Check out the latest post in Gordon Belt’s series on the memory of John Sevier, in which he examines the work of James R. Gilmore, the nineteenth-century writer who did for Sevier what Parson Weems did for George Washington.
Tag Archives: John Sevier
I’ve been on a real Tennessee frontier kick lately, visiting places in my home state that I’ve been meaning to see for a long time. A few days ago my cousin and I took another day trip to the Tri-Cities region, which means it’s time for yet another historic site review.
Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site in Johnson City has a story that goes back quite a long way. A spring and cave on the property attracted animals for thousands of years, and the animals attracted humans who hunted them with stone weapons. In the late 1600′s, the first Englishmen to set foot in Tennessee passed through the area; a century later, Daniel Boone stopped there.
In 1784, when Tennessee was still part of North Carolina, Col. John Tipton purchased 100 acres around the spring and cave, building a one-and-a-half-story log home. That same year, some of his fellow settlers proclaimed the creation of a new State of Franklin, consisting of the three westernmost counties of North Carolina, with military hero John Sevier its first governor. The problem was that, as far as North Carolina was concerned, this statehood movement was illegitimate, and the Franklinites were still subject to North Carolina law. As you might imagine, the coexistence of two rival states in the same place presented a rather interesting political dilemma.
Tipton refused to recognize the legitimacy of Franklin, and by late 1786 had become the region’s foremost supporter of North Carolina sovereignty. In February 1788, when North Carolina authorities seized some of Sevier’s slaves and took them to Tipton’s farm for safekeeping, the would-be governor and about 135 fellow Franklinites showed up to demand their return. Tipton and the other North Carolina loyalists holed up in the log house, trading occasional shots with Sevier’s force outside. When reinforcements arrived for Tipton, the standoff turned into an outright skirmish—the only armed confrontation between Franklinites and North Carolina—which ended in a retreat by Sevier and his supporters. The fledgling statehood movement petered out not long after the firefight at Tipton’s farm.
The house and the land around it passed to Tipton’s son in 1813. In 1837 a newlywed lawyer named Landon Carter Haynes received the farm as a wedding gift from his father. Haynes built a number of additions to the house and constructed a small law office adjacent to it, where he attracted clients from across Tennessee and North Carolina. An ardent Southern advocate, he served as a Confederate senator during the Civil War. He obtained a pardon when the war ended, but left his home and moved to Memphis. The state purchased the property in the 1940′s.
This complicated history of prehistoric hunters, stillborn states, and Civil War politicians is told in a fine new exhibit at the Tipton-Haynes visitor center, which includes artifacts excavated from the grounds, Tipton and Haynes family heirlooms, and short video presentations on the State of Franklin and slavery in the Haynes household.
It’s a very attractive site; in fact, it’s difficult to believe that this pastoral little chunk of real estate exists in the middle of modern-day Johnson City. Unfortunately for frontier aficionados such as yours truly, Tipton’s log house was altered dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century. Its present appearance thus reflects the Haynes era more than the period of the Franklin battle, but it’s still a nicely restored structure.
There are a number of outbuildings on the grounds, some of which are original to the Haynes farm, others reconstructed or relocated from other sites. A short path along an old buffalo trail takes you to the spring and cave.
This is a great little site with an effective interpretation of an impressive cross-section of Tennessee history, and of course it’s located right in the cradle of the Volunteer State, so there are a lot of other historic places just a short drive away if you decide to make a day of it. Give yourself about thirty or forty minutes to take in the visitor center’s exhibit and an hour or so to tour the grounds.
This time it’s a Revolutionary War veteran’s grave in Johnson City. As a teenager, Darling Jones served under Isaac Shelby in South Carolina and participated in John Sevier’s Cherokee campaigns. Now people are using his final resting place as a trash dump.
There’s a tradition that Jones fired the shot that killed Patrick Ferguson at King’s Mountain, but he didn’t mention being present at the battle in his pension application, and Bobby Moss doesn’t include him in his annotated list of King’s Mountain vets as either a documented or possible participant. I suspect the Ferguson story is a bit of accrued tradition, since it seems that Jones wasn’t there. King’s Mountain was The Big One as far as most Tennesseans have been concerned, so it makes sense that local Rev War vets would get lumped in with the guys who fought there. (Most traditional accounts credit another Tennessee militiaman named Robert Young with the fatal shot, although Ferguson’s body was apparently so riddled with holes that one wonders whether any single individual can be said to have “killed” him.)
Whether the tradition that Jones was at King’s Mountain is true or not, his gravesite is no place to leave garbage.
