Tag Archives: Tennessee frontier

When the historical record is silent

Back when I was in the early stages of narrowing down a topic for my master’s thesis on King’s Mountain, my advisor said to me, “You might end up being more interested in who these guys are.”  In other words, there was a good possibility that I’d end up focusing less on the battle and more on the men who waged it.

As it turned out, I didn’t concentrate on “who these guys are,” at least not for that project.  Instead, I looked at the way contemporaries and later antiquarians interpreted the battle and the men who fought there.  It was more a study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century perceptions of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there than anything else.  Actually, I owed that topic to my advisor as well; a scholar of war and memory himself, he made an offhand suggestion that I might look at the ways people remembered the battle.  That comment reminded me of a nasty nineteenth-century controversy involving some of the veterans, and off I went.

But since then, the question of “who these guys are” has preoccupied and vexed me.  Popular writing on the pioneers who settled the Appalachian frontier in the late eighteenth century tends to portray them more as stock characters than flesh-and-blood historical actors.  Here’s how East Tennessee writer Pat Alderman described them in one of his illustrated works of “history made interesting“:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.  They were courageous souls, daring and eager as they ventured along the unfamiliar trails leading westward.  The wide expanse of mountains, hills and valleys, covered with virgin forests and teeming with wild game, challenged their pioneer spirits.  This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.  They depended on the forest and streams for their sustenance.  They would pitch a fight, scalp an Indian or wrestle (“rassel”) a bear at the drop of a hat.

That’s laying the rugged individualism and buckskin on a bit thick.  It’s not so much a portrait of an actual group of people as it is a collection of frontier tropes.  The issue isn’t that descriptions like that are necessarily false, although I do doubt that any sane person who has ever lived has been eager to “rassel” a live bear.  The issue is that they don’t adequately address the question of who these guys really were, what they were doing west of the mountains, or why they got involved in the Revolution.

And those are the questions that have preoccupied me for a good, long while.  I distinctly remember the first visit I made to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, the place where “these guys” mustered to begin their march eastward that culminated in the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I stood for a few minutes in front of Jon Mark Estep’s fine sculpture of a frontier militiaman at the park’s visitor center.

By Jon Mark Estep (sculptor), Brian Stansberry (photograph) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

When I looked at that figure, the question came back to me, along with a few related ones.  What the heck were you?  What were you doing out here?  What did you want out of the Revolution?  How did you go about trying to get it?

When I headed back to graduate school, I decided that I’d try to whittle these questions into a dissertation topic.  With my doctoral advisor’s help, I’ve been in the process of doing just that.  I’ve also been compiling primary sources to try to get at some answers.  While this process has been exciting, the prospect of a dissertation-length project has forced me to confront a disconcerting reality: there isn’t as much evidence about “these guys” as I’d like.

One issue is that a lot of the sources they left behind date from years—in many cases decades—after the events I’m interested in.  This is something I learned when I was doing research for my thesis on King’s Mountain.  Veterans of that battle wrote about their experiences, but much of what they wrote dates from the 1810s and 1820s, during a revival of interest in the Revolution that swept the whole country.  As I’ve tried to broaden out my research to examine their Revolutionary experiences as a whole, I’ve found the same pattern at work.  Instead of contemporary accounts, I keep running into memories set to paper long after the events themselves transpired.

What’s especially irksome is the fact that the end of the Revolution seems to have marked a real turning point in the proliferation of written documents concerning frontier Tennessee.  Once you hit 1784, primary sources suddenly become more abundant.  In other words, the end of the period in which I’m especially interested is precisely the point at which I’ve got more to work with.  Cue the Alanis Morissette, right?

