid, and you start to pick out details you’ve always missed.  It’s sort of like the first time you watch something in HD.

For example, here’s a group of militiamen gathered around a fire.  Looks like the guy on the far right is wearing a brown frock and leggings.  A little white dog appears to have followed his master to the muster ground.


The guy in the blue coat is checking his horse’s feet—not a bad idea, considering he’s got a trip of something like 200 miles ahead of him.  One soldier with a blanket roll hurries to catch up with his comrades.  In the foreground, a volunteer kisses his wife or sweetheart goodbye, maybe for the last time.

IMG_1354I’d never noticed this African American before; he’s on the left-hand side of the painting, near the bank of the Watauga River.  The force that attacked Ferguson did include some black men.  Lyman Draper reports that Col. William Campbell’s mixed-race slave John Broddy was along for the march.  Another black King’s Mountain vet was Ishmael Titus, who was born a slave in Virginia and earned his freedom by serving as a substitute for his North Carolina master.

IMG_1357Here’s something else I’d always missed when looking at printed images of the painting: Branson put a couple of Native Americans at the muster.  Just a few months after the scene depicted here, the settlers in present-day Tennessee would be at war with their Indian neighbors again, and John Sevier would be leading his men south into the mountains on another campaign.

IMG_1348Is that a road running along the riverbank?  Perhaps it’s the trail that will take the Overmountain Men toward their camp at Shelving Rock.

IMG_1356There’s a fire going in one of the cabins nearby, and it looks like somebody’s cultivating the fields by the river.  More horses are lined up and ready for the long ride that will end in South Carolina.

IMG_1358Not all the Overmountain Men were mounted.  Here a group of footmen head out with rifles, blanket rolls, powder horns, and cartridge pouches.  As big and busy as this scene is, the amount of detail that Branson put into these small figures is remarkable.

IMG_1352There are two prominent men on horseback in the foreground, shaking hands with well-wishers before setting off.  If I recall correctly—and I don’t remember where I read this, so it’s a rather big “if”—the one on the left is supposed to be Isaac Shelby, and Sevier’s the one on the right.  Don’t quote me on that, though.


Even more mounted volunteers head out from a fortified building (Ft. Watauga, perhaps?).  In the distance are the Appalachian mountains, the same ones Ferguson has threatened to march over to lay waste to the settlements.  The riflemen beside the river will be crossing those hills instead, headed in the other direction to take out Ferguson and his Tories.


The more time you spend with the painting, and the closer and more carefully you look, the more you start to pick out finer details, and at some point all those seemingly indistinct figures start to take on a life of their own.  It’s not unlike the process of studying history, come to think of it.


Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory

5 responses to “A closer look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals painting

  1. Thanks for this detailed look at the painting. I’d noticed the change in header, with more natural colors. Wonderful.

    • Michael Lynch

      The brighter lighting in the ETHS gallery makes a huge difference. I’d gotten so used to seeing it in the darkened case at the TSM and in secondhand photos that I was stunned by the way it looked here in Knoxville. It looked more expansive, too–like somebody had clicked a “full screen” button.

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  4. Robert Ritchie

    I am curious as to if Lloyd Branson actually visited Elizabethton (in Carter County) in order to research the area in preparation for his 1915 ‘Sycamore Shoals’ painting – if Branson did make the journey to Elizabethton, I am thinking that he would have make his sketches from the cliff site of the historic Green-Hill Cemetery (beside the present day Tractor Supply store on E. Mill Street) factng due East:

    Google Maps https://goo.gl/maps/NsjVoopr242g22LV6

    “Even more mounted volunteers head out from a fortified building (Ft. Watauga, perhaps?). In the distance are the Appalachian mountains, the same ones Ferguson has threatened to march over to lay waste to the settlements. The riflemen beside the river will be crossing those hills instead, headed in the other direction to take out Ferguson and his Tories.”

    Those mountains in the distance (to the East} would be the minor Lynn Mountain that towers over downtown Elizabethton and the further distant Iron Mountain ridge – the Overmountain Men to the best of my understanding, trekked out of Sycamore Shoals on September 25, 1780 and later with another day of so, crossed over Roan Mountain at the Yellow Gap.

    A view toward the Yellow Gap location would not be featured in the Benson ‘Sycamore Shoals’ painting as Roan Mountain is in a generally South to Southeast direction from Elizabethton, or relative to the Benson ‘Sycamore Shoals,’ out of view from the right side of the painting.

    By the September 25, 1780 date of the muster at Sycamore Shoals, James Robertson, “Father of Tennessee” would have long departed north and westward toward the French Lick area of the Cumberland River valley, but his earlier homestead in the Watauga Settlement would have been on the north side of the Watauga River at the confluence of the Doe River with the Watauga River, or relative to the Benson ‘Sycamore Shoals’ painting, the extreme left side of the painting.

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