An irate reader sent a number of nasty e-mails to Gordon Belt, claiming that he was out to tarnish John Sevier’s reputation. This surprised me, because I’ve been following Gordon’s fine series of posts on Sevier, and for the life of me I can’t recall a single instance in which he’s said anything particularly derogatory about Nolichucky Jack.
Sevier possessed an undeniable personal courage, he was a skilled practitioner of partisan warfare, his contributions to the American victory in the Revolution were substantial, his role in the founding of Tennessee was the equal of anyone else’s, and the respect he earned as a leader of men (and one didn’t become a leader of men on the frontier unless one earned a good deal of respect) indicates a level of charisma rare in any time or place. But he was a human being. He put on his pants (or knee breeches, I suppose) one leg at a time like the rest of us. The John Sevier you’ll find in Gordon’s posts is neither a marble demigod nor a scoundrel. He’s a fascinating and complex character, and all indications are that this is basically what the historical John Sevier was.
But what really surprised me was the fact that Gordon’s correspondent accused him of using history to promote an “ideological agenda.” Mind-reading of this sort—assuming that someone presenting an argument with which you disagree must be doing so for sinister reasons—is all too common in the blogosphere. If you’re blogging, sooner or later you can expect to have somebody attempt to gaze into your soul and reveal some nefarious motive of which you yourself were unaware. It’s happened to me a few times. I once wrote a post about the accuracy of a children’s book about the Civil War set not too far from my hometown, and one lady subsequently informed me that I had a “progressive presentism agenda,” based solely on the fact that I mentioned two other bloggers. I kid you not.
One of the problems with this instant online mind-reading is the fact that most people aren’t cut out to be psychics. The lady I just referred to, for example, managed to get my political inclinations completely wrong, which sort of torpedoes the whole ideological motive thing. You’re not likely to try to further a progressive agenda when you don’t put much stock in progressivism.
The other problem is that it doesn’t address the actual argument being presented. Let’s pretend for a moment that I am a “presentist progressive,” and that my motive for discussing the use of regional geography and history in a kids’ book was to further some agenda. Would it have any bearing on the accuracy of my statements about the details in the book? The question of whether or not I’m a flaming liberal doesn’t affect whether or not I was correct in stating that Fern Lake didn’t exist in 1863, or that there really is a cave near the saddle of Cumberland Gap.
Motive and bias can indeed affect interpretation, but these aren’t matters of interpretation. They’re matters of simple fact, and a fact is a fact regardless of who’s stating it. Accusations of underlying motive aren’t helpful in such cases. It reminds me of something Orwell wrote about Communist propaganda during the Spanish Civil War: “It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy. The point that is really at issue remains untouched.”
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 days, Kevin 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.
…is headed your way. Gordon Belt has the details. Sounds pretty cool!
Knoxville historian Jack Neely revisits a venerable frontier tradition—conspiracy to commit treason. Here in East Tennessee, two of our founders flirted with European powers on separate occasions, one of whom did so while participating in an illegal statehood movement.
It’s surprising how tenuous allegiances on the Revolutionary-era frontier could be. Neely speculates that in the case of Tennesseans John Sevier and William Blount, it might have been a generational thing. “They were too young to have earned a place in the pantheon of the founders of a nation,” he writes. “But they were too old to have grown up—as we did—revering our Founding Fathers as Immortals, something a little beyond merely human.”
I think Neely’s piece is the first one I’ve read that tries to find some link between the early separatist schemes in American history. The fact that these guys came into their own at a time when the federal government was still congealing is very suggestive. Sending out feelers to a foreign power probably didn’t have the psychological ramifications that it does now, when U.S. sovereignty is more of a given.
In the case of the Blount and Wilkinson conspiracies, most accounts that I’ve read stress the agency of particularly ambitious and unscrupulous actors who were looking out for number one. The best and most thorough study of the Franklin movement also emphasizes the leadership of regional elites and land-hungry men of means. Many of these schemers no doubt acted out of motives that were (to put it charitably) something other than altruistic, but I think the support and approval they received from large numbers of frontier inhabitants is important, and we shouldn’t overlook it.
The leading Franklinites may have been ambitious bigwigs, but to your run-of-the-mill frontiersman the Franklin movement still offered possible solutions to the problems of distant and unresponsive state and federal governments and threats to the ability to navigate the Mississippi. And even Blount, acting on his own behalf rather than as part of a larger protest, remained wildly popular back in Tennessee, which indicates that these Revolutionary-era plots may have been more attuned to the needs and beliefs of frontier inhabitants than we might assume by looking at their sometimes self-interested architects.