Frustrating as it is to grapple with these post-Revolutionary sources, an even more frustrating problem is the absence of sources that I know once existed.  One of the greatest disasters to ever befall the study of early Tennessee history took place during the Civil War, when a Unionist set fire to J.G.M. Ramsey’s house in Knoxville.  Ramsey was a doctor by profession, but he was also a passionate antiquarian who had met many of Tennessee’s first generation of pioneers in his youth and spent a lifetime collecting material about them.  He was also a fervent secessionist who served as a Confederate treasury agent who fled Knoxville when the city fell to Union forces in 1863; in his absence, an arsonist put the Ramsey home and its priceless historical collection to the torch.  Thankfully, Ramsey set down some of the fruits of his research in a monumental book on early Tennessee history ten years before his house burned, but one wonders what insights into the state’s beginnings went up in smoke.  (Sometimes people ask me what historical event I’d like to witness if I had a time machine; if I had my choice, I’d probably go back to the hours preceding that fire and grab as many manuscripts as I could.)

Fire and time took their toll on other early frontier sources, too.  Perhaps the greatest collector of frontier sources who ever lived was Lyman Draper, a nineteenth-century antiquarian who devoted his life to compiling original manuscripts and transcriptions of early borderland records.  Many of the letters he received in response to requests for information repeat the same sad refrain over and over again: I can’t be of much help, since the family papers got lost in the war.  Likewise, while reading Rev War pension accounts, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found references to records lost, documents destroyed in house fires, and discharge papers long since misplaced and never accounted for again.

All this makes those contemporary sources I do have all the more precious.  Whenever I run across a Revolutionary document from Tennessee that I haven’t seen before—a settler’s petition to North Carolina authorities, say, or a John Sevier letter from 1781—I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a stash of Dead Sea Scrolls.  There are so relatively few material traces of Tennessee’s Revolutionary era left that I get giddy when I’m in their presence.  Those King’s Mountain weapons at the State Museum and Carter Mansion in Elizabethton are of incalculable value, just because they link us to those dramatic few years of the late eighteenth century.

I realize that I’m hardly the only researcher who has this problem.  And maybe it’s my own fault.  After all, I’m the one who decided to examine a population of only several thousand people living in a newly settled frontier society.  Of course, good historians figure out how to work around dearth of material; there are creative ways of getting at information on people who didn’t leave much of a paper trail.  I’ve been in grad school long enough to learn some of the tricks of the trade.  But I desperately wish these settlers had left more behind, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about the fact that they left so little.


Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Did early Appalachian settlers talk like I do?

I’ve lived in East Tennessee (yes, we capitalize “East”) for more or less my entire life, and I’ve got the accent to prove it.  I tend to be most conscious of it when pronouncing the words “iron,” “get,” and “our.”

Fellow grad students tell me it’s quite noticeable, although I’ve had many people tell me otherwise.  One of the things I enjoyed most about working in a museum was getting to meet people from all over the country.  Some visitors noticed my accent right away and seemed to get a bigger kick out of hearing me ask them not to take flash photos of the artifacts than they did out of seeing the artifacts themselves.  Others would ask me where I was from and were shocked to find out that I was a native of the region: “But you don’t have an accent!”

I don’t get many comments on my accent when I travel, except in Montana, of all places.  In fact, I’ve probably had more people remark on my speech on trips to Montana than in all the other places I’ve visited combined.  But I don’t hold it against them; no one was ever rude about it, and even if they were, the state that gave the world the first T. rex specimen gets a free pass from me for just about everything.  A couple of my relatives, on the other hand, have encountered offensive reactions to their speech while traveling; my aunt had a particularly unpleasant experience with a food server in eastern Virginia.  (Personally, most of the crap I’ve had to deal with in terms of negative attitudes toward Appalachians has come from people who have moved to the region from elsewhere, not people I’ve met while traveling.)

Anyway, since we’ve been on the subject of early American dialects, I thought I might discuss a question I’ve often pondered while studying frontier involvement in the American Revolution.  What did the settlers who lived in Appalachia in the late eighteenth century sound like?  If I could hop in a time machine and visit East Tennessee or southwestern Virginia in 1780 to record a little oral history for my dissertation, would my subjects’ speech sound anything like my own?  Or would it be another case of the past as a foreign country?

Many scholars trace the roots of Appalachian dialect—and southern highland culture in general—to migrants from northern Britain, and especially to the Scotch-Irish who came to the American backcountry from Ulster in the years preceding the American Revolution.  In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer claims that there’s quite a bit of continuity between the speech patterns of early Scotch-Irish migrants and the English that their descendants still speak today (p. 652):

This American speech way is at least two centuries old.  It was recognized in the colonies even before the War of Independence, and identified at first in ethnic rather than regional terms, as “Scotch-Irish speech.”  In the backcountry, it rapidly became so dominant that other ethnic stocks in this region adopted it as their own.  As early as 1772, a newspaper advertisement reported a runaway African slave named Jack who was said to “speak the Scotch-Irish dialect.”

The earliest recorded examples of this “Scotch-Irish” speech were strikingly similar to the language that is spoken today in the southern highlands, and has become familiar throughout the western world as the English of country western singers, trans-continental truck drivers, cinematic cowboys, and backcountry politicians.

Despite Fischer’s argument for continuity, some of the examples of regional dialect he provides sound as alien to me as I presume they would to someone from any other place.  In fact, I’d only heard a couple of the terms from his list of Appalachian “Scotch-Irishisms,” and even those few aren’t terms I’ve heard often (and seldom from younger Appalachians).  I’d imagine that the purely “Scotch-Irish” aspects of the region’s dialect were much more pronounced in the early years of settlement than they are now.

One other thing to keep in mind is that many of these eighteenth-century backcountry settlers were first-generation immigrants.  Thus the dialects I might hear on my hypothetical trip back in time would include the very same accents a visitor to eighteenth-century Ireland or Scotland would hear.  In fact, visitors to the eighteenth-century frontier sometimes noted the distinct speech patterns of the Irish and Scottish immigrants they met.

Furthermore, while the Scotch-Irish contribution to the backcountry population was significant, it didn’t account for everybody.  To take an example from the King’s Mountain expedition, Lt. Col. Frederick Hambright, who settled in the Carolina upcountry, was born in Bavaria.  If later accounts are any indication, he retained a pronounced German accent well into his later years.  And Isaac Shelby, a King’s Mountain commander who lived in present-day East Tennessee before settling in Kentucky, was the son of Welsh immigrants.  Perhaps growing up in a household with Welsh parents left an impression on his own speech.

John Sevier’s linguistic heritage was especially complicated.  He was born in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to a father who’d migrated from England just a few years earlier, and the father’s father was French.  Growing up in a home where the father was an Englishman raised by a Frenchman, and coming of age among Scotch-Irish and German neighbors…what in the world would Sevier’s speech have sounded like?

Perhaps it would’ve been rather Scotch-Irish in spite of his family’s history.  Fischer argues that Scotch-Irish speech patterns became prevalent in the backcountry pretty early, diluting some of the other dialects that early migrants brought from elsewhere.  Maybe someday a historian and a linguist can get together and reconstruct the speech of these settlers of the eighteenth-century southern frontier, similar to what David Crystal has done for Shakespearean English.  Until then, I suppose I’ll have to wonder how much of a linguistic foreign country the early Appalachian frontier really was.


Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

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

All I want for Christmas is a visitor center

Here’s the item at the top of my holiday wish list: Marble Springs State Historic Site really, really needs a visitor center.

Actually, we’ve needed one for a very long time, and the Tennessee Historical Commission has been trying to secure an appropriation to build us one for some time now.  A few days ago the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran an article on our ongoing effort to get this facility built and why it matters:

The Tennessee Historical Commission is asking for $2.2 million in state funds to build a 7,200-square-foot visitors center with exhibit, classroom and theater space along with a parking lot and improved entrance signs. The money also would fund the archaeology required before a building, likely located on a rise near Gov. John Sevier Highway, would be constructed.

The commission, which is Tennessee’s historic preservation office, recommends the request be part of the 2016-17 state budget. Gov. Bill Haslam announces his budget early each year, generally in February.