We still don’t know enough—or at least I don’t know enough—about the common frontiersman of the late eighteenth century. He’s an elusive figure, but I suspect that we’d all be surprised at how much of his worldview we could recover.
Let me encourage those of you who are interested in the American Revolution, historical memory, or the mountain South to pick up a copy of the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly, which is just now off the press. The first article is by yours truly, based on some of the research I did for my master’s thesis. I’m very honored to have some of my work in THQ.
In this piece, I examine some nineteenth-century accounts of the Battle of King’s Mountain by historians, antiquarians, and orators to explain how some of the popular traditions about this event developed. The battle was undeniably significant for a number of reasons, but today it’s especially important in the history of the Tennessee mountains. I argue that many of the popular notions we have about the battle’s relationship to Appalachian Tennessee can be traced back to re-tellings of the late 1800′s, a time when there was great interest in the region’s Revolutionary-era past.
On a related note, check out the latest of Gordon Belt’s series of posts on John Sevier. Before he became Tennessee’s first governor, Sevier was one of the backcountry militia officers who planned and commanded the expedition that ended with the Whig victory at King’s Mountain. Gordon looks at the movement of Sevier’s remains from Alabama to Tennessee in the late 1880′s, during the same wave of remembrance and regional pride I discuss in my article. I’m looking forward to his further posts on this fascinating historical figure.
Here’s an interesting news story, via a blog devoted to John Brown, about an event attended by descendants of Brown and his followers. One of the attendees was Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter, Alice Keesey Mecoy of Allen, Texas.
For some reason the notion that I’m sharing the planet with John Brown’s great-great-great granddaughter struck me as pretty darn cool.
I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I saw a local TV spot here in East Tennessee. It was a campaign ad for Andrew Jackson VI, who was running for a judgeship in Knox County. The background music was an instrumental version of “The Battle of New Orleans.” I had no idea there was an Andrew Jackson VI, and I certainly didn’t know he lived in Knoxville. But lo and behold, it was true.
Technically, of course, he’s not a biological descendant of Andrew Jackson, who fathered no kids of his own; he’s descended from Rachel Donelson’s nephew. But Old Hickory adopted the nephew and named him Andrew Jackson, Jr. That’s good enough for me.
I actually met a John Sevier descendant once. She was a delightful lady, and strikingly resembled the Peale portrait of him.
I decided to see what I could find out about people who are carrying history around in their genes. Web browsers make it a lot easier to indulge this kind of idle, unproductive curiosity.
- News story about the release of the John Adams dollar coin, with a picture and quote from a seventh-generation descendant. I think he looks more like Sam Adams than John, but that’s just me.
- Jefferson descendants have their own organization. Benefits include burial at Monticello. Last I heard there was a Hemingses-need-not-apply policy, but that might have changed by now.
- Madison’s relatives also have a group of their own, with a spiffy website.
- There’s also a group for Washington relatives, although His Excellency (like Jackson) had no biological children of his own, and thus no direct descendants.
- No Lincoln descendants left either, though if I had one of those John Adams dollar coins for every time somebody told me they were in Abe’s direct line, I could buy an original Gettysburg Address. But here’s an item about a modern-day Abraham Lincoln who claims a distant relation. Imagine the trouble this guy has passing checks.
- Back in May, a Virginia reporter caught up with U.S. Grant’s great-great-grandson—who’s a Confederate reenactor.
- A fellow named David Morenus has a website on his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandma, Pocahontas.
- Davy Crockett’s descendants and relatives are taking applications for new members at their website.
- If you’re one of the millions of Mayflower descendants, maybe you’ll be interested in joining this group. Given the math, though, this is about as exclusive as having your name listed in the white pages.
- Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, runs a foundation that opposes modern-day slavery, which seems very appropriate.
- Here’s an old news item about an event with appearances by various relatives of Ohio’s presidents. One of the guests of honor was a guy named Rick Taft, great-grandson of you-know-who. According to the news item, he’s a lawyer and software developer. Here’s a picture and blurb from his company’s website.
- The same event also hosted Stephen Hayes, great-great-grandson of Rutherford B. He’s a consultant with one of those firms which have really impressive-sounding names, the kind for which you see commercials on television that never actually explain what service they offer. I think this one finds people to run companies. (Wouldn’t it be easier to just promote somebody from the ranks?)
And finally, for the rest of us whose family trees are undistinguished, weep no more.
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.