Marble Springs is the 35-acre South Knoxville farmstead of John Sevier, a Revolutionary War hero and East Tennessee pioneer who became Tennessee’s first governor. Owned by the state since 1942, the site is operated by the nonprofit Gov. John Sevier Memorial Association. Some 8,000 people — including 2,000 schoolchildren — visit the location each year.

This isn’t the first time the Marble Springs request has been a THC priority. Records show that it’s been a requested need since 1988, said [THC Historic Sites Program Director Martha] Akins. “We have been wanting a visitors center for Marble Springs for as long as I can remember,” she said.

I can’t even begin to convey how challenging it is to run a site without proper visitor facilities.  That’s especially true for an outdoor, multi-building site like ours.  For one thing, when visitors arrive, they don’t really know where they’re supposed go first.  All of our historic buildings and our log trading post look really similar, so unless we flag them down, guests tend to wander around aimlessly, looking for someone to buy admission from.

Second—and this is a really big deal—interpretation of the site’s history is much, much harder without a visitor center.  We can’t really orient visitors to what they’re going to be seeing without an exhibit space or an introductory film.  Guests need to begin their tour with some appreciation for who John Sevier was, what role he played in early Tennessee history, and where Marble Springs fits into the overall story.  Without an orientation space, we have to do all that orally as part of the tour itself, which isn’t the most effective way to use the site as the teaching tool it could and should be.

Third, without an exhibit space, our artifact collection is off-limits to visitors.  Archaeologists have conducted extensive work at the site over the years, but we don’t have a space to store or display the items they’ve excavated; instead, the University of Tennessee keeps these artifacts locked away for safekeeping.  Some of the objects that we do keep on site, such as personal items that belonged to Sevier, aren’t currently accessible to the public.

Finally, the lack of a visitor center severely restricts our ability to utilize the site in a multi-purpose fashion.  Site rentals for weddings, civic group meetings, and scouting events give us some added income, but not nearly so much as we’d have with a modern meeting space, better restrooms, and other facilities.  It would really be a game-changer.

If any of you Tennessee readers out there could let your elected officials know that this is a project worth supporting, I’d really appreciate it.


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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

John Sevier’s smack talk

I’ve been reading Massacre at Cavett’s Station by the eminent Tennessee archaeologist Charles Faulkner.  The titular massacre was one of the uglier episodes in the long history of white-Cherokee conflict on the Tennessee frontier.  It took place on September 25, 1793 when a massive war party (contemporary reports put their numbers as high as 1,500) headed for the territorial capital of Knoxville heard firing from the town and feared they’d lost the element of surprise.  Instead, they fell on Cavett’s Station several miles to the southwest, killing the thirteen men, women, and children who were there.

Remarkably, the Indians had managed to approach Knoxville without detection by John Sevier’s militia, but retaliation was not long in coming.  In what would prove to be his last Indian campaign, Sevier marched into Georgia and caught some of the perpetrators at Etowah, near present-day Rome.  The Indians were in a position to oppose the militia’s crossing of the Etowah River at the town, but when a party of the whites moved south to cross elsewhere, the Indians followed them and left the fording place near the town undefended.  The militiamen galloped back to Etowah, dispersing the defenders and putting the town to the torch.

Apparently Sevier decided that defeating the Indians wasn’t punishment enough, because he decided to up the ownage by sending them the following message, a copy of which is preserved in his journal:

Your murders and savage Barbarities have caused me to come into your Country Expecting you would fight like men, but you are like the Bairs and Wolves.  The face of a white man makes you run fast into the woods and hide, u see what we have done and it is nothing to what we shall do in a short time.  I pity your women & children for I am sure they must suffer and live like dogs but you are the Cause of it.  You will make War, & then is afraid to fight,—our people whiped yours mightily two nights ago Crossing the river and made your people run very fast.


To the Cherokees and their warriors if they Have Any.

Ouch.  Not much for the niceties of spelling and punctuation, but the guy definitely knew how to twist the rhetorical knife.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

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.


Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